How to design trajectory-based performance tasks: Start with the big idea

This is the second 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: Start With the Big Idea - TLG-IMG-09122019

In our first post in this series, we talked about the important work of creating performance tasks to help students grow and achieve proficiency in state standards. We also introduced the concept of trajectory-based performance tasks: sets of related tasks designed to increase in sophistication and difficulty over time. Now let’s explore how to begin creating these important learning opportunities for students.

How to create trajectory-based performance tasks

There are three broad steps for creating trajectory-based performance tasks:

  1. Define the big idea of what complex, integrated skills you want your students to develop over time
  2. Document the evidence you need to observe in student work to conclude that student reasoning is growing more sophisticated
  3. Create a series of increasingly related instructional and assessment tasks to support student learning and help you understand student thinking throughout the school year

This is no small feat. We’ll delve into steps 2 and 3 in upcoming posts. But let’s start, of course, at the beginning.

Step 1: Define the big idea

When tackling trajectory-based performance tasks, it helps to start with your end goal: what complex, integrated skills do you want your students to have mastered by the end of the school year? This is called “the big idea.”

Because students will need to be able to integrate certain concepts and skills to be ready for the next grade, it is important to consider how separate—yet equally important—standards fuse together across the year in one grade and serve as a foundation for the next grade.

Start with your end goal: what complex, integrated skills do you want your students to have mastered by the end of the school year?”

Consider the following example of a big idea: grade 4 students will observe patterns—through inquiry and analysis of data—and use these patterns to test cause-and-effect relationships, which pervade all the disciplines of science and at all scales. (We found our big idea inspiration on page 87 of A Framework for K–12 Science Education.)

This big idea brings together

  • Scientific and engineering practice: students should be able to analyze and interpret data, especially to make sense of phenomena, using logical reasoning, mathematics, and/or computation
  • Crosscutting concepts—patterns: students should be able to identify similarities and differences in order to sort and classify natural objects and designed products; they should also be able to identify patterns related to time, including simple rates of change and cycles, and use the patterns to make predictions
  • Crosscutting concepts—cause and effect: students should be able to identify and test causal relationships and use these relationships to explain change; they should also understand that events that occur together with regularity might or might not signify a cause-and-effect relationship
  • Disciplinary core ideas

The big idea should deeply connect content and thinking from one grade to the next.”

To design your own big idea:

  • Tweet: How to Design Trajectory-based Performance Tasks: Start With the Big Idea  #formativeassessmentIdentify the most critical content and problem-solving skills from your state standards and district curriculum
  • Ask what your colleagues who teach the next grade think is essential for students to know and be able to do when they arrive in their class
  • Trace your instructional strategies and the precursor skills you teach across the year to see how much time and what assignments feed in to your big idea, what it looks like when students successfully achieve a goal, and what evidence you need to see to conclude that students are proficient

Well-developed big ideas have explicit action verbs and are at or above the cognitive complexity level required by a single state standard. They aim for a year-end cumulative demonstration of student thinking and content competencies. Oftentimes, they integrate knowledge, skills, and abilities from multiple standards that students must demonstrate together to show they’re ready for the next grade. Thus, the big idea should deeply connect content and thinking from one grade to the next.

Stay tuned

We hope this post will help you start thinking about your big idea for your students. We’ll be back soon to walk through steps 2 and 3 for creating trajectory-based performance tasks. In the meantime, you can learn more about and register for our October webinar.

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 Education, Assessing 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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