Am I causing my students to underperform?

No teacher consciously sets out to make his or her students underperform and even to fail. However, this is not difficult to do in the way we sometimes frame a question, an assessment item or an assignment. Consider the following question.

‘Should students be taught to cook at school after the age of ten?

Many students would look at this question and start writing about students cooking at school. They would be focussing on the topic of students cooking at school. However, the most important part is not the topic. It is the TASK and in particular the task verb. So where is the task verb in this question?

The answer is; none. It is implied.

Many students would understand that they have to make a decision on this suggestion, but not ALL students would understand this. Not all would understand that this is a higher-order thinking and requires explicit evaluation or judgment. In terms of the Bloom’s Thinking Skills Framework (Evaluate), it is clear that the student is required to make a decision and justify that decision. However, the question does not have an explicit TASK VERB. An implied verb is not enough and it is not fair to 100% of students to ask such a question. Therefore the question needs to be refined to read something like this:

Argue whether or not  students should be taught to cook at school after the age of ten?’

This is a fairer and more explicit question since the task verb is clear; (Argue from the Evaluate level in Bloom), and the topic (students cooking at school after the age of ten) is also clear.

To refine this question further, we can qualify how they argue by suggesting that they view the topic from at least four different perspectives by offering an appropriate thinking tool, such as the Extended PCQ. This means that the assessment/assignment could now read as follows:

Argue whether or not students should be taught to cook at school after the age of ten?’ Your response must be from at least four different perspectives (such as students, parents, teachers, curriculum, finance, health etc.) through the use of the Extended PCQ (Pros, Cons and Questions) with Extent Barometer.

In the Questions column, one can use question stems such as ‘I wonder ….’ , ‘Could/should…. ‘, ‘It would be interesting to know ….’, ‘What if ….’ .

Once a student has entered the data for each perspective using the Pros, Cons and Questions columns, they are in a position to assess the value of each by making a decision on each of the Extent Barometers (the ‘How Much’ Barometer). If all perspectives score highly, then one would support the idea. The converse is also true.

Please note that each perspective constitutes a paragraph and this scaffolding will assist students in producing a more substantive response.

To scaffold this to a higher degree, teachers could also offer their students the appropriate language to create an even more substantial and elegant response. There are two parts to this:

  1. Sentence starters for articulating their responses and
  2. Appropriate connectors or cohesive ties.


Some sentence starters could be;

  • There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that ….
  • Whilst many would argue that …
  • … might object to this because …
  • Another reason for …
  • It would be reasonable to conclude that …
  • One of the problems associated with …
  • Therefore it is recommended that …


Some connectives could be:

  • therefore
  • all things considered
  • especially
  • in addition to
  • because
  • admittedly
  • nevertheless



Have a look at some of your recent assessment items and assignments and ask yourself the following.

  1. Is there a clear task verb?
  2. Is there a clear definition of the task verb
  3. Have I offered an appropriate graphic organiser, thinking tool or process to ensure that my students are using the topic data to explicitly answer the task skill or task verb?
  4. Have I given my students the sentence starters and connectives, so they can articulate their responses?

All students perform better when they are faced with clear and explicit tasks.

Successful students have explicit teachers.

In conclusion, one could consider the following four steps when designing formative or summative assessment and assignment items.

  1. Be explicit about the task verb and the outcome or exit point of the task. In terms of Bloom’s, do you wish to see evidence of remembering, understanding, applying, analysing, evaluating or designing? Make sure you explain the level of Bloom to your students.
  2. Define the task verb or task verbs such as ‘argue’ or ‘discuss’ or ‘discuss and decide’ or ‘compare’ or ‘compare and recommend’. The verb/s will be the task verb/s within the assessment sentence or item and will focus the topic. This is the ‘WHAT’ of the assessment – ‘what’ you are asking them to do and achieve.  
  3. Offer your students an appropriate thinking tool or graphic organiser such as the Extended PCQ with Extent Barometer.
  4. Give students the appropriate language in the form of sentences starters and connectives.


With plenty of assessment due at this time of the year, it might be worthwhile reminding your students of the 4 key steps to start and successfully completing their assessment.  All our companion series publications are now designed in this easy to understand format and our new version of itc thinkdrive, to be released mid-year, will have a new student area, so they can easily see how to get started with all their assessment tasks.  See the Four Steps for Assessment Success Guide. 

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