Assessing Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving

How do you assess critical thinking and problem solving skills?

In considering how we assess critical thinking and problem solving skills, we wanted to answer the question of how we know whether students are learning the cognitive processes we are teaching and are able to transfer them to novel situations. In answer to this challenge, we have designed short performance tasks that target each of our constructs of critical thinking and problem solving.

What are performance tasks?

Performance tasks are specific activities that require students to demonstrate mastery of knowledge or skills through application within the task. The performance tasks that we utilize to assess critical thinking and problem solving are each aligned with a specific thinking type. In each task, students are required to make their thinking visible either through demonstration of their work, through oral description of their thinking, or through writing.
How do you design performance tasks aligned with constructs of critical thinking and problem solving?

In designing performance tasks, we always begin with the cognitive skill that we want to assess. Every decision about how to design performance tasks then grows from that clear understanding of the target.

Because the focus is on a specific cognitive skill, we want to remove barriers from both the level of understanding of the content or basic math and reading skills. Thus we choose tasks that are situated in contexts with which most students are already familiar. In addition, we ensure that the literacy and math components of the task are sufficiently low that most students are not hindered by the reading or computational components.

However, we strive to design tasks that are problematic for students. In other words, students shouldn’t have a quick solution to the tasks. We make tasks problematic in a couple of ways. First, we make tasks problematic by giving open-ended assignments where there are multiple possible solutions. Second, we make tasks problematic through the complexity of the problem that students need to think through.

From an initial understanding of the targeted cognitive skill and the context in which we want to situate a task, we refine the tasks by asking targeted questions that elicit student thinking. Utilizing the rubrics that we have designed for each construct, the flow of the tasks requires students to make their thinking visible using the thinking routine.

How do you evaluate students’ critical thinking and problem solving skills through a performance task?

When students complete performance tasks, they generate evidence of their thinking that we can utilize to evaluate their critical thinking and problem solving skills. Utilizing our rubrics we evaluate student responses across the task to each dimension on the rubric. We don’t generate a single score for each construct. Instead, students are scored on each component of the rubric. This allows us to give refined feedback to students.

Each performance task includes a scoring guide that identifies “Look Fors” that an evaluator can use in scoring student work with the rubric.

As a general practice, we try to have at least two teachers score each piece of work and calibrate their scoring across the piece. Areas of discrepancy in scoring become places for us to look deeper at the work and make an argument for an appropriate score.