Assessing 21st Century Skills

Recently, one of the teachers who is participating in our district’s 21st Century Learning grant project came to talk with me about assessing 21 century skills – one of the expectations for teachers in this project. Her observation was that students frequently practice the skills when engaged in research or project based learning.  The thing she was struggling, with, though, was how to “grade it.”

Assessing skills like collaboration, information literacy, creativity, self-direction, and critical thinking seems like a difficult task–when you think of assessment as “grading.”  To understand what is meant by assessment of 21st century skills we need to examine the term “assessment.”  At its core, assessment should be thought of as an opportunity to give feedback. Without giving students specific, targeted feedback on how they are performing these skills, students will have little opportunity to understand how to improve their level of creativity, become better researchers through increased information literacy skills, become better at collaborating with groups for project creation and problem solving, or develop good habits of mind to become self-directed learners.  Feedback is critical to help students improve.  Another essential element is to design learning that gives students authentic opportunities to practice the skills.

So to effectively assess skills and habits of mind –we must design a performance task for the students. An assessment director in my school district once said, “If you want to assess if a student can play basketball, you don’t give him a multiple choice test!”  How valid would a multiple choice test be in telling us if the student could pull together all of his knowledge and skill, to actually collaborate with his teammates and perform during a live game with an audience? If you’re thinking multiple choice tests won’t work in the basketball scenario –then you also need to think again about what assessment of 21st century skills should look like.

One of the most difficult tasks of designing an effective formative assessment tool for 21st century skills is deciding what criteria should be included. The criteria should be descriptive enough to provide guidance to students of things they can do to improve that particular skill.   For example, if you were trying to put in kid friendly language a formative assessment tool of the 21st century skill of creativity, we need to think about what processes and habits of mind contribute to being creative.

These items become the criteria upon which a rubric or checklist can be built. As you can see, these items are not necessarily things that you can assess in one project. Additionally, they might be best used in self-evaluation, followed up with conferencing for an opportunity to give more in-depth verbal feedback.

Another great strategy for building a formative assessment of 21st century skills is to seek input from the students.  Brainstorm as a class what they think contributes to increased creativity, self-direction, collaboration, etc.

There are many excellent resources available via the Web to begin the process of creating a formative assessment tool for a particular skill. My favorite is the Intel Assessing Projects Database.  (click on “workspace” to create a free account – then explore the library of hundreds of formative assessment tools for 21st century skills!) I have also assembled several formative assessment tools of the 21st century skills on my wiki which you are welcome to access and use.

Additionally, below you will find my slides from a workshop I have created on assessing 21st century skills.

Author: Nancy White

Learner, Curator, Innovator, Teacher, Librarian, and Collaborator. Passionate about designing learning that is engaging, relevant & sticks. 20+ years in education.

45 thoughts on “Assessing 21st Century Skills”

  1. Excellent article-all involved in education should take note otherwise we will stay behind….our learners will become the lecturers!


    1. Adriana,
      Your statement sent a chill up my spine. I think you are right though – the cycle continues, doesn’t it?


  2. This is an excellent article, and if we had good schools, we would follow it. But with 30+ students in a class the instructor can’t possibly follow this guideline. I reccoment the book “TEACHING KIDS TO FAIL”. Our American educationalk system is failing and need to be restructured.


    1. Allan, I absolutely agree that our education system needs restructuring. And I also recognize that teachers have less and less autonomy in designing learning for their students, and that their class sizes keep increasing. However, any teacher who says they don’t have time to give feedback is not really teaching. It is absolutely essential for students to learn. The question is, how much do educational institutions value helping students to develop 21st century skills? I suspect that while this is getting a lot of lip service lately, because these skills are not addressed through standardized tests – they will continue to be a low priority. This is the heart of the problem.


  3. I agree about everything you wrote but I think it is not enough. First assessing is even more difficult for the students to accept than for the teacher to adapt/change. Giving a feedback is essential, though it is time-consuming. But my question is how do you manage to teach the students who learned “the good old way” and got good marks for being “good learners” to accept to get a feedback like “you obviously learned the lesson (you know the rules, you know the vocabulary…) but you don’t know yet how to make use of it”. And how do you assess a team work? How do you train students to get better in a certain skill (like autonomy for instance) when you only see them 2-3 hours a week and inbetween sport and maths or sleepy at 8 am. Assessing is so related to the teaching and to each student’s skill/ability that it is hard to assess a student when you sometimes have to assess yourself (cause you realize you put the stress on the wrong part e.g.) or when the students have other difficulties that are not related to your teaching (but perhaps to what they learned before or to other issues). The discussion is definitly not over yet…


    1. You ask some very good questions. Certainly, the very fact that someone would assess 21st century skills suggests a shift in what teaching and learning looks like in that classroom. Because designing learning that allows students to be able to practice 21st century skills requires active learning- problem solving, and creating, it requires a shift in how students obtain knowledge and understanding. This is not done in addition to traditional direct instruction methods. It is a complete overhaul of what daily learning looks like in the classroom. This is work that the teachers in my grant project have been engaged in for at least 2 years.


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