Changing how we think about assessment: Learning vs. doing

Does language shape thought? In other words, do the words we use to talk about ideas and concepts impact how we think about those ideas and concepts?

Although many educational researchers and educators do not differentiate between them, the Ontario assessment and evaluation policy, Growing Success, is careful to define the difference between “assessment” and “evaluation”. Assessment is defined as the “process of gathering information that accurately reflects how well a student is achieving the curriculum expectations in a subject or course” (p. 28), whereas evaluation is “the process of judging the quality of student learning on the basis of established performance standards (see Chapter 3) and assigning a value to represent that quality” (p. 38). 

Other language distinctions also exist, and have been a source of confusion or misunderstanding for many: the terms “assessment for learning, assessment as learning, assessment of learning” immediately come to mind. 

We’re convinced that these distinctions do matter, because the ways we talk about something — the words that we use to describe it — impact the way we think about that thing. Turns out that there is evidence to back this up. Lera Boroditsky is an associate professor of Cognitive Science at the University of California, San Diego. She has studied whether people who speak different languages think about concepts differently. She finds that “language is central to our experience of being human, and the languages we speak profoundly shape the way we think, the way we see the world, the way we live our lives.”

Since we also know that assessment can have significant positive impacts on learning, whereas evaluation can bring learning to a grinding halt, it is hugely important that we are clear on the difference, both when we are talking about these processes, as well as when we enact them. This is why we have urged educators to lessen the focus on evaluation and grading, and increase the focus on assessment and responsive teaching and learning.

Something we have noticed is how educators use the words “doing” and “learning” in a learning context. For example,

  • Sharing the learning goal, stating, “Good morning. Here’s our agenda for today – what we’ll be doing in our lesson.” 
  • Monitoring learning, asking the learner, “Tell me what you’re doing.” while circulating as students work. 
  • Giving feedback that starts with, “This is what you need to do next.” 

Imagine if each of these statements replaced “doing” with “learning”.

  • “Here’s our goal for today – what we’ll be learning in our lesson.”
  • “Tell me what you’re learning.”
  • “This is what you need to learn next.” 

This habit of emphasizing “doing” over “learning” extends beyond school too. How many times have you heard parents ask (or have you asked) children, “What did you do in school today?” rather than “What did you learn in school today?

It seems like an inconsequential distinction; yet, we imagine that making the switch from “doing” to “learning” would convey the purpose of the activity (to learn something), rather than just the completion of the activity (to get something done).

In fact, the focus on doing often shows up in learning goals and success criteria. Here’s an example of a learning goal and success criteria identified in a lesson for a Grade 2 class Language class:

Ontario Language Curriculum Expectations:

  1.   Read and demonstrate an understanding of a variety of literary, graphic, and informational texts, using a range of strategies to construct meaning; 

1.6 extend understanding of texts by connecting the ideas in them to their own knowledge and experience, to other familiar texts, and to the world around them 

Learning Goals: Today we will:

  • Reread “The Three Little Pigs”.
  • Read “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs”.
  • Complete an activity to show our understanding of text-to-text connections.

Success Criteria:

  • I can finish my Text-to-Text Connection activity sheet.
  • I included the title of each book.
  • I told how the books are the same and different.

How might this information change if the focus were on “learning” rather than “doing”?

Learning Goals: We are learning to understand what we read by making connections to our experiences, other texts, and the world around us.

Success Criteria:

  • I can tell how two stories are the same.
  • I can tell how two stories are different.
  • I can give an example from the story to explain my thinking.
  • I can tell how a story reminds me of another story I have read.

green runner smallOne last thought and a call to action:

Let’s remember that, while we do ask learners to “do” activities, the point of the “doing” is learning. Let’s carefully choose our words to emphasize that important point. How often do you refer to “doing” rather than “learning”? Will you commit to trying to emphasize the learning over the doing? A small change can make a big difference!


Ontario Ministry of Education. (2006). The Ontario curriculum, Grades 1–8: Language. Toronto: Author. Available at

Ontario Ministry of Education (2010). Growing success: Assessment, evaluation, and reporting in Ontario schools. Toronto: Ontario. Available at


One comment

  1. Thanks for the reminder of the importance of the language when creating learning goals and success criteria. It is important to highlight the learning and not the doing.


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