Margo M. Criscuola, Ph.D.


Assessing Thinking

Knowing where you're going


When people casually assess how well someone thinks, they often look at the conclusions the person draws. So teachers look to the conclusions students reach as summative assessment of thinking.


For formative assessment, to guide instruction in thinking, teachers need to look also at students' process of thinking. Fortunately, a teacher can make the process of thinking clearly visible in class discussions and in students' writing to a thinking-rich prompt. Then what's needed is an assessment instrument.


Standards are our starting point, followed by accurate observation to map the levels of skills see in class. Here's an example of the process, based on a piece of discussion about the Bill of Rights (grade 8): 

Student 1: Maybe it's the first amendment, these are the most important things. That's the only reason I can think of. 


Teacher: What do the rest of you think? [follow-up question]


Student 2: Yeah, but the others are important. Like habeas corpus is very important too. 


Student 3: But that's only if you get arrested or suspected or something. The first ones are things everyone could do all the time. 

Students are working on CCSS "key ideas and details", trying to draw inferences about the central idea of the text and to analyze the structure of the text (the order of the amendments). So far, their thinking is very general. Their teacher knows they need to support their ideas from the text, so: 

Teacher: Let's look at Amendment V. Will someone read it aloud? 


Student 5: (reads)  


Teacher: How does that compare with the first amendment? About important things and things anyone could do? [uptake questions based on students' earlier ideas, asking for evidence from the text]


Student 1: Well, it is more than one thing. Maybe they're more important. Not having--not depriving your life, that's basic. More basic than religion or speech. [citing textual evidence, analyzing connections between ideas]


Student 4: I think the fifth is about things the government usually can do, like having trials and finding people guilty, but there are limits. In the first amendment the government can't do it at all. [citing textual evidence, analyzing connections between ideas] 


Teacher: What part says that the government can't do it at all? [uptake question for textual evidence]


Student 4: It says, "shall make no law respecting." That's pretty cut and dried, right? In the fifth, it's only "without due process of law." So if there is that, you can be deprived. [citing textual evidence]


Student 1: But if they say "make no law," and you can't ever be deprived, they probably thought those were the most important--the ones in the first amendment. [citing textual evidence, analyzing connections between ideas]

As this discussion progressed, Student 1 and Student 4 developed their ideas, citing textual evidence in greater detail and analyzing how the amendments relate to each other. We can describe their progress on a rough-draft rubric:

Citing evidence from text

Paraphrases or refers to text in a general way

Cites specific words and phrases

Defines specific words and phrases 


Analyzing connections between ideas

Makes broad connections without support

Makes more specific connections

Provides support from the text for specific connections

A simple rubric like this enables the teacher to apply the standards much more rigorously. Instead of "Does the student cite text?" the teacher can ask, "How well does the student cite text? How can I move her to the next level?" 


A teacher might also want to assess some of the affective skills at work here--these students' willingness to offer ideas they were not sure of, and to listen to and learn from points others made.


Of course, to see each student's full train of thought, the teacher should use an essay assignment, perhaps with the first student's original question as prompt, and use the thinking skills rubric to give feedback on drafts and final pieces. As a teacher consistently uses such a rubric, students gain understanding of their thinking strengths and challenges, and become more able to steer their own growth.


Finally, a fuller rubric can guide a school leader in mentoring and gathering school-wide data to plan professional development. See Professional Development and School Change Planning and Assessment for ways in which I can assist teachers and school leaders in assessing thinking.

| 3.1.2012 | Print |