The term demonstration of learning refers to a wide variety of potential educational projects, presentations, or products through which students “demonstrate” what they have learned, usually as a way of determining whether and to what degree they have achieved expected learning standards or learning objectives for a course or learning experience. A demonstration of learning is typically both a learning experience in itself and a means of evaluating academic progress and achievement.
Defining demonstration of learning is complicated by the fact that educators use many different terms when referring to the general concept, and the terms may or may not be used synonymously from place to place. For example, the terms capstone exhibition, culminating exhibition, learning exhibition, exhibition of learning, performance exhibition, senior exhibition, or student exhibition may be used, in addition to capstone, capstone experience, capstone project, learning demonstration, performance demonstration, and many others. Educators may also create any number of homegrown terms for demonstrations of learning—far too many to catalog here.
In contrast to worksheets, quizzes, tests, and other more traditional approaches to assessment, a demonstration of learning may take a wide variety of forms in schools:
- Oral presentations, speeches, or spoken-word poems
- Video documentaries, multimedia presentations, audio recordings, or podcasts
- Works of art, illustration, music, drama, dance, or performance
- Print or online publications, including websites or blogs
- Essays, poems, short stories, or plays
- Galleries of print or digital photography
- Scientific experiments, studies, and reports
- Physical products such as a models, sculptures, dioramas, musical instruments, or robots
- Portfolios of work samples and academic accomplishments that students collect over time
- Presentations or slideshows that provide a summary of the skills and knowledge students have learned
Generally speaking, there are two primary forms of learning demonstrations:
- A project, presentation, product, or portfolio that teachers use as a form of summative assessment—i.e., an evaluation of student learning, skill acquisition, and academic achievement at the conclusion of a defined instructional period, such as a unit, project, course, semester, program, or school year.
- A multifaceted assignment that serves as a culminating academic and intellectual experience for students, typically during their final year of high school or middle school, or at the end of an academic program or learning-pathway experience (Note: A culminating demonstration of learning may also be used as a form of “summative” assessment). See capstone project for a more detailed discussion.
Schools and educators may use demonstrations of learning as a component of a wide variety of educational and instructional strategies, such as authentic learning, community-based learning, project-based learning, or proficiency-based learning, to name just a few. While demonstrations of learning are diverse in design, purpose, content, and execution, they are typically evaluated against a common set of criteria or standards, using a rubric or set of scoring guidelines, to ensure consistency during the evaluation process from student to student or demonstration to demonstration, or to determine whether and to what extent students have achieved expected learning standards for a particular assignment, lesson, project, or course. Demonstrations of learning may be evaluated by a teacher or group of teachers, but in some cases review teams or panels of peers, community members, and outside experts—such as local business leaders or scientists—contribute to the evaluation process or provide students with constructive feedback. Some demonstrations of learning are even public events open to anyone in a school community. Students may also be asked to provide a formal reflection on what they have learned and created that describes how well they did in meeting either required or self-imposed learning goals.
Demonstrations of learning are typically designed to encourage students to think critically, solve challenging problems, and develop important skills and work habits such as written and oral communication, public speaking, research, teamwork, planning, self-sufficiency, goal setting, or technological and online literacy—i.e., skills that will help better prepare them for college, modern careers, and adult life. Demonstrations of learning may be “interdisciplinary” in the sense that they require students to apply skills or investigate issues across many different subject areas or domains of knowledge. Demonstrations of learning may also encourage students to connect their projects to community issues or problems (also see relevance), or to integrate outside-of-school learning experiences, including activities such interviews, scientific observations, or internships (also see learning pathway).
It is important to note that demonstrations of learning are typically purposeful teaching strategies designed to achieve specific educational outcomes—i.e., they are not merely “show and tell” opportunities. For example, demonstrations of learning can help teachers determine whether students have acquired skills that cannot be easily evaluated by traditional tests or papers, including the ability to apply skills and knowledge learned in one subject area—such as English language arts, math, or history—to problems in other subject areas or domains. For example: Can students write articulately and persuasively about a complex scientific theory or topic? Can students apply mathematical formulas in a spreadsheet to compile and analyze data and results from a laboratory experiment? Can students research the history of a scientific concept and explain how understanding of the concept changed over time as research findings provided new insights and information? In addition, demonstrations of learning also allow students to show what they have learned in multiple or multifaceted ways. For example, teachers may give students the choice to write a paper, produce a multimedia presentation, or deliver a lecture on a concept. Students may also create a slideshow that describes all the work products they created and the knowledge and skills they learned over the course of a semester or school year.
Although demonstrations of learning can vary widely in structure, purpose, evaluation criteria, and learning objectives from school to school, they commonly require students to present, explain, or defend their project design, theory or action, or results (as in the case of a scientific experiment, for example). Whether students solve a complicated math problem, write a position paper on a social issue, design a working robot, or produce a work of art, drama, or engineering, demonstrations of learning require them to articulate their ideas and respond to questions and inquiries from teachers or other reviewers. A few examples will help to illustrate these general instructional intentions:
- Writing, directing, and filming a public-service announcement that will be aired on public-access television.
- Designing and building a product, computer program, app, or robot to address a specific need, such as assisting the disabled.
- Interning at a nonprofit organization or a legislator’s office to learn more about strategies and policies intended to address social problems, such as poverty, hunger, or homelessness.
- Conducting a scientific study over several months or a year to determine the ecological or environmental impact of changes to a local habitat.
- Researching an industry or market, and creating a viable business plan for a proposed company that is then “pitched” to a panel of local business leaders.
While some critics may be skeptical of the educational value or benefits of demonstrations of learning (and related strategies), most criticism of or debate about demonstrations of learning is not focused on the strategy itself, or its intrinsic or potential educational value, but rather on the quality of its execution—i.e., demonstrations of learning tend to be criticized when they are poorly designed, when reflect low academic standards, or when students are allowed to complete relatively superficial projects of low educational value. In addition, if teachers and students consider demonstrations of learning to be a formality, rather than an important educational strategy, students may produce lower-quality products as a result. And if the projects, presentations, and products students produce reflect consistently low standards and quality year after year, educators, students, parents, and other may come to view demonstrations of learning as a waste of time or resources.