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Five Steps for Incorporating Performance-Based Assessment into Interdisciplinary Learning

“Good morning, class! Today, we’re going to study the literature of the ancient Mayan civilization and examine how it shaped their economy, understanding of the natural world, and language. At the end of the lesson, you’ll be assessed based upon your ability to calculate the total increase, in square miles, by which their empire grew during the height of their literary period and apply this knowledge to civil engineering in our own community. Is everyone ready?”

If the scenario above reminds you of the last interdisciplinary lesson plan you read (or wrote), you’re not alone! With more districts around the country moving toward the interdisciplinary approach, there’s a good chance it’s at least on your radar.

Imagine, for a moment, the reactions of the students presented with this lesson. Or, the disbelief of an administrator preparing to observe it.

To round out the ELA/math/science/social studies lesson, the students in the scenario are going to show what they know in a performance-based assessment (PBA). Another hot topic in the education world, these assessments allow for a deeper look at a student’s level of mastery of a subject. According to a recent study by the National Institutes of Health, PBAs require less mental effort during learning, but lead to a higher level of performance on test tasks.

How can schools deliver a top-notch interdisciplinary education combined with assessments that measure actual skills? Both interdisciplinary learning and PBAs are outside the wheelhouses of many of today’s educators. Shifting the focus from someone’s specialty in education, and then asking them to redefine their assessment practices, can be pretty uncomfortable. A few simple steps can help educators and administrators make the transition and steer their students toward success.

Keep the “discipline” in interdisciplinary

No, not by handing out extra detentions! Keep the number of subject areas being combined in one lesson to a reasonable amount. Just because you want your students to develop a well-rounded outlook on a topic doesn’t mean they need to tackle every angle. Identify a standard in each discipline that will be measured, then determine a task that allows the student to show proficiency.

Focus on the skills being demonstrated

What do students need to be able to do with all of this knowledge? Make this question the centerpiece of your planning. According to Education Week, schools using the Common Core State Standards have found performance-based assessments to be an easier route to evaluating a student’s mastery of a skill. The concept of backward design comes into play, as lessons are built around the test-taker’s ability to demonstrate a standard.

Set realistic goals

Not just for the students, but for everyone involved. And remember, change is often slow and difficult. Consider the old saying “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!” It’s possible to work on interdisciplinary learning and PBAs individually, get proficient in them, then put them together for a winning combination. Or incorporating one interdisciplinary lesson with a PBA into each unit until everyone gets comfortable with the process.

Do your homework

A single educator may know everything there is to know about teaching algebra. How much does he/she know about teaching and assessing the history of algebra? Any great history teacher will tell you: great history teaching is not just a well-written PowerPoint or engaging video clip!   Challenge teachers to watch lessons outside their discipline to get some hands-on experience.

Don’t be afraid to reach out!

As with most things in education, having someone to collaborate with in creating effective PBAs is worth its weight in gold. Find a “buddy school” that’s well-versed in the process, or simply partner up with others in your own school and figure it out together. Either way, you can contribute your strengths from your subject area in exchange for strategies from other subject areas.

Combining performance-based assessments with interdisciplinary learning can be a win–win for students. They see the big picture in a lesson, and demonstrate their abilities in a more natural assessment setting.

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