Comprehensive Support & Programs for World Language Educators

Assessing the Learning Journey toward Transfer

©2022 The DNA of Learning Blueprint Series
by Dr. Robert K. Greenleaf and Elaine M. Millen, M.Ed. C.A.G.S.

"Our job is not to prepare our students for something.
Our job is to help students prepare themselves for anything."


...We went to the internet to seek an image for “assessment” we were inundated with drawings of grades, scores, symbols, and checklists. Yet, assessment must be more than a summative ending place for sorting purposes.  If schooling is to focus on growth and durable learning that supports success in life by the individual’s chosen journey... grades don’t accomplish this. In fact, they may be counterproductive in promoting motivation, perseverance and curiosity for many.

Do you Suppose...

...that good grades translate into a fulfilling life?  Is there a correlation?  Not in our research! We’ve known for years that A’s and B’s do not equate to creativity and overall “success” in life. Then what does align with a successful, fulfilling adult life?  

The Duality of Assessment 

We have concluded in our action research, there are two fundamental, purposeful assessment practices:

The first must be a tool for growth and learning.  Learning would be monitored formatively, generating patterned evidence of growth or struggle.  The feedback would serve to guide instruction for the teacher and student learning toward desired goals.  While many formative assessment programs and processes purport some of these components, few are implemented in a manner to achieve responses that guide, motivate and inspire continued student interest.  Student work, quick check-ins and exit slips could efficiently provide all that is needed to move learning forward on a day-by-day or weekly basis.

The second learning tool would be a demonstration of interdisciplinary application through analogy, application or transfer.  The commonly covered and recited mass of information largely measures the capacity to take in and report out curriculum.  This addresses but a fraction of intelligence and even less of capabilities needed in future work environments.  The capacity to apply the information—not just within the current subject of study—but across domains and on to future undertakings—indicates a more deep, durable understanding. When one can adapt knowledge, skill and understanding from one way of comprehending it and use it to problem-solve and understand an unrelated domain... THEN... one has truly demonstrated sustained, timeless learning.   

Assessment OF and FOR Learning

The DNA of Learning supports assessment that drives instructional decisions and moves learning forward.  “How can I get a good grade?” is replaced with ‘How can I show the importance of this learning for me?”

The Blueprint focuses on a few simple, but important notions:

  1. Student work is the primary source of evidence
  2. The use of feedback to students that addresses their growth and interests to promote their learning 
  3. Employing alternative ways for students to demonstrate targeted learning outcomes
  4. Applying/transferring big ideas to interdisciplinary applications of concepts and skills as the summative measure used to demonstrate deeper, more durable understandings.

Purpose 1 Assessments:  Formative Tools for the Learning Journey

A teacher needs to ascertain evidence that will inform and drive instructional decisions, such as:

  • Within the curricular scope, where do student interests lie?
  • Where do the greatest number of students struggle within the larger curricular domains?
  • What emphasis is needed to support each students’ learning along the way?

Criteria-specific, personalized feedback must travel from/to students and teachers alike.  This allows teachers to adjust lessons to address learning needs as evidenced in current student work and provides guidance for students as they proceed. Student work contains everything needed for productive exchanges.  From the evidence within their work, students can gain timely feedback about big ideas and their level of understanding in order to revise their learning efforts.  They do not have to wait for a quiz or test to obtain feedback.  Rather, all of this takes place while immersed in the skill or knowledge under study.  As needed, a couple well-constructed (check-in or exit slip) queries can provide teachers everything needed to adjust current instruction to address targeted, essential learnings.  

Purpose 2 Assessments:  Summative Applications, Analogy and Transfer 

When we apply our knowledge and understanding within a single subject of study, it addresses use and hopefully retention within a single domain.  When analogies are constructed regarding current understandings within a given subject, we are demonstrating the capacity to shift the knowledge relationally from one application to another.  This demonstrates understanding beyond mere recitation from memory.  “Sprout is to tree as infant is to adult” demonstrates shifting the basis of plant growth cycles across content domains to human development.  In doing so, the concept from one area is applied and illuminates better comprehension of another.  When we take big ideas and transfer parts or wholes to novel frontiers to address new challenges, we demonstrate a flexibility of knowledge.  More importantly, we make use of prior learnings to creatively navigate issues as they present themselves.  Given we will face new issues throughout our lives, the capacity to transfer prior understandings to less known circumstances is of lifelong value.  Long-term memory, not short-term rehearsal for a grade.  Enduring.  Timeless, one might say.  

Equally, the use of bundled skills (see bundling competencies), such as sorting, organizing, assessing, communicating, comparing, evaluating, etc... serves ongoing, everyday requirements for problem solving, relating and figuring things out. If the education we receive from our schooling is intended to prepare us for life beyond high school, then mastering pervasive competencies and skills is primary.  Content becomes a vehicle through which to explore competencies that are infused within and transferable across all content areas.  Again, timeless.

Future Capacities in Demand

Bernard Marr’s “Top 10 Skills” for the next decade are digital literacy, data literacy, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, creativity, collaboration, flexibility, leadership, time management and curiosity-continuous learning... with curiosity being dubbed the most purposeful.  These are not graded.  These require less grading, perhaps more assessment and for sure, more attention.  

