Why Are We Talking About Engaging Learning and Assessment Tasks?

young smart woman reading book on floor

The last time I published a blog was two months ago. Grant proposals and holidays left no time for writing a blog. Today, I am publishing the first of a two-part blog series on engaging learning and assessment content.  In the first part, I will explain why engaging learning and assessment content is important for the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), the NAEP Technology and Engineering Literacy Framework, and the 2025 NAEP Mathematics and Reading Frameworks

In the second part, I will explain how to engineer engaging learning and assessment content–not create, but engineer engaging content. I emphasize engineering because, for me, creation attributes the production of engaging content to a spark of genius–not consistently repeatable nor scalable nor systematically improvable. But engineering implies the capability to consistently produce engaging learning and assessment content, while systematically improving the quality of that content over time, and producing more engaging content while keeping costs low.

What is Driving the Need for Engaging Learning and Assessment Content?

What is driving our customers’—students, parents, and educators–need for learning and assessment content that is engaging for learners? The need for engaging learning and assessment content is being driven by two changes in our business environment that is throwing taken-for-granted assumptions into question: the evolving nature of the constructs our customers want students to learn and assessments to evaluate and the growing presence of virtual learning and assessment contexts. These changes, and others, suggest the assessment industry is approaching an inflection point, accelerated by the Pandemic. 

The first driver of the need for learning and assessment content is the complex constructs found in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), the NAEP Technology and Engineering Literacy Framework, and the 2025 NAEP Mathematics and Reading Frameworks (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers [CCSSO], 2010; NGSS Lead States, 2013; National Assessment Governing Board, 2018, 2019a, 2019b; College Board, 2019). The complex nature of these standards reflects our growing understanding of the sociocultural nature of learning and performance. An example of these more complex constructs is the vision for science learning outlined in A Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC, 2012) and under the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

This vision for science learning represents a shift in the thinking about the role of the teacher and about the nature of student learning and assessment.  Under conventional science learning and assessment, greater achievement is portrayed as the accumulation of facts and procedures received from the teacher (Pellegrino, 2013). Under this new vision, science instruction and assessment involves less learning of ideas disconnected from questions about phenomena and involves more systems thinking and modeling to explain phenomena and to give a context for the ideas to be learned (NRC, 2015). 

This vision for science learning emphasizes using engaging learning and assessment content.  According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2019), the centerpiece of this vision is engaging content motivating students to make sense of natural phenomena and design solutions to meet human needs. Phenomena are naturally occurring, observable events in the universe that science knowledge can be used to explain or predict. They may be observed using the naked eye, scientific instruments, and through patterns in data (https://www.nextgenscience.org/resources/phenomena).

The adoption of the NGSS has been widespread across states and districts. The NGSS or standards closely resembling NGSS have been formally adopted by 44 of the 50 states plus DC.  In a recent national district survey, over 70 percent of district leaders said they see it as very important that academic materials bought over the next two years align to the NGSS. Only 5 percent of district leaders thought that it is unimportant for science curriculum purchases to match up with NGSS.

The evolving nature of the constructs our customers want students to learn and assessments to evaluate is not the only driver of the need for engaging learning and assessment content.  Teaching and learning during the Pandemic has highlighted the need for engaging content. Educators have complained the biggest difficulty during the 2020-2021 school year was maintaining student engagement. As one teacher put it, “Keeping my online students engaged has been the biggest struggle. They do not participate or even turn on their cameras for the most part.” Not surprisingly, market research reveals ed-tech tools primarily focused on classroom engagement and instruction grew more popular over the last academic year. “For ed-tech providers, the big story is focusing on learners and how educators can engage learners,” said Karl Rectanus, CEO and co-founder of the company that conducted the analysis. “Those have been the biggest winners to date.”

The increased demand for engaging content will not disappear as the Pandemic subsides.  Schools are building for the long term on the lessons learned during the Pandemic about the importance of engaging students around passions and interests. For example, North Edgecombe High School, in North Carolina, is building a new curriculum and schedule in which part of the school day is dedicated to interest-driven projects.

Why is Engaging Learning and Assessment Content Important?

Engaging learning and assessment content is important because of the requirement to motivate students to invest the effort to learn or demonstrate the concepts and practices that comprise these complex standards. Students can memorize facts and learn simple applications using low-level learning strategies if their motivation is simply to pay attention. But the kind of deep learning described in the CCSS, the NGSS, the NAEP Technology and Engineering Literacy Framework, and the 2025 NAEP Mathematics and Reading Frameworks requires a willingness to invest and exert effort in learning.

Deep learning demands higher quality student engagement. Deep learning uses cognitive (i.e., elaboration and organization strategies), metacognitive (i.e., setting goals, planning, monitoring, evaluating progress, and making adjustments), and volitional strategies (i.e., regulating attention, affect, and effort) that promote understanding. Student engagement is not a property of the individual or the environment alone but rather refers to the relationship between the learner and the learning activity. This relationship takes account of the students’ evaluation of their skills, their interest in an ongoing task, and the challenge presented by that task. This relationship is strongly influenced by cultural and developmental processes.

Students must be sufficiently motivated to use these strategies to connect new ideas to old and apply practices, concepts, and specific disciplinary ideas in the contexts of real-world problems. As the figure below shows, deep learning results from students investing the effort required for high quality student engagement.  This effort is motivated by interesting, appropriately challenging, and social content and activities.

But teachers have faced problems in creating environments that motivate students to invest the effort required for high quality student engagement supporting deep learning. Researchers have found the teachers’ use of engagement strategies are not emphasized or even present in most school settings. Instruction that promotes passivity, rote learning, and routine tends to be the rule rather than the exception.

Please join me next week when I will describe how to consistently engineer engaging learning and assessment content!

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