Educators are faced with a major dilemma: we must teach students to solve problems that we ourselves cannot solve.
Yes, this sounds crazy, and yes, this is true. We need to equip our students to save failing democracies, prevent economic depressions, stop environmental destruction, end child hunger, and invent ways to make our water use sustainable.
If this is our goal – to equip students to tackle the complex problems of the future – then we need to assess and track student progress differently. Preparing students for the demands of the 21st century begins with one simple equation:
This means that students must “uncover” fundamental relationships between important concepts and ideas and then learn to “transfer” that learning to new situations. As we learned from researcher H. Lynn Erickson, facts rarely transfer from one situation to the next. Knowing the year that World War II began will not help a student understand the Syrian Revolution. However, conceptual understandings DO transfer and DO help students understand and respond to new situations.
There are two major implications of this for our assessment practices:
1)   We must assess and track students’ progress toward complex conceptual understandings
2)   We must assess and track students’ ability to transfer understandings to new situations
How do we assess and track students’ progress toward complex understandings? This is much simpler than it seems. We ask students to explain their understanding of the relationship between two or more concepts. Then we use a rubric to identify how deep and sophisticated their understanding is. As students investigate these concepts through class activities, experiences, readings, or experiments we ask them to stop at strategic points to explain how their understanding is growing. They track their progress on the rubric so that they (and we) can see that they are uncovering big, transferable ideas.





Independently, I can state a simplistic and vague relationship between the concepts.I need help to elaborate on and give examples of my idea. (In other words… For example…) Independently I can state, elaborate on, and give examples of a simplistic relationship between the concepts. I need help to make my idea complex and precise. (How or why?) Independently I can state, elaborate on, give examples of, and illustrate a complex and precise relationship between the concepts I need help to make my idea significant. (So what?) Independently I can state, elaborate on, give examples of, and illustrate a complex, precise, and significant relationship between the concepts.I can help others make their ideas more complex, precise, and significant.

How do we assess for transfer? This is also simple: present students with novel problems or situations and ask them to apply their understanding to the new task. The chart below shows one example.

We studied…

…to uncover this understanding…

…and transfer to this new situation…

Concepts: self-interest, human rights, sovereignty
Topic: World War II
Nations often prioritize self-interest over promoting human rights when deciding to interfere in other countries’ affairs.
How should the United States respond to genocide in Darfur?

In this case, students would uncover the relationship between self-interest, human rights, and national sovereignty by continually coming back to these ideas as they learned more about World War II. After several weeks, students would have developed complex understandings of these concepts and would have seen their understanding grow by assessing it regularly on the rubric. Once their understanding had been solidified, students would then be presented with information about a new situation (genocide in Darfur) and would have to transfer what they understood about the concepts to this novel problem.
Developing deep conceptual understandings should change the way students approach problems and develop solutions. This means that after the World War II unit, students should look at their world in a new way, view complex issues with a more discerning eye, and develop solutions that take into consideration the full range of complications involved in the situation. By giving students a chance to respond to a novel situation we can see if the understanding they developed is actually helping them approach new information in a different way.