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The word "rigor" is hard to avoid today, and it provokes strong reactions from educators. Policymakers tout its importance. Publishers promote it as a feature of their materials. But some teachers share the view of Joanne Yatvin, past president of the National Council for Teachers of English. To them, rigor simply means more work, harder books, and longer school days. "None of these things is what I want for students at any level," Yatvin says. Part of the problem is that we have adopted the jargon without a clear understanding of what we really mean.

Calculating Cognitive Depth

For classroom teachers, the more important question is one of practice: how do we create rich environments where all students learn at a high level? One useful tool, Norman Webb's Depth of Knowledge Levels, can help teachers meet that challenge. Depth of Knowledge (DoK) categorizes tasks according to the complexity of thinking required to successfully complete them.

Level 1: Recall and Reproduction

Tasks at this level require recall of facts or rote application of simple procedures. The task does not require any cognitive effort beyond remembering the right response or formula. Copying, computing, defining, and recognizing are typical Level 1 tasks.

Level 2: Skills and Concepts

At this level, a student must make some decisions about his or her approach. Tasks with more than one mental step such as comparing, organizing, summarizing, predicting, and estimating are usually Level 2.

Level 3: Strategic Thinking

At this level of complexity, students must use planning and evidence, and thinking is more abstract. A task with multiple valid responses where students must justify their choices would be Level 3. Examples include solving non-routine problems, designing an experiment, or analyzing characteristics of a genre.

Level 4: Extended Thinking

Level 4 tasks require the most complex cognitive effort. Students synthesize information from multiple sources, often over an extended period of time, or transfer knowledge from one domain to solve problems in another. Designing a survey and interpreting the results, analyzing multiple texts by to extract themes, or writing an original myth in an ancient style would all be examples of Level 4.

Recently, educators have begun applying Webb’s DoK to help them design better instruction. Try this exercise to better understand the cognitive depth of the tasks you are using in your classroom and improve the rigor of your instruction:

  1. Keep a list or collection of every task you ask students to do in a day (or in one subject for a week), including classwork, homework, and projects.

  2. Sort the tasks into categories according to the four DoK Levels. Some resources which may help:

  3. Work with a team of colleagues to review the groupings. Many tasks are easily categorized, but some will require deeper discussion to clarify your understanding of the levels. Strive toward consensus. A few pointers:
    • The verb does not define the level. Instead, consider the cognitive effort that a student will use to complete the task. The verb "describe," for example, could be any level, depending on the kind of description.
    • It is common to find tasks that seem to fall in between levels. When in doubt, assign the higher level.
    • "Extended time" alone does not make a task Level 4. Lower-level tasks that are merely repeated over a period of time are still lower level.

  4. Analyze your groupings. What patterns do you see? Is there a reasonable distribution of tasks across the four levels? Do you notice anything unexpected?

  5. Rewrite a Level 1 or Level 2 task to be at least Level 3. These question stems are helpful in creating good tasks (PDF, 28KB).

Apply as Needed

You may be asking at this point, "Well, what is a reasonable distribution? How often should I be doing tasks at each level? What's the right sequence?"

DOK Levels are not sequential. Students need not fully master content with Level 1 tasks before doing Level 2 tasks. In fact, giving students an intriguing Level 3 task can provide context and motivation for engaging in the more routine learning at Levels 1 and 2.

DOK levels are also not developmental. All students, including the youngest preschoolers, are capable of strategic and extended thinking tasks. What they look like will differ, and what is Level 3 to a kindergarten student may be a Level 1 task for a middle schooler. All students, however, should have opportunities to do complex reasoning.

To find the right balance, ask yourself these questions:

  • What kinds of thinking do I want students to do routinely?
  • If my own child were participating, what would I want him or her to be doing?
  • What's the most effective way to spend the limited classroom time I have?

Decide for yourself how often you should focus on tasks at each level so that students gain the most from the learning opportunities you design.

Regardless of how you define "rigor," the important thing is that students are thinking deeply on a daily basis. Webb's Depth of Knowledge gives you a framework and common language to make that happen in your classroom.

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Gerald Aungst's picture
Gerald Aungst
Gifted Support Teacher / Cheltenham School District

I think both tools are valuable and serve different purposes. Hess does a good job of showing how they are different dimensions of the rigor question.

I see Bloom's as being more about the type of product that comes out of an activity (an external characteristic), while Webb's is more about the cognitive complexity of the task itself (an internal characteristic).

Hess shows that you can have a Creative activity (high level on Bloom's) that has a relatively low DOK level, while a lower Bloom's activity might still require extended thinking (DOK Level 4).

As a practical teaching tool, I find Hess's Matrix to be fairly cumbersome, so I don't recommend teachers use it for regular planning. Bloom's is most useful when planning units or courses, so that you can ensure there are objectives and outcomes that span the whole range from Remembering to Creating.

When planning individual activities and assessments, however, Webb's DOK is a straightforward and effective way of building experiences for students that will provide depth and plenty of that cognitive sweat we want to see.

santicpo5's picture

Really really impressed. Fantastic article. Can it connect with SAMR model?

Gerald Aungst's picture
Gerald Aungst
Gifted Support Teacher / Cheltenham School District

SAMR is a model for integrating technology in education. It has to do with how the hardware and software is used to change the teaching and learning. Webb's is related to the actual tasks that students do and the level of cognitive depth required to do them.

From that standpoint, it is entirely possible for an activity to have a high level of depth on Webb's but for the technology to merely be at the Substitution level. For example, using Google Docs to write a paper comparing the literary characteristics of two authors who lived in different centuries would be a Level 3 or 4 DOK task, but the technology is just replacing paper and pencil.

Likewise, you could have a task that is at the Redefinition level, creating something that could not be done without the technology, but is low level Webb's. I'm thinking, for example, of following the assembly instructions for putting together a working Raspberry Pi computer. That task wouldn't exist without the tech, but there's little cognitive depth for the one doing the assembly.

I think you highlight the importance of attending to multiple dimensions when designing instruction. Any one model like DOK or SAMR can help you when you are focusing on one of those dimensions at a time.

(1)
santicpo5's picture

Thanks a lot! You explained clearly.
Now, perhaps, I'm making a silly simplification, but I was thinking about integration this design with rubrics... I mean, if want to evaluate students, I could use the different levels as achievements in a rubric and grade them... It could be useful to determine if that student has deeper knowledge/achievement about a subjetc... Is this possible?

Sorry, but I could be in a mess and trying to mix everything together... And it's hard to explain in english as I'm spanish...

Can you give me some advice/recommendation?

Thanks for you time.

Gerald Aungst's picture
Gerald Aungst
Gifted Support Teacher / Cheltenham School District

You might be able to use Webb's DOK as a guideline for developing a rubric, but it's really more about designing better tasks and assessments than it is about evaluating students. It's really the activity that is Level 1, or 2, or 3, not the student performance.

What you can do, though, is create general rubrics associated with each level. The kind of performance you look for from a student with a Level 1 task would be different than the performance in a Level 3 task, for example. So the rubric could be geared towards the kind of student work you want to see them do and the quality of the outcome.

A Level 1 task doesn't require complex reasoning, so the rubric would focus on highly expert recall. You might focus on things like fluency and automaticity. For Level 3, on the other hand, you're going to focus much more on reasoning, supporting arguments with evidence, and such. That will guide what your rubric looks like.

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