Getting Your Students in Top Shape With Performance Tasks

As teachers, we’re inundated with flash-in-the-pan jargon and lingo. I never heard of “performance task” before I became a content specialist and curriculum writer a few years ago. At first, it might seem like it’s just a fancy way of saying a “lesson.” But a lesson could describe anything a teacher does in class with students–watching a video, leading a lecture, assigning worksheets, even nap time. A performance task requires students to actively engage in a learning activity, aligned to both skills and content, with the opportunity for real-time feedback and growth.

Performance tasks open-ended, complex, and authentic. They can be short (they do not need to be projects), but they should make student thinking, skill development, and growth visible. They are also “formative” in the sense that as students complete them, their learning deepens, while at the same time providing the teacher with data to guide instructional decisions. Time spent working on a performance task – unlike time spent taking a test – is not a break from instruction, but a part of instruction.

I keep going back to comparing teaching to personal training for fitness. It makes no sense for a personal trainer to do all the work, to sweat it out, to show off their own muscles, while the client sits and watches. The only way a student can condition their thinking and literacy skills, and learn and retain content, is for them to be actively engaged in class, with a facilitator setting goals, watching form, providing feedback. A performance task is mental exercise with a teacher serving as the trainer. We need to get them in top cognitive shape, and performance tasks help achieve that goal.

Traditional lessons focus on “do you know it?” This is accomplished through lecture, essays, quizzes, tests. The focus is on demonstrating knowledge of content. A performance task focuses on “how do you know it” and “how can you use what you know?”
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For example, a teacher might lecture on slavery being the primary reason Confederate states seceded from the United States. A performance task can align to that content objective, but also align to historical thinking and literacy skills, like contextualization and corroboration. Students can examine secession declarations, newspaper articles, cartoons, and speeches, compare the sources and draw conclusions themselves. As they grapple with the documents, the teacher can provide some scaffolding like graphic organizers and guiding questions. Teachers can monitor individual and group work and provide feedback during the task. By the end of the task, students have demonstrated their knowledge of the Civil War, but have also conditioned thinking and literacy skills, which will make them better historians in the future.

I especially like the “document based investigations” embedded in Discovery Education’s Social Studies Techbooks. I taught AP U.S. History for 10 years, and I generally think of a “DBQ” as a timed, closed-book assessment. But I like the investigation approach much better for helping students condition their writing skills while learning content in a less formal environment that allows me to scaffold and guide their learning.

The document based investigation for the “Road to Disunion” chapter for the U.S. History Techbook starts with a Free Soil cartoon from 1856. Many U.S. teachers are familiar with this cartoon.

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Traditionally, students would learn content related to the cartoon, then see the cartoon on a more formal assessment like the DBQ. Or perhaps a teacher would include the image in a PowerPoint, and discuss it with a class. But in this investigation, the image is used to introduce the investigation question students will answer: Was the expansion of slavery into new western territories the primary cause of secession and the Civil War?

Students are also not asked to answer this question in a traditional essay format. Maybe they’ll write about the same topic on a more formal assessment down the road, but in this investigation task, students have some choice:

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Student choice is aligned to Universal Design for Learning, and generally leads to more student engagement. The investigation task presents about a dozen sources, which force students to corroborate and contextualize to form claims supported by evidence. But the task also has scaffolds in place to help organize and inspire thinking. I really like this simple t-chart to help students begin the task:

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Please download the entire investigation task for even more examples of scaffolds and graphic organizers and rubrics and such. And the “Road to Disunion” task is one of many in Disocvery Education’s Social Studies Techbooks. The “Elaborate Tab” activities are designed specifically to meet the Understanding by Design criteria for performance tasks. The “Explain Tab” activities are sometimes performance tasks, sometimes “writing prompts.” They are recursive in format – if not content – so teachers can see how student skill develops.

The idea with performance tasks is that the teacher is facilitating learning of content and conditioning of skills in a collaborative student-centered environment. How do you use performance tasks? Have any favorites that have worked especially well with your students? What challenges do you encounter with performance tasks? Let us know in the comments section!






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