How to design trajectory-based performance tasks: Creating the tasks

This is the fourth in a series of posts by Christina Schneider and Robert Johnson about building trajectory-based performance tasks. Stay tuned for follow-up posts as well as a webinar on this topic.

How to design trajectory-based performance tasks: Creating the tasks - TLG-IMG-10152019Welcome back to our series on trajectory-based performance tasks. So far we’ve talked about what they are and why they matter, how to begin designing your own tasks by establishing your big idea, and how to develop a trajectory to ensure there’s ample evidence that students are growing. What’s left? Creating the actual tasks.

Your tasks should support student learning and help you understand student thinking throughout the school year. To ensure they’re doing that, we’ll explore the following elements:

  • Purpose of the performance task
  • Instructional task or assessment task
  • Context
  • Task directions
  • Equity
  • Connections across tasks

Purpose of the performance task

The purpose of a task relies on whether you’re interested in measuring a process or a product. For example, do you need to record students demonstrating a process (like decoding unfamiliar words) or does a product (like an argumentative essay) provide the evidence your need?

Instructional task or assessment task

Several measurement experts and learning trajectory experts have noted that high-quality assessment tasks are interchangeable with high-quality instructional tasks. You can use both to support learning and transfer. Instructional tasks give students an opportunity to learn, and assessment tasks show they can do work independently.

Assessment tasks can have formative or summative uses, depending on the student and teacher actions.

When a child succeeds on an assessment task, you know they’re ready for a more sophisticated task. If they don’t, the task should become an additional opportunity to learn. Provide feedback to help the child close that gap and also encourage the child to revise their work. In this scenario, the assessment task flipped back to an instructional task. This means that assessment tasks can have formative or summative uses, depending on the student and teacher actions.


Context in a trajectory-based performance task can be the scaffolding or support provided, or the related content knowledge needed, to access the task. Context is also established by making the task meaningful, motivational, and connected to real life. For example, does the task have graphics to help students conceptualize what is asked?

Context often needs to be embedded into a task for students to show what they know, and it can explain why students are able to demonstrate a skill or not. We think about context often as what is given to students as stimulus. It’s a tool to support students in moving from easier to harder tasks. For example, a task that asks grade 4 students to summarize a book that was read to them is likely easier than summarizing a book they read independently. Or a task that asks grade 6 students to identify a pattern from a graph in which no measurement error appears to exist is likely easier than identifying a pattern when measurement error is also included.

Task directions

Students need written directions so they can understand what they have to do to complete a task. The task directions should:

  • Be written to the students
  • Include criteria for success so student can gauge their own performance
  • Provide multiple ways to access the directions, to ensure equity

For example, think about if you are delivering verbal and written directions and whether directions have graphics to support English language learners in completing the task.


If people are described in text or depicted in graphics, show diversity to ensure all your students can see themselves in what they’re reading or seeing. Avoid sensitive topics (like abuse), using stereotypes (like the boy as the doctor), and scenarios that may only be familiar to some students (like references to camping for students in an urban area).

Connections across tasks to intentionally support growth also provide students the multiple opportunities they need to learn.

Be sure to also review the 504s and IEPs of students in your classroom. Are any accommodations needed so all your students can complete the tasks? For example, will students have access to text-to-speech if needed?

Connections across tasks

Connections across tasks to intentionally support growth also provide students the multiple opportunities they need to learn. Trajectory-based performance tasks are composed of the same elements as independent performance tasks, but they intentionally build on related skills to become more sophisticated over time.

Intentionally build complexity across tasks by purposefully increasing content difficulty, integrating additional standards, and perhaps moving from single to multiple stimuli. This can help your students gain the skills expected of proficient students.

In conclusion

Tweet: How to Design Trajectory-based Performance Tasks: Creating the Tasks #edchat #education #edresearchTrajectory-based performance tasks can help your students grow and engage in the integration of standards (i.e., the big idea), which is the hallmark of proficiency. Remember that tasks can be completed over time or as students show readiness. When they’re related and increase in sophistication purposefully, they can also help you customize instruction for each student so they can grow from where they are now to where you want them to be.

Easier said than done, right? Join us for our webinar October 24, when we’ll dig even deeper into these concepts using science as the content area. We’ll also take your questions. Until then, keep up the good work, and stay tuned for follow-up posts on this topic.

Robert Johnson, a professor in educational research and measurement at the University of South Carolina, coauthored this post. His research related to assessment and evaluation has been published in journals including Applied Measurement in EducationAssessing Writing, and Teaching and Teacher Education. He holds a PhD in educational research, measurement, and evaluation from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.

Drs. Schneider and Johnson coauthored Using Formative Assessment to Support Student Learning Objectives.


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