Four Problems with “Show Me What You Know”

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 tasks successfully.

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 characters authentic.
  • 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 teacher.

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.