Problem Solving Classroom

Tips from a Master Teacher (This is a work in progress.)

Assessing Challenging Problems

by Mark Illingworth
Assessing Challenging Problems
Assess to Encourage

The goal of assessment from the students’ perspective should be to support them—not to slap a label on them. In fact, that’s really the goal of all we do, right? Assessing students’ work should help them understand where they need more practice or assistance so that they can understand better. Our assessments should also encourage students when they take on new challenges.

Safety Net

If we were to ask students to try a double flip off a trapeze, we would put a safety net under them so that they will feel a sense of victory when they succeed but would be safe when they fell. In other words, we wouldn’t put rocks, shards of glass, and rusty nails under the trapeze. (This is one of the reasons that I used the name Trapeze Education for my honor’s classes.) Sometime—and I’m guilty of this as well—we put our more difficult problems on a test where the stakes are high, or we use points and percentages as though they are a part of a foolproof system handed down from the heavens.

Success or Not

I have seen the materials I share with other teachers through Trapeze succeed, but I have also seen classes in which the challenging problems are not welcomed by students. What makes the difference is how the teacher assesses challenges. Students in kindergarten joyfully take on challenges because they have not yet learned that taking on something difficult comes with unpleasant consequences—both at home and in school—when they don’t get it right. Failure needs to be a viable option in a healthy growing environment, but it doesn’t have to come with a punitive price.

The Problem with Percentages

So what does all of this look like in practice? Let’s say I gave the students Snakes on a Plain. There are 20 questions. A student who gets 15 of these questions will earn a 75%, which is a C. I think we both know that this student is not going to come away from this experience either feeling proud or looking forward to the next time I give him difficult work. This just seems all wrong to me. If you look at the assignment is by design a challenging set of problems. My goal is to ask my students to think analytically and even creatively. My intention was never for students to get everything right—especially the first time through. This student deserves to feel good about being able to figure out three quarters of the work, but by giving him a 75%, I have failed to encourage him and make him excited about future challenges.

The whole percentage-grade system is random. Nobody can convince me otherwise. And it is completely inappropriate for an assignment of this type. Clearly, we need something else.

I don’t have the answer to end all answers here. What I do have are ideas. I’ll share with you a few things that either I have done or my colleagues have done. I’m hoping that people will use the reply space for submitting their ideas. Although I welcome criticism on most entries in this blog, in this case I’m going to ask you to hold those kinds of comments back so that we can make this a constructive forum on alternative assessment idea.

Sharing Ideas

One simple change that you can make—if you want to hang onto a point system—is to give the students unlimited or multiple tries. Then the emphasis is on solving the problem and not a grade for your book. Students are encouraged to dig deeper and to persevere through a struggle.

Another approach is to provide narrative feedback. As in the previous approach, students work towards solutions even if they don’t get them the first try. The difference is that all your feedback has to do with their progress. You’ll notice in the assignment that this works well with the built-in check ins with the teacher.

My favorite approach, which is part of a more elaborate classroom grading scheme, is to award bonus points for solving the individual Challenges in the assignment, which each consist of a few problems. My students started from a base grade for getting work done, and then their base grade went up with the earned Challenge points. This system is too complicated to describe here in detail, but you are welcome to download the actual grading plan I gave my students.

I’m hoping you have techniques that you have found effective that you’re willing to share. Or maybe you get a new idea that you’d like to suggest so that others can try it. Either way, I welcome you to use the contact link to send ideas that you don't mind my sharing here.

Article Topics

In a Nutshell


The goal of assessment should be to support students, not to label them—or worse—to "stump" them.


If we ask students to do difficult things, we should support them. After all, you're on belay.


Failure needs to be a viable and respected option within a healthy challenging environment.


Points and percentages are really just arbitrary measures.


New ideas are welcomed. Use the Contact link.

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