Tag Archives: instructional Strategies

Teaching with Engaging Tasks

Engaging Tasks are an easy-to-implement, real world learning strategy that, when implemented well, many students find very motivating.  An Engaging Task tells a little story (only a paragraph or so!) that gives the students a reason for doing the work.

Don’t Play Blind Golf: Formative Feedback

I'm not a golfer (and anyone who has seen me play mini golf will attest to that! – Stop laughing, Holly and Russ!!)

But I have a pretty good idea of how the game is played. You tee up your ball, and look down the fairway to the flag, so you know where to hit your ball. You swing and watch where the ball goes and reflect on your swing and how you can better direct the ball where you want it to go. Then you walk to the ball and try again, until you get it in the hole.

You don't play the game blindfolded.

But largely the way we use assessment in schools, especially testing, is playing golf blindfolded. We let you see the ball, have you put on your blindfold, tell you which direction the hole is, and you swing. Then we tell you what grade you got, and go on to the next hole.

This is called summative assessment. It tells us where a student is in their learning right at the moment. Traditionally, it is used right at the end of a chapter or unit.

Lately, it has been used as part of the rhetoric about accountability. (Which, by the way, if it were anything more than rhetoric, Russia would be a world-class economic powerhouse, since their students have traditionally done well on standardized tests…)

But it is formative assessment that helps us drive learning. It's that assessment that a student gets while they are learning that helps them get better. In fact, the word “assessment” is so often connected to grading, in a negative way, that lots of educators prefer to call it “formative feedback.”

The metaphor of playing golf helps highlight three critical components of formative feedback:

  • A Clear Target or Expectation: Learners need to know what they are aiming at, just as the flag down the fairway tells the golfer where the hole is.
  • Timely and Detailed Feedback: Learners need to see immediately how they did with meeting the target. They can gather the feedback themselves, such as watching where the ball goes, or a guide or coach can provide the feedback (or both). But that feedback needs to be as immediate as possible, and needs to be detailed enough to lead to improved performance.
  • Multiple Opportunities for Success: Learners need the opportunity to make corrections on their next turn, and the next turn needs to be soon after the current turn. This isn't about letting students just try and try and try until they get it. It is about strategically leveraging the clear target and the detailed feedback to improve their performance.

So even though summative assessment is getting so much attention in educational circles right now, lets not forget that formative feedback is the educational powerhouse.

Don't play golf blind!

Getting Better at Engaging Tasks Through Revision.

A great way to get better at Engaging Tasks is to use the criteria for great Engaging Tasks to critique and revise other Tasks. (I’m not sure that I would say that all Tasks are Engaging Tasks! – or, at least, they don’t all start out that way.)

For example, look at this Task:

Imagine that you are living during the Great Depression and that your classmates have decided to put together a time capsule for students of the future to use to learn and understand what life was like during the Great Depression.

Lets start by looking at this critically with an eye to the criteria for Engaging Tasks.

  • Standards-based: Yes.
  • All 3 pieces – Scenario, Role, & Task: Task, yes: put together a time capsule. Role: sort of: you are someone living during the Great Depression. Compelling scenario, not really: the Task doesn’t really provide much more of a context for doing this than you and your classmates have decided to do it…
  • In the form of a “story”- no “teacher talk”: Not written like a little story. Reads like a teacher’s assignment. “Imagine that you are…” “your classmates” are teacher talk, and clues that the Task needs to be revised.
  • HOTS – Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, Create: Could be, depending on how it is framed.
  • Students: authentic or believable: Yes, people do leave time capsules for others to open in the future.
  • Students: interesting or of significance: Mostly: some would clearly enjoy working on this, but there are others who would not. This could be because the Task doesn’t have all three pieces. Often the compelling scenario helps with this.

So if we were to revise this task, we would likely work on the following:

  • Make sure the Task has a compelling scenario and a stronger role
  • Rewrite it as a story, and remove the teacher talk
  • Make sure the Higher Order Thinking focus is more clearly articulated in the activity the students need to complete
  • Double check that the new version would seem significant and interesting to students (or at least more so than the current version)

A new version of the Task might look like this:

It is 1936 and as part of the New Deal, your town is building a new Town Hall. The mayor has issued a challenge to all the school children to help create a time capsule that will be put in the corner stone of the Town Hall then opened far in the future. Your teacher has broken your class into teams of 4 and 5 students and each team needs to help identify the best items to include in the time capsule. The best ideas will be included in the actual time capsule.

How does this version of the Task fare against the criteria? I’ll let you decide, but here are a couple of my thoughts. I’m hesitant to write tasks where the student is a student (I tend to find more engaging the ones where students can imagine themselves in a different role), but this Task already had them as students; whereas I didn’t mind revising this Task, I didn’t want to totally rewrite it. There is now a compelling scenario (new Town Hall and the Mayor’s challenge). The whole thing is written as a story (ok, there is a little teacher talk here, but not the author telling the reader, rather the teacher is a character in this story – see my comments above about students in the role of students…). And “Which is best?” is a short-cut question for getting to higher order thinking (analysis and evaluation).

