What is a Performance Task? (Part 1)

Jay McTighe is an accomplished author, having co-authored 14 books, including the award-winning and best-selling Understanding by Design series with Grant Wiggins. His books have been translated into ten languages. Jay has also written more than 35 articles and book chapters, and been published in leading journals, including Educational Leadership (ASCD) and Education Week. JayMcTighe.com

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A performance task is any learning activity or assessment that asks students to perform to demonstrate their knowledge, understanding and proficiency. Performance tasks yield a tangible product and/or performance that serve as evidence of learning. Unlike a selected-response item (e.g., multiple-choice or matching) that asks students to select from given alternatives, a performance task presents a situation that calls for learners to apply their learning in context.

Performance tasks are routinely used in certain disciplines, such as visual and performing arts, physical education, and career-technology where performance is the natural focus of instruction. However, such tasks can (and should) be used in every subject area and at all grade levels.

Characteristics of Performance Tasks

While any performance by a learner might be considered a performance task (e.g., tying a shoe or drawing a picture), it is useful to distinguish between the application of specific and discrete skills (e.g., dribbling a basketball) from genuine performance in context (e.g., playing the game of basketball in which dribbling is one of many applied skills). Thus, when I use the term performance tasks, I am referring to more complex and authentic performances.

Here are seven general characteristics of performance tasks:

1. Performance tasks call for the application of knowledge and skills, not just recall or recognition.

In other words, the learner must actually use their learning to perform. These tasks typically yield a tangible product (e.g., graphic display, blog post) or performance (e.g., oral presentation, debate) that serve as evidence of their understanding and proficiency.

2. Performance tasks are open-ended and typically do not yield a single, correct answer.

Unlike selected- or brief constructed- response items that seek a “right” answer, performance tasks are open-ended. Thus, there can be different responses to the task that still meet success criteria. These tasks are also open in terms of process; i.e., there is typically not a single way of accomplishing the task.

3. Performance tasks establish novel and authentic contexts for performance.

These tasks present realistic conditions and constraints for students to navigate. For example, a mathematics task would present students with a never-before-seen problem that cannot be solved by simply “plugging in” numbers into a memorized algorithm. In an authentic task, students need to consider goals, audience, obstacles, and options to achieve a successful product or performance. Authentic tasks have a side benefit — they convey purpose and relevance to students, helping learners see a reason for putting forth effort in preparing for them.

4. Performance tasks provide evidence of understanding via transfer.

Understanding is revealed when students can transfer their learning to new and “messy” situations. Note that not all performances require transfer. For example, playing a musical instrument by following the notes or conducting a step-by-step science lab require minimal transfer. In contrast, rich performance tasks are open-ended and call “higher-order thinking” and the thoughtful application of knowledge and skills in context, rather than a scripted or formulaic performance.

5. Performance tasks are multi-faceted.

Unlike traditional test “items” that typically assess a single skill or fact, performance tasks are more complex. They involve multiple steps and thus can be used to assess several standards or outcomes.

6. Performance tasks can integrate two or more subjects as well as 21st century skills.

In the wider world beyond the school, most issues and problems do not present themselves neatly within subject area “silos.” While performance tasks can certainly be content-specific (e.g., mathematics, science, social studies), they also provide a vehicle for integrating two or more subjects and/or weaving in 21st century skills and Habits of Mind. One natural way of integrating subjects is to include a reading, research, and/or communication component (e.g., writing, graphics, oral or technology presentation) to tasks in content areas like social studies, science, health, business, health/physical education. Such tasks encourage students to see meaningful learning as integrated, rather than something that occurs in isolated subjects and segments.

7. Performances on open-ended tasks are evaluated with established criteria and rubrics.

Since these tasks do not yield a single answer, student products and performances should be judged against appropriate criteria aligned to the goals being assessed. Clearly defined and aligned criteria enable defensible, judgment-based evaluation. More detailed scoring rubrics, based on criteria, are used to profile varying levels of understanding and proficiency.

Let’s look at a few examples of performance tasks that reflect these characteristics:

Botanical Design (upper elementary)

performance taskYour landscape architectural firm is competing for a grant to redesign a public space in your community and to improve its appearance and utility. The goal of the grant is to create a community area where people can gather to enjoy themselves and the native plants of the region. The grant also aspires to educate people as to the types of trees, shrubs, and flowers that are native to the region.

Your team will be responsible for selecting a public place in your area that you can improve for visitors and members of the community. You will have to research the area selected, create a scale drawing of the layout of the area you plan to redesign, propose a new design to include native plants of your region, and prepare educational materials that you will incorporate into the design.

performance task

Evaluate the Claim (upper elementary/ middle school)

The Pooper Scooper Kitty Litter Company claims that their litter is 40% more absorbent than other brands. You are a Consumer Advocates researcher who has been asked to evaluate their claim. Develop a plan for conducting the investigation. Your plan should be specific enough so that the lab investigators could follow it to evaluate the claim.

Moving to South America (middle school)

performance taskSince they know that you have just completed a unit on South America, your aunt and uncle have asked you to help them decide where they should live when your aunt starts her new job as a consultant to a computer company operating throughout the region. They can choose to live anywhere in the continent.

Your task is to research potential home locations by examining relevant geographic, climatic, political, economic, historic, and cultural considerations. Then, write a letter to your aunt and uncle with your recommendation about a place for them to move. Be sure to explain your decision with reasons and evidence from your research.

Accident Scene Investigation (high school)

You are a law enforcement officer who has been hired by the District Attorney’s Office to set-up an accident scene investigation unit. Your first assignment is to work with a reporter from the local newspaper to develop a series of information pieces to inform the community about the role and benefits of applying forensic science to accident investigations.

performance taskYour team will share this information with the public through the various media resources owned and operated by the newspaper.

In sum, performance tasks like these can be used to engage students in meaningful learning. Since rich performance tasks establish authentic contexts that reflect genuine applications of knowledge, students are often motivated and engaged by such “real world” challenges.

When used as assessments, performance tasks enable teachers to gauge student understanding and proficiency with complex processes (e.g., research, problem solving, and writing), not just measure discrete knowledge. They are well suited to integrating subject areas and linking content knowledge with the 21st Century Skills such as critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication, and technology use. Moreover, performance-based assessment can also elicit Habits of Mind, such as precision and perseverance.

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