We set out with this blog to create a resource for educators interested in assessment, and particularly authentic assessment. That is, designing tasks that are complex, that require critical thinking and synthesis of information. Tasks that are more real world and, more importantly, enjoyable for students and teachers.

A lot of the readers who come to this blog are searching the web for resources on rubrics – often for specific disciplines like nursing and engineering.

So I’d like to take the opportunity to describe a relatively simple philosophical shift when designing work for students. I’ll start with an example many of us can relate to: memorizing and reciting a poem.

I was working with teachers at a school district in New Jersey a few weeks ago, and a teacher brought this basic task she regularly assigned students to our workshop: reciting a poem from memory.

I remember having to memorize a sonnet in high school. It was pointless and terrifying, the result a learned helplesssness on my part. I got through it, I guess. And I read a John Donne sonnet to my wife at my wedding, so I suppose I wasn’t scarred for life.

But the task of memorizing and reciting a poem doesn’t need to appear pointless to students.

Two related strategies can help: RAFT and GRASPS. Yes, they’re silly acronyms. But the ideas are powerful.

RAFT stands for Role, Audience, Format, and Task. That is, for every assignment, a teacher should design a role for students, an audience for their work (not ‘the teacher’), a format for the work, and the specific task.

Most teachers focus exclusively on the ‘F’ and the ‘T.’ In other words, in what role in life are you asked to memorize a sonnet? None! And what group of people will willingly sit and listen to students recite assigned poetry? Maybe their parents.

GRASPS takes the idea a little further. The ‘G’ stands for Goal: what is the deeper understanding that you seek for your students? The ‘memorize a poem’ activity runs into trouble right away…although we’ll return to this question a little later.

The “R” in GRASP is the Role that the teacher will design for the student. They won’t be just a student in a class, creating work for the teacher, but will be asked to use their imagination and become more emotionally and intellectually connected to their work.

The “A” in GRASP is Audience – who is the desired reader/viewer/listener for the work? Again, students (and teachers) need to imagine themselves into a more important scenario – a scenario that feels worth doing.

The “S” stands for the Situation in which the communicator and the audience are working. More on this in a bit.

The “P” is for Performance or Product – what will students create?

The last “S” is for Standards – what academic standards (or outcomes, in higher ed-speak) are you connecting to? If you aren’t beholden to any organizational standards/outcomes, and the Goals step is all you need, then skip this step. Then you just need GRASP, not GRASPS. Or you can think of this last aspect as the rubric that you will use to assess the work.

So let’s revisit the example of memorizing a poem.

What is the goal? Why would anyone benefit from doing this? I actually don’t know, but I’ll take a few guesses.

If you memorize another writer’s (preferably a great writer) words, you will internalize their cadence, their style, and engage with language in a more three-dimensional way than reading it once. Reading poetry (any writing) out loud is a valuable experience. Memorizing forces an attention to detail that you can’t get with a quick reading…

The downsides, though, are numerous: demotivating students and reinforcing the purposelessness of education to name two. The students who enjoy the assignment are the ones who would happily do anything related to poetry, and the students who we would most want to reach will probably be the ones most turned off.

The great news is that adjusting the assignment doesn’t require five days of professional development, or a grant to develop a whole new interdisciplinary curriculum.

What if students were told that they were contestants on a new quiz show and had to combine song lyrics with poetry to create something new – that they would perform. Every line recited perfectly achieves a new level of “winnings,” every error a step down the pyramid of cash. I’m not much of a game show watcher, so I can’t extend the example much further. But there are a couple of key ideas here.

Depending on the age level of the student, by including a pop culture setting and allowing them to bring poetry they value into the assignment (i.e. song lyrics), you’re meeting them halfway. The quiz show setting, though artificial and ‘easy,’ will work once in a while. It certainly nails down the roles: contestant and studio audience.

By writing out a new poem, constructed from song lyrics and poetry assigned in the class, students will be constructing knowledge rather than passively consuming it. The assignment lends itself to specifics: “Create a 14 line poem, with 4 lines from our assigned reading and ten from poems/lyrics of your choosing. Please keep the poems PG rated. Give your new poem a title, and make sure I have a hardcopy two days before you will perform it for the class.”

The subtle twist in the above description is that students must create the poem at least two days before they read, which is a helpful milestone to help the procrastinators get started and still have two days to rehearse and practice.

There is a tendency to fall into the quiz show/journalist/business consultant rut for creating a role for students. But these are good places to start, and allow for a great deal of creativity (example: President-elect Obama has hired you to put together 4 living poets/writers to perform at his inauguration; each will read five lines from something they’ve already written. Specify the 4 poets, the lines they will read, and write a two paragraph speech for Obama to give after the performance).

These examples also cover the Goal, Role, Audience, Situation, and Performance in our model above. We’ve left out ‘Standards,’ but that’s the least interesting part and I’m sure we could connect the above work to any number of K12 or higher ed standards/outcomes and develop a rubric.

The remaining question is, how do you do this for a physics lab? Or a Spanish class? Or Calculus? the parallels are there – we just need to find them, and in the process enrich our own work and that of our students.