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Aurora Institute

Application of Learning: It Doesn’t Have To Be An Outhouse

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Courtney Belolan

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction, Create Balanced Systems of Assessments

We know that mastery happens when skills or knowledge are applied in new situations or contexts.  As adults, we have these natural opportunities all the time. For example, I’m reminded of the time I figured out that I could grind my own quinoa flour using a hand-held coffee grinder, just like I had learned to do with oats for oat flour.

In school however, we need to start making them a regular part of our student’s lives.  Asking students to apply skills and knowledge from their classes in new contexts is essential in ensuring that our students have mastered the skills and knowledge we have mapped out in our learning targets and learning progressions. We can ask our students to put their skills and knowledge to use, and it can be simple to do.

An application of learning, as my principal Bill Zima says, doesn’t have to be an outhouse. It doesn’t have to be someplace we are hesitant to go; nor does it have to be a huge, complicated project, like actually building an outhouse. The meaning of the word apply is, simply, to put to use.  Here is a process for working out how to get your students to put their skills and knowledge to use:

Step One:  Go back to the learning target(s) from your unit of study and review the reasoning level (see my earlier posts for a brush up on learning targets and reasoning levels). This is important!  You don’t want to find yourself suddenly asking students to apply skills and knowledge in a new context while using a higher reasoning level.

Step Two: Create a new assessment task at the same reasoning level, but in a different context.  The idea here is that the teacher would have evidence that a student is meeting a target before asking that student to apply their learning in a new context. Here is an example:

Target (Reasoning Level) Assessment Application
Understands the traditional leadership roles and their impact around the world(Analysis: Classifying) Sort the last 10 U.S. Presidents into categories defined by the impacts of their leadership Given a particular scenario, and four possible decisions a leader could make, as well as the immediate results of each decision, classify the decisions according to leadership-style using the chart format below


You can see how the application is this example is not an outhouse.  That task is one that should not take any longer than one class period to complete.  The reasoning level required of the task has not been altered, and the declarative knowledge in the target is still being assessed.

You say you want to build an outhouse?  The easiest way to do that is to create an interdisciplinary application, also known by the anxiety-inducing label:  a project.  Projects can get big and complicated quickly.  The best way to ensure success is to work together with your cross-content partners to make sure that each of the targets from each content area being applied in the project has been carefully considered.  In other words, you may not want to ask students to build an outhouse for math class if they haven’t explored some fundamentals of construction or structure design, or maybe even how water travels through different soil types (think drainage).

Step 3:  Select an appropriate audience.  To whom will your students show their application of knowledge?  The answer to this largely depends on the application you have created.  Keep in mind, however, that teachers and peers are a powerful and perfectly acceptable audience. There are many ways to orchestrate an in-class or in-school audience that still feels authentic; it doesn’t need to be a seemingly endless string of power-points.  An in-class exhibition hall works well.

Step 4: Write up the task and include a checklist or product descriptor if needed. Keep directions simple and clear.  This holds true for any application, project or otherwise.  Checklists and product descriptors are helpful because they separate design elements and quality factors from the actual learning targets.  Sometimes even the most efficient, well-designed outhouses can smell a little funky.


Courtney Belolan works at RSU 2 in Maine where she supports K-12 teachers with performance-based, individualized learning. Courtney works closely with teams and teachers as a coach, and with the school and district leadership teams as an instructional strategist. Courtney has worked as a 6-12 literacy and instructional coach, a middle level ELA teacher, an environmental educator, and a digital literacy coach. Her core beliefs include the idea that the best education is one centered on student passions and rooted in interdisciplinary applications, and that enjoying learning is just as important as the learning itself.