Katie White spends her days working to transform the educational experience for teachers and students. She has been an integral part of her own school system's multi-year journey through educational reform and has assisted systems worldwide in their work toward approaches that honor learning relationships.

Can Assessment and Open-Ended Contexts Coexist?

When we consider all of the ways to ensure successful learning outcomes, knowing the criteria for success definitely tops the list. When we know where we are going, our chances of reaching that destination increase dramatically. But what about those times when we are trying to invite open-ended experiences: creativity, play, and imagination? How does criteria-setting fit within that paradigm? Can assessment practices, such as criteria-setting and self-assessment, live in harmony with these open-ended or emergent outcomes?

I propose that they can and they should! By shifting our assessment approaches slightly, we can not only ensure positive learning outcomes, but we can support students as they wrestle with what it means to explore, wonder, and design—what it means to drive the learning.

One of the most critical shifts we might consider is the timing of criteria-setting with students. Granted, it is very important that teachers deeply understand their learning goals (standards, outcomes) in advance of instruction, including how those goals will look when students demonstrate proficiency. However, instead of placing a rubric in front of learners at the outset or handing out a checklist immediately to communicate our expectations, we might instead engage in an open-ended brainstorm or creative design process to get the learning started. We could let students wrestle with ideas, collaborate, and question before moving into criteria-clarification.

For example, instead of defining a strong lab process and laying out an experiment, step-by-step, we might ask an open-ended question, such as:

  • How is the movement of a paper airplane impacted by design?
  • How might we determine the acidity of a variety of household liquids?

Students can then create theories, test prototypes, design experiments, and share ideas for how exploration could occur. Once students have shaped their ideas around this important question, a teacher could then invite students to pause and consider the qualities (criteria) of a strong experiment.

When we embed criteria-setting within experiences, student responses are often far more insightful and grounded in their actual observations. Using open-ended exploration to frame criteria-setting ensures that creativity and innovation are nurtured, and an experiential context ensures criteria that have the potential to be “lived out” and acted on immediately by both teachers and learners. Ken Robinson (2015) describes this relationship between creativity and assessment when he says, “Being creative is not about having off-the-wall ideas and letting your imagination run free. It may involve all of that, but it also involves refining, testing, and focusing what you are doing. It’s about original thinking on the part of the individual, and it’s also about judging critically whether the work in process is taking the right shape and is worthwhile…” (p. 147). The products and processes generated from this kind of delayed timing will be stronger and students will be positioned as instructional designers alongside their teachers.

A second powerful way to ensure that assessment and open-ended exploration can coexist is to ensure students are setting clear, personally meaningful goals each and every day. This process can be embedded within the learning cycle, as part of an ongoing conversation between the learner and themselves, with the teacher acting as a witness and coach to this dialogue. As Pete Hall and Alisa Simeral (2015) point out, “We don’t learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on that experience” (p. 80).

Perhaps a learner is experimenting with color while painting a landscape. A precisely-time self-assessment session could reveal a desire, by the student, to achieve greater varieties of color within their art work. Instead of the teacher telling a student to use more color, the student generates this goal themselves, making the investment in the ensuing practice and artistic attempts greater.

Similarly, when a learner engages in self-assessment and goal-setting while writing a narrative essay, while engaging in skill development during physical education, or while engaging in complex problems in mathematics, they are likely to continue to strive for greater skill and understanding on their own. Their attempts will focus on searching for solutions, new processes, and refined ideas, as opposed to searching for the thing that will make the teacher happy and satisfied. This shifts learning from compliance to investment and the teacher and student can work together to discover a variety of options for getting to the desired outcome.

When learners engage in exploration and practice as part of seeking to answer their own questions and develop their own skills and understanding, the opportunity for personal meaning-making and goal-setting emerges. This approach to assessment invites student investment in their own learning and invites teachers to walk alongside learners as they work to define and express strong learning processes and products. Criteria emerge and efforts become more focused as students answer deep questions and move through complex and open-ended contexts. Assessment that lives inside open-ended contexts is powerful, authentic assessment. When students are immersed in meaningful experiences, self-assessment and criteria-setting become part of learning as opposed to standing outside it. This is the kind of authentic assessment that ensures the deepest kinds of learning!



Hall, P. & Simeral, A. (2015). Teach, Reflect, Learn: Building Your Capacity for Success in the Classroom. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Robinson, K. (2015). Creative schools. New York: Penguin Publishing Group.

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