How might you now get practice getting better with Engaging Tasks through revision?

Maybe you and a group of colleagues are working to write your own Engaging Tasks. You could swap drafts and critique each other’s, offering suggestions for revisions.

This Engaging Tasks Feedback Form might be helpful.

Or you could look for WebQuests with Tasks in need of critiquing and revising, and practice your skills on them.

Or you could use these sample elementary Engaging Tasks or these sample high school and middle school Engaging Tasks to practice critique and revision.



What Makes for a Great Engaging Task?

Here’s another example of an Engaging Task:

You have been hired by Paramount’s King’s Island to research the roller coasters of Ohio, and then to come up with an idea for a new coaster. King’s Island wants to build a new roller coaster, but needs to know what its competition is. It also wants you to examine its existing coasters to see what types of coasters it does not have. After you examine the competition, you will come up with an idea for a new coaster. You will submit this idea in writing and also with a drawing.

Engaging Tasks are an easy-to-implement, real world learning strategy. Instead of simply assigning a task or assignment to the students, an Engaging Task tells a little story (only a paragraph or so!) that gives the students a reason for doing the work.

If this is a good one, what makes it good?

I think there are 6 criteria for a really good Engaging Task:

  1. Does it relate to your curriculum? Is it Standards-based?
  2. Do you have the 3 pieces? (Scenario, Role, & Task)
  3. Is it in the form of a “story”? (no procedural steps, or “teacher talk”)
  4. Does it focus on Higher Order Thinking? (Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, Create)
  5. Will students find it authentic or believable?
  6. Would students find it interesting or of significance?

Lets look at this example through the lense of these six criteria.

Standards-based: Like many Engaging Tasks, this one comes from a WebQuest. In the Teacher Section of this WebQuest, the teacher/author explains that it is an upper elementary assignment to apply learnings from physics. But looking at the Process Page and Resources Page will show you that the content could also be data collection and data analysis. If you were teaching Complex Reasoning, it could also be an exercise for a student to demonstrate prowess in analysis or design.

All 3 pieces – Scenario, Role, & Task: An amusement park wants to build a new roll coaster. The students are roller coaster designers. They have to analyze the competition and design a new roller coaster. Yes, all three pieces.

In the form of a “story”- no “teacher talk”: Yes, this Task just tells the story. All the specifics, directions, and resources are saved for the Process Page and Resources Page.

HOTS – Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, Create: Yes, students have to analyze data that they collect, and create (design) a new roller coaster.

Students: authentic or believable: These students will be using real data from real amusement parks. If this was produced for students who live near these Ohio amusement parks, the Task is even more authentic!

Students: interesting or of significance: Students love roller coasters (or at least watching others on roller coasters)! It’s not unusual for a class to have a field trip to an amusement park as part of working on a project like this.

So it looks like this Engaging Task does a pretty good job of meeting the criteria!

The 3 parts of an Engaging Task

Here is an example of an Engaging Task.

It is modern day, and you are on the jury for the trial of Macbeth. Macbeth is being tried for the murder of the King. You will be deciding whether or not Lord Macbeth is guilty or innocent, and how he should be held responsible for his actions. Be prepared to defend your decision to the other jury members.

Engaging Tasks are a really versatile and powerful instructional strategy with their roots in WebQuests. An Engaging Task is essentially a brief story that provides context and a reason for the students to learn what they are about to learn and do what they are about to do. (Don't you think this is way more interesting to a student than just asking her to write an essay about if they think Macbeth should be found guilty or not?)

There are three key pieces to an Engaging Task:

  • The compelling scenario
  • A role for the student
  • The thing for the students to do

Take a second and look at the example above.

What's the compelling scenario? What's the context for the student's work?

What's the role of the student? Who is the student in the story?

What is the thing that the student has to do? What is the student expected to produce?


Go ahead. Take a little time and decide on your answers to these three questions. I'll wait for you…


So what did you decide? What did you say the scenario was? The trial of Macbeth? Who is the student? Did you say juror? And what does the student have to do? Did you say decide on guilt or innocence?

Notice a couple other things, too. Our little story is just a story and the student is just a character in that story (there is no reference to the class, or to the student being a student – they are just other jury members). And there are no directions in our little story (put step by step directions in a separate document). Part of what makes Engaging Tasks engaging is the fact that the student's imagination is turned loose in the task. Just like you don't want to go to a Civil War reenactment where the soldiers are wearing sneakers, you don't want your class or assignment sneaking back into your Task.

You can explore tasks by browsing through Webquests. See if you can identify the scenario, student role, and thing to do in each.