Linda Suskie

  A Common Sense Approach to Assessment & Accreditation

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Should we abolish the word "demonstrate" from our assessment lexicon?

Posted on July 15, 2018 at 7:45 AM

The word “demonstrate” in learning goals raises a red flag for me. Consider these (real) learning goals:

  • Demonstrate fundamental business and entrepreneurship skills
  • Demonstrate critical and creative thinking.
  • Demonstrate information literacy skills.
  • Demonstrate teamwork and collaboration.
  • Demonstrate ethical self-awareness.
  • Demonstrate personal responsibility.


Clearly the people who wrote these learning goals were told that they had to start with an action word. So they plopped the word “demonstrate” in front of a fuzzy goal. But adding “demonstrate” doesn’t make the goal any less fuzzy. What are “fundamental business and entrepreneurship skills”? What is “personal responsibility”? Until these concepts are stated more clearly, these learning goals remain fuzzy and therefore difficult to assess meaningfully.


Now consider these (real) learning goals:

  • Demonstrate proficiency in analyzing work-related scenarios, taking appropriate action and evaluating results of the action.
  • Demonstrate proficiency in the use of technology for collecting and analyzing information
  • Demonstrate the ability to work cooperatively with others
  • Demonstrate enhanced competencies in time management


Here the phrase “demonstrate proficiency/ability/competencies” are simply superfluous, making the learning goal unnecessarily wordy. Consider these restatements:

  • Analyze work-related scenarios, take appropriate action, and evaluate the results of the action.
  • Use technology to collect and analyze information.
  • Work cooperatively with others.
  • Manage time effectively.


Not only are they clearer but, because they’re shorter, they pack a punch; they have a better chance of engaging students and getting them enthused about their learning.


So should we abolish the word “demonstrate” from our assessment lexicon? Well, consider this (real) learning outcome:

  • Demonstrate appropriate pitch, tone and demeanor in professional settings.


If we make clear what we want students to demonstrate, using observable terms, “demonstrate” may be fine.


Now consider these (real) learning outcomes:

  • Demonstrate appropriate, