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What Exactly Is "Understanding?" And How Do We Assess It?

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Assessing understanding might be the most complex task an educator or academic institution is tasked with. Unfortunately, professional development gives a lower level of attention to developing quality assessments, training that is rarely commensurate with this complexity. The challenge of assessment is no less than figuring out what a learner knows, and where he or she needs to go next.

In other words, what does a learner understand?

This in itself is an important shift from the days when curriculum was simply delivered regardless of the student's content knowledge.

Among the big ideas Richard and Rebecca DuFour brought to the educational mainstream consciousness was a shift from teaching to learning, a subtle but critical movement. But even with this shift from curriculum, instruction and teacher actions, and toward data, assessment and learning, there remains uncomfortable murkiness.

Planning for Learning

In a traditional (and perhaps utopian) academic structure, learning objectives are identified, prioritized, mapped and intentionally sequenced. Pre-assessments are given as tools to provide data to revise planned instruction.

Next, in a collaborative group (PLCs and their data teams being the current trendy format), teachers together disaggregate data, perform item analyses, identify trends and possibility, and differentiate powerful and compelling instruction for each learner with research-based instructional strategies. Then student understanding is re-assessed, deficiencies are further remediated -- rinse, repeat -- until the learner demonstrates acceptable evidence of understanding.

But even this Herculean effort -- which incredibly leaves gaps nonetheless -- is often not enough because of the nature of understanding itself.

Defining Understanding

In their seminal Understanding by Design series, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe discuss the evasiveness of the term "understanding" by referencing Harold Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: Cognitive Domain, a book project finished in 1956 by Dr. Benjamin Bloom and colleagues. Quoted by Wiggins and McTighe, Dr. Bloom explains:

" . . . some teachers believe their students should 'really understand,' others desire their students to 'internalize knowledge,' still others want their students to 'grasp the core or essence.' Do they all mean the same thing? Specifically, what does a student do who 'really understands' which he does not do when he does not understand? Through reference to the Taxonomy . . . teachers should be able to define such nebulous terms."

Wiggins and McTighe go on to say that "two generations of curriculum writers have been warned to avoid the term 'understand' in their frameworks as a result of the cautions in the taxonomy."1 Of course, the Understanding by Design (UbD) series is in fact built on a handful of key notions, among them taking on the task of analyzing understanding, and then planning for it through backwards design.

But to pull back and look at the big picture is a bit troubling. There are so many moving parts in learning: assessment design, academic standards, underpinning learning targets for each standard, big ideas, essential questions, instructional strategies -- and on and on and on in an endless, dizzying dance.

Why so much "stuff" for what should be a relatively simple relationship between learner and content?

Because it's so difficult to agree on what understanding is -- what it looks like, what learners should be able to say or do to prove that they in fact understand. Wiggins and McTighe go on in the UbD series to ask, "Mindful of our tendency to use the words understand and know interchangeably, what worthy conceptual distinctions should we safeguard in talking about the difference between knowledge and understanding?"2

Alternatives to Bloom's Taxonomy

Of course, Wiggins and McTighe also helpfully provide what they call "6 Facets of Understanding," a sort of alternative (or supplement) to Bloom's Taxonomy. In this system, learners prove they "understand" if they can:

  1. Explain
  2. Interpret
  3. Apply
  4. Have perspective
  5. Empathize
  6. Have self-knowledge
Robert Marzano also offers up his take on understanding with his "New Taxonomy," which uses three systems and the Knowledge Domain:
  1. Self-System
  2. Metacognitive System
  3. Cognitive System
  4. Knowledge Domain
The Cognitive System is closest to a traditional taxonomy, with verbs such that describe learner actions such as recall, synthesis and experimental inquiry.


Of course, there is no solution to all of this tangle, but there are strategies educators can use to mitigate the confusion -- and hopefully learn to leverage this literal cottage industry of expertise that is assessment.

1) The first is to be aware of the ambiguity of the term "understands," and not to settle for just paraphrasing it in overly-simple words and phrases like "they get it" or "proficiency." Honor the uncertainty by embracing the fact that not only is "understanding" borderline indescribable, but it is also impermanent. And the standards? They're dynamic as well. And vertical alignment? In spots clumsy and incomplete. This is reality.

2) Secondly, help learners and their families understand that it's more than just politically correct to say that a student's performance on a test does not equal their true "understanding;" it's actually true. If communities only understood how imperfect assessment design can be -- well, they may just run us all out of town on a rail for all these years of equating test scores and expertise.

3) But perhaps the most powerful thing that you can do to combat the slippery notion of understanding is to use numerous and diverse assessment forms. And then -- and this part is important -- honor the performance on each of those assessments with as much equity as possible. A concept map drawn on an exit slip is no less evidence of understanding than an extended response question on a state exam.

