Engaging NGSS Assessments: The Instructionally-Embedded Model

Last week, we talked about transforming traditional performance tasks to up the ante in terms of fun and engagement.  This week, we’re going to look at instructional-embedded assessments as a way to assess student learning as you are moving them through the learning.  


Let’s discuss first – what is an instructional-embedded assessment? These types of assessments are woven into the unit, instead of presented for the first time at the end of the learning. Instead, these assessments often introduce the unit. Then by the end of the unit, students have completed all of the pieces necessary to carry out the assessment task. It’s just a matter of putting it all together then.


Ecology Mystery: The Case Of The Silent Night

This assessment wasn’t actually designed as an instructional-embedded assessment. I created it as the culminating project for an ecology unit, but in hindsight, it would make a totally awesome embedded assessment! So I’m going to describe for you how I would use it in that way, as opposed to how I have used it in the past!


So the premise of the assessment is that the tree frog population in a fictional Florida town has just plummetted. And students are the detectives that have to figure out why! As I said, I used to use this at the END of a unit to tie together all of the different aspects of ecology we had learned about ecosystem basics, interactions, food webs, invasive species, human impacts, so on and so forth. So the clues address all of these different components.


I would have traditionally provided students with the clues at the end of the unit – either all at once or in small groupings – and given them the task: explain what happened to the tree frogs and support it with evidence. 


Now as an instructional-embedded assessment, I would actually give them the scenario at the beginning. The tree frog population in Mayberry plummetted. What happened?


Then, I would reveal one clue (or set of clues) at a time, and we would investigate how that clue (maybe it was the pesticide sale at Gardens R Us or the construction work over at Mayberry Wetland) could have impacted the tree frog population.  The clues would driving student learning through the unit.


In the end, students would then examine all of the clues to make their argument for which was most likely to be responsible for the decline of the tree frog population in Mayberry. They would have the clues I provided, as well as all of their work from the unit activities that branched from the initial clue.


To take it one step further, I might ask them to design a solution.  They’ve explained what they believe is the primary cause of the decline. Now, what do we do about it? We won’t get too far into that, though, because that ties into our topic for next week – project-based (or problem-based) learning assessments!


Tips For Incorporating Instructionally-Embedded Assessments

One easy way to start with instructional embedded assessments is to incorporate a challenge of some sort – often an engineering challenge can do the job.  This adds immediate engagement and relevancy, because students have a tangible task they need to accomplish at the end of the unit, and they can work toward that challenge or problem throughout the unit. 


That said, my Ecology Mystery doesn’t include an engineering component. Instead, the simple challenge of solving a mystery is enough to spark curiosity and drive the learning of students in my classroom.  Solving the puzzle is enough to keep engagement high. So whatever approach you take, consider how you can make it a challenge whether it is an engineering challenge, an intellectual challenge (like a mystery or a puzzle), or potentially even a social challenge through the incorporation of a competition of some kind. 


Additionally, whatever your final task is, break it into parts. These are the parts students will need to complete throughout the unit, and these are going to guide your learning activities as well.  Students will need to engage in activities to learn information and skills pertinent to that smaller task, which they will eventually tie to the larger task. In my example, it meant understanding all sorts of different factors that can impact populations.  Students engaged in learning activities to help them discover those factors, and in the end, they evaluated which factor was most likely at play in the Mayberry tree frog scenario.


Lastly, in order for instructional-embedded assessments to be successful, students need to be consistently reviewing their learning, revisiting prior learning and reflecting on how new information fits and/or changes old understandings.  Science notebooks are a great strategy to both engage students in these activities and keep them organized and useful.  


If you are interested in using mysteries in your science class, check out both the Ecology Mystery: Case Of The Silent Night and the Weather Mystery: Case Of The Desert Tornado on TeachersPayTeachers.