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Upgrade your Assessments to Performance Tasks with Understanding by DesignⓇ

Upgrade your Assessments to Performance Tasks with Understanding by DesignⓇ

April 24, 2023

Why update? 

In a world where information is constantly updated, just a click away, and AI chatbots like ChatGPT can produce answers across many knowledge domains, today’s employability skills require more complex higher-order reasoning, critical and creative thinking, and the ability to communicate effectively. 


Therefore, as a teacher, I need to ask – how do I make my assessment tasks more valid, authentic, meaningful, useful, and relevant for my students?


In the Understanding by Design (UbD) framework, “we contend that to remain relevant, education must shift from a coverage orientation, which emphasizes acquiring factual knowledge and basic skills, to a performance-based curriculum that stresses application—transfer—of learning.” (McTighe, Doubet & Carbaugh, 2020). 

Performance tasks and projects are also likely to be more interesting for students and thus more motivating and provide evidence of deeper understanding.

What is a performance task?

In its essence, a performance task asks students to “perform” with their learning—to apply their learning, to transfer their learning to new situations. More specifically, “we define a performance task as any learning activity or assessment that asks students to construct a multifaceted response, create a product, or produce a demonstration—in other words, to perform with their learning.” (McTighe, Doubet & Carbaugh, 2020). 

A transfer performance task assesses students' ability to use their learning in new and relevant ways. We are sending students the message, your thinking about the content matters and positions the students as creators rather than just curators.

Performance tasks can be shorter classroom tasks or longer projects. Here are some examples from our work around the world.

At the classroom task level:

Maths curriculum statement: Collect, organize, record, analyse, and display data.


Collect data about…(your peers’ “favourites,” such as music, movies, video games, actors, school subjects, hobbies, foods, beverages, etc.).  Organise and analyse the results. Decide an effective method to present your findings (e.g., a blog, poster, article, podcast).


In a Year 2 Humanities and Social Sciences, students are pursuing a curriculum inquiry question How are people connected to their place and other places, past or present?


Using the results of internet research and enquiries at home, they compile a class map of the world, affixing images to identify the sources of everyday products and resources found in their own homes. 


The map provides a striking picture of how globally connected Australians are in their daily lives. The class discusses the resulting benefits (e.g., ownership of an unprecedented number of appliances) and adverse effects (e.g., environmental effects of production, transport, use, and disposal). (in Gilbert, Tudball & Brett, 2020)

UbD provides a useful acronym for framing larger performance tasks:


  a real-world Goal


  a meaningful Role for the student


  authentic (or simulated) Audience(s)


  a contextualized Situation that involves real-world application


  student-generated Products and Performances


  performance Standards (criteria) by which successful performance would be judged.

Here are some examples of larger summative performance tasks using the framework:

H&PE Fitness consultant

You are a fitness consultant for a local health club. Your task is to design a fitness program for a client (LTAD program; athletes entering the 24-hour challenge; own client). You will need to establish client specifications – age, height, weight, fitness goals, etc. and, using our fitness planning format, design a 16-week fitness program for strength, endurance, and flexibility. 

Explain how your selection of aerobic, anaerobic, and stretching exercises will help your client meet the goal. Be prepared to demonstrate the proper technique for all recommended exercises and stretches (St. Andrews College).

Year 11 Chemistry

You are a scientific researcher hired by a local group of expert mountain climbers training to complete the Seven Summits Challenge - the challenge of climbing the highest point in each of the seven continents.


Hypoxia is the set of symptoms (headache, fatigue, nausea) that comes from a lack of oxygen in body tissues. Mountain climbers often feel it as they ascend altitude quickly. 


Sherpas, long-time residents of high altitudes, seem to feel no hypoxic discomfort. Why might that be? The group wants to know and benefit from the knowledge.


Design a series of experiments to test the difference in hypoxic symptoms between mountain climbers and Sherpas. Explain using chemical equilibrium in which high altitude causes hypoxia in the climbers. 


  • How can Sherpas avoid these symptoms? 
  • How can you test for these possibilities? 
  • What would a positive test look like? 
  • What inherent errors would you have to be aware of?

Design and Technology

The Problem: your little brothers and sisters are getting into the family lolly jar and taking a large number at a time. You have to design a means for them only getting one lolly out at a time. 


Brief: To solve the problem, you are to design and make a gumball machine to hold small gumballs and to be able to obtain the gumballs by rotating the nose of the gumball machine’s face. You are to design the faces for four possible solutions on the blank spaces provided within this assignment and select the most appropriate for your design of the gumball machine you will make. 


Features such as the shape and size of the nose, eyes, ears, or moustache need to be included. You can use the wood lathe and other equipment in the woodwork room to make your gumball machine. When you have completed your project, you are to take a photograph of the finished project and fill out the evaluation questions. 


When finished, you could improve your outcome level by sketching the finished project in oblique projection. (Wesley College, Perth)

Botanical Design (upper elementary) 

Your landscape architectural firm is competing for a grant to redesign a public space in your community and to improve its appearance and utility. The goal of the grant is to create a community area where people can gather to enjoy themselves and the native plants of the region. The grant also aspires to educate people about the types of trees, shrubs, and flowers native to the region. 


Your team will be responsible for selecting a public place in your area that you can improve for visitors and members of the community. You will have to research the selected area, create a scale drawing of the area layout you plan to redesign, propose a new design to include native plants of your region and prepare educational materials that you will incorporate into the design. 


Check out the full performance task at Defined STEM: Botanical Design Performance Task. Defined STEM is an online resource offering hundreds of tasks aligned with curriculum.

In Summary

A final word from ChatGPT, "transfer performance tasks offer a unique way of assessing student learning that promotes higher-order thinking, problem-solving, and the application of knowledge and skills to real-world scenarios. It encourages students to become independent learners who can transfer their learning to any context. 


However, transfer performance tasks require careful design and scoring rubrics to ensure reliability and validity. Educators can enhance learning and student achievement by incorporating transfer performance tasks in their assessments.” (ChatGPT, personal communication April 14, 2023)

About the Author

Janelle McGann is a Customer Success Manager with Eduplanet21. In addition, she is a consultant, lecturer, and training associate for McTighe (UbD), Tomlinson (Differentiation), and Hawker Brownlow Education in Australia.


Gilbert, R., Tudball, L. & Brett, P. Teaching Humanities and Social Sciences. 7th Edition. Cengage, 2020.

McTighe, J., Doubet, K.J. & Carraugh, E.M., Designing Authentic Performance Tasks and Projects: Tools for Meaningful Learning and Assessment. ASCD, 2020.

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