Summative, standardized assessing is consuming instructional time and opportunity.  Grades and scores sort more than they teach—and most often signal the end of a learning segment.  Often incorporated in grading can be attendance, participation and/or effort.  None are direct measures of learning.  Assessment must examine and illuminate patterns that improve learning and drive instructional decisions.  Why else assess? 

What if...

...instead of tracking content proficiency, we focused on timeless capabilities.  What if 1) navigating uncertainties, 2) relating to others and 3) understanding how one thinks to best explore new situations were central tenets of schooling?   Would these be more likely to transfer into the elusive happiness and productive lives we often hear referenced?  Instead of acquiring content knowledge as measured by grades and test scores, these three requisites of the DNA of Learning Blueprint support the journey across infinite settings and career choices. Given the fast paced ever changing technologies, navigating uncertainties is paramount to building competency and resolving challenges.  With social media connecting people globally, knowing how to relate to information as well as to others is far more lifelong than getting grades within subject matter silos.  If our brain is our asset, our thinking tool to guide the process, then we should know how to best use it ASAP!

Moving Toward Tomorrow

Mrs. Miller already knows purposeful feedback practices. When these are accompanied by the tenets of the DNA of Learning Blueprint, they become powerful for the learner.  Covering the “flat” curriculum and “teaching to the middle” is replaced with applying big ideas and concepts that reside within the content to areas of interest for the student.  So, Mrs. Miller began a new journey with her planning process around transferable concepts and opportunities for lifelong skill development.  Her work around bundling essential ideas illuminates two important elements that drive lifelong learning: the learner and their connection to the learning experience

With this new mindset, the lesson design takes on a new life for both Mrs. Miller and her students.  She will:

Step 1:  Develop units that are concept and big idea based. Having already “bundled the competencies” to identify the essential learnings, assessing students prior knowledge is imperative to the lesson design. This includes mini pre-test items to check for prior knowledge, small group discussion with feedback loops and brainstorm “talk a-louds” of essential content and concepts. These should be easy to check formats and quickly reveal, for the teacher and student alike, what students already know

Step 2:  Unpack, with students, how and why their personalized interests apply to the big ideas 

Step 3:  Develop Purpose 1 Formative Assessments that provide continuous exchanges with the student to analyze the learning, such as:

  • Examining student work.  As students complete their daily work, they begin to identify their understanding of the concepts, see improvement in their skills, and recognize the needs to improve.  This feedback can be both individual or whole-class compilations that provide clear direction regarding current learning needs
  • Weekly check-ins (quick write or exit slips).  Checking in on student progress on big ideas /concepts/skills with just 2-3 queries will serve to guide the ongoing process of moving learning forward.

Inquiries might be:

  • Why do you think understanding this is important to your work?
  • What questions do you still have?
  • What do you need from me to guide your learning?
  • Weekly conferrals. Personally connecting and conferring with students about their work gives teachers the opportunity to extend questioning and understand the student as a learner. Modeling how to ask questions about how improve their work will lead to student agency

Step 4:  Using Intermittent skill checks: Like athletic coaches who assess the skills and levels of conditioning of players, teachers use skills checks to allow students to demonstrate their current proficiency level of a targeted skill (organization; analysis; communication; etc.)

Step 5:  Develop Purpose 2 Summative Assessments to help students determine how they will demonstrate their understandings, asking:

  • How will each student demonstrate his/her knowledge?
  • How will they develop references analogous to their life, interests, and future learning?

Step 6Transfers: How will students generate interdisciplinary transferences of concepts to new domains of learning?

For so many years, covering content is verified by assessing items within the curriculum. This focus leads to memorization and “reporting back” and demonstrating retention that can be graded. Often, once a score has been assigned, learning ends and attention shifts to new content. The link between assessment and instruction is severed.

Students become more competent with their understanding when authentic tasks (applying what has been learned) can flexibly address new and genuine issues and problems that may be encountered within and outside the school. These tasks reflect real world demands and require students to “use” the learning across differing contexts. The capability to identify and make use of patterns, trends, relationships, sources and varied perspectives will position students to adapt and grow as needed. When learners can transfer and apply knowledge and experience to interdisciplinary and real-life situations, they have demonstrated the essence of understanding well beyond answering questions correctly on a test. Analogy and transfer are relevant and sophisticated demonstrations of learning! Effective assessment is as much for students as for teachers.

Coming soon:  Stay tuned for the final segment of this DNA series, Timeless learning!  


Marr, Bernard.  “The Top 10 Most In-Demand Skills for the Next 10 Years,” Forbes, Nov. 2022.

Schmoker, Mike.  Focus: Elevating the Essentials, ASCD 2014.

Dr. Robert K. Greenleaf was formerly a professional development specialist at Brown University. Bob has 45 years of experience in education ranging from superintendent, principal, teacher, & special education.  As President of Greenleaf Learning Bob has traveled the world conducting Brain & Learning Institutes.  Dr. Bob’s doctoral work was at Vanderbilt with undergrad psychology.

Elaine M. Millen, M.Ed. C.A.G.S., has over 50 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, director of special education, curriculum director and assistant superintendent of schools.  She has taught at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.  As an educational consultant/instructional coach, she has worked countrywide with hundreds of school leaders in areas of leadership, instructional coaching, and student engagement.  She worked with Brown University as a consultant, guiding project work.

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