Some teachers argue that to make assessment as
personalized and inclusive as possible, we should just
tell students to show us what they know about
a given topic or process. For example, if they
just studied biomes, we could say, “Show
me what you know about biomes.”
It seems like such a great idea on
the surface. Each student would use a
modality they’re comfortable with and
passionate about! Our young artists
could paint their knowledge while
our budding reporters make podcasts!
Students wouldn’t be limited to sharing
knowledge about subtopics we happen to
ask about on tests, eliminating the problem
of I studied taiga for hours and she didn’t ask
a single question about it.
Another problem we’d eliminate: students
seeing a test question and “blanking out,”
which is a manifestation of the fight-flight-freeze
response that all of us have when we
feel threatened—as students feel in a testing
environment when they see a question they aren’t
sure how to approach. But “show me what you know”
has at least four problems.
A vague prompt might not elicit specific knowledge.
As teachers, we have learned how to design tasks so
they prompt students to demonstrate their knowledge
and skills in meaningful ways. “Show me what you
know about ” might not elicit certain details or
practices that students know or can do, but just don’t
think to demonstrate without a more specific prompt.
When I first learned that my now-husband speaks German, I asked him to say something in German.
He asked, “What do you want me to say?” Faced
with such an open-ended prompt, people sometimes
aren’t sure what to do. But if I’d asked him to say, “I
love how the light catches you as you sit on the couch
reading,” he could have done it. Similarly, if I ask
students to show me what they know about biomes,
they might feel too overwhelmed to say much of
anything, but if I ask them to design a biome-inspired
theme park, they could do it—and might even feel
excited to try.
Not all students will have the tools and
strategies to complete their chosen
Teachers not only design tasks that provide
meaningful opportunities for students to show what
they know and can do; we also teach students the
specific strategies they need to do an excellent job.
For example, when I taught seventh-grade English,
my students read Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin
in the Sun and then wrote their own dramatic scenes
based on personal encounters with injustice. The
rubric included the following expectations.
- You draw on personal experiences to make your
- Each character has a distinct voice, conveyed
through vocabulary, sentence structure, rhetorical
devices, or some combination.
- The set description and any stage directions show
an awareness of the stage and audience.
- An in media res beginning gets the audience to care
about the characters and conflict right away.
- The ending leaves the audience thinking about the
larger theme (the social injustice).
- The scene uses playwriting conventions: character
names are in all-caps, and stage directions are in
parentheses and italics.
- The scene’s title engages the audience’s interest
and relates to the scene’s topic or theme.
- The scene is easy to read because there are no
errors in capitalization, punctuation, or spelling.
This rubric was pretty extensive, but I didn’t just
hand it out and wish my students luck. We spent class
time learning how to do each part of the task. For
example, we spent a class period analyzing Hansberry’s
scene beginnings, discussing the concept of in media
res, and practicing writing in media res beginnings for
familiar stories before they wrote beginnings for their
own scenes. They also got feedback on their scene
beginnings from each other and from me. I wouldn’t
have been as effective at providing specific criteria for
excellence, multiple exemplars, strategy instruction,
and opportunities to practice if each student had been
doing a different task.
If I had asked students to show me what they knew
about dramatic scenes, some might have written their
own. Others might have written analytical essays,
created videos, given speeches, or made diagrams. It
sounds like a cool opportunity for each student to do
their own project, but it also privileges students who
already know how to do the things they choose to do.
What happens if a student wants to create a video
but needs instruction? Is her project really going to
turn out as well as that of the kid who’s been making
videos for years and has all the necessary software
at home? Maybe both students can show what they
know about dramatic scenes, but can we really say
that the product’s quality won’t bias our judgments
about the content? What if I, as an English teacher,
have the knowledge to support the students who
write scenes and essays but not those who create
videos and diagrams? Maybe I can get them linked
up with experts, but will their experience really
be the same as that of students who get real-time,
personalized feedback from their teacher? What if my
classroom has all the tools students need for writing
but not for film editing and drawing? How do they
get access to those tools? If students are learning
remotely, what if some students have the time, resources, and adult support they need to succeed
at a wide variety of tasks while others have fewer
opportunities? When students all choose their own
tasks, equity issues will emerge early and often.
“What you know” frames knowledge as
static and ignores ongoing learning.
“Show me what you know” suggests that students
have an existing body of knowledge that they will now
put on display. But students also build their knowledge
in the process of doing tasks—including assessment
tasks. In designing a theme park about biomes,
students don’t just display their existing knowledge of
biomes; they also reinforce that knowledge, discover
new things about biomes, and develop their capacity
for creative and critical thinking. A specific task isn’t
just assessment, it’s practice.
“Show me what you know” centers the
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, “show me what
you know” makes students’ job proving themselves
to us, as opposed to doing work they find meaningful.
Telling students to show us what they know sends
the message that their knowledge doesn’t count
unless and until they demonstrate it to a teacher.
Of course, any assessment task makes visible to us
what students know and can do. But still, our way of
phrasing the assignment can center us or them. Any
assignment will begin with a command-form verb,
whether it’s “show me what you know” or “solve for
x” or “write a dramatic scene based on a personal
experience with injustice.” But “show me what you
know” especially centers us, as evaluators and judges.
We’re right there in the sentence—“show me”—as if
the task’s sole purpose is to convince us. Tasks can
have other purposes alongside assessment, such as
telling a story that matters to them, communicating
a message to an audience, or exploring an important
topic. Instead of asking students to show us what
they know, we can design tasks that matter—to them
personally and in the world—and that demonstrate
their knowledge and skills.
Assigning Meaningful Yet Flexible Tasks
Assigning a specific task doesn’t mean that students
have to follow a rigid set of rules like, “Your thesis
statement should be the last sentence of your first paragraph,” or “Every paragraph must contain a
quotation.” A key element of any meaningful task is
built-in flexibility—whether that means a student can
choose which injustice they write about or how they’ll
translate a biome into a theme park. As teachers, we
not only can be willing for students to come up with
their own alternative versions of the assignment;
we can also actively invite students to come up with
alternatives that serve the same functions. That way,
if a student is passionate about animation and wants
to make a video about biomes instead of a theme park,
there’s room for that possibility.
Sometimes, though, the task is too intimately
connected to the content for there to be much room for
alternatives. If students read a play about the author’s
experience with injustice, and then the assignment
is to write original dramatic scenes about their own
experiences with injustice, any variation means they’ll
miss out on some essential element.
Still, the simpler goal of finding out what students
know can be accomplished through a wide variety of
tasks. When you consider a new task for your students,
ask yourself: What kinds of learning would this reveal?
What learning opportunities would it create? How
would this be a worthwhile use of your students’ time?
Questions like these can help you evaluate meaningful,
student-centered alternatives to traditional
assessments and to “show me what you know.”
Lauren Porosoff has been an educator since 2000
and writes about empowering students and teachers to
make school meaningful. She is the lead author of
Two-for-One Teaching: Connecting Instruction to
Student Values (Solution Tree, 2020) and Teach
Meaningful: Tools to Design the Curriculum at Your
Core (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).
Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2020.