In fact, I've always thought of planning, not in terms of quizzes and tests, but as a true climate of assessment, where "snapshots" of knowledge are taken so often that it's truly part of the learning process. This degree of frequency and repetition also can reduce procedural knowledge, and allow for opportunities for metacognitive reflection post-assessment, such as the "So? So What? What now?" sequence.

If you are able to show all assessment results -- formal and informal -- for the most visible portion of the learning process, the letter grade itself, learners may finally begin to see for themselves that understanding is evasive, constantly changing, and as dynamic as their own imaginations.

1Understanding by Design, Expanded 2nd Edition (9780131950849): Grant Wiggins, Jay McTighe: Books. Web. 07 May 2012.

2In fact, in Stage 2 of UbD design process, the task is to "determine what constitutes acceptable evidence of competency in the outcomes and results (assessment)," deftly avoiding the term "understanding" altogether.

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erinteach's picture
first grade teacher from Chula Vista

When push comes to shove, when I assess what my students "know" it has more to do with learner habits than what is proved on a test. Students who demonstrate strong habits of mind are active listeners, explore ideas through dialogue and debate, and take the initiative to try and learn more. Unfortunately, the majority of my students do not have understanding as a goal. Getting students to have the motivation to understand is a tough battle. My students hear each other but don't really listen to each other. It is a daily focus to practice paraphrasing and clarifying what another has said. Poor communication skills reveal how little interaction students are having with their parents. Since we cannot change the home, we need to place listening and speaking for understanding at the top of our agenda K-12.

joanne weiner's picture

The addition of understanding as a personal, individualistic, and unique addition to Bloom's Taxonomy is fabulous. We are incorporating it immediately!

Melaine's picture
Second grade teacher from Minneapolis, MN

I've often wondered what it truly means to understand something. As a second grade teacher, I tend to agree with your point that "know" and "understand" are often used interchangeably. My students will often say, "I already know that!" When it comes time to assess them, I find that they don't completely understand how or why something works. Thank you for addressing the Facets of Understanding and the Knowledge Domain. These guidelines will help me to better assess understanding in my classroom, and will help me create more effective assessments of learning.

Alison's picture

It was so nice to see a blog entry that broke it down for me. Educators put countless hours into putting together assessments. The communities perspective plays a part in the outcome and reflection of the data from assessments. I feel that we are starting to trend towards assessing more than one way with students. I look forward to the future of assessing students and feel that we are going to have more authentic and valuable assessments of learning.

Rachel Cline's picture

I teach math and I feel that understanding is very important because the chapters continually build on each other. If they didn't understand the first chapter, they probably won't understand the next one. They will be playing catch-up and falling behind the whole year. I believe that one test does not show true understanding. I like that you said to use numerous and a variety of assessments. I try to use both formative and summative assessments. I feel it is very crucial to know what the students understand before you give them their "final" test on the material.

Jen Stewart's picture

As I was reading I was thinking about students in my class, wondering if they truly understand what I am teaching at any given time throughout the day. I am a kindergarten teacher and I try to take "snapshots" of knowledge throughout the learning process with many formative assessments throughout a unit. As a teacher of young learners, I need to constantly assess what students know and understand so I can make sure lessons taught are of value.

Amber's picture
Kindergarten teacher from Minnesota

I often find myself asking the same question when teaching my little learners. I feel as though the students who have a good handle on things are the ones who answer my questions when we do discuss what we have learned or take "snapshots"(even if they aren't the ones I call on!) So then I am left wondering about those students who may not quite have a firm grasp on the concepts. I guess I am wondering what other ways can I consistantly measure comprehension and understanding for those students that I am not quite sure about when we take snapshots throughout the day.

Amanda's picture
High school social studies teacher

I find it so hard to take these "snapshots" of learning in a high school classroom. There are too many students that have become professionially silent, making it tought to drag any information out of them. In the end I usually get the same few students who repeatedly volunteer information and responses.
I try to track learning throughout units with a little quiz here or an assignment we go over as a class so that discussion takes place. This helps me to get a little more feedback. I would like to discover other ways to check learning progress as well.

nym's picture

As I was reading this article, it reminded me of when I was in high school. I would study and study for a test and still get a B and would walk away thinking "But I know this stuff." Sometimes just giving students a paper and pencil test, doesn't give them the opportunity to show us what they really did learn. Yes, it is important they are learning the main objectives and standards, but why limit them to just those. Allow students to show and demonstrate what they have learned instead of using so many "snapshots" to form a grade.

mkpeterson's picture
Resource Teacher

A student's level of understanding cannot be measured by a test fit for all. Project based learning helps, webquests and others; but some kids get tripped up by those too. I had this little guy who the teachers claimed had a low IQ--whatever that means. He failed every test even though he seemed to be able to do the class work. When working with him one on one, I found him to be very quick at grasping concepts; he could not only reiterate what he learned, but often he could think deeper about what he was learning. However, this student did not make it past his sophomore year in high school. "School was not a good fit for him," some would say. Sad. I truly relate to this post and agree we need to broaden our definition of understanding in education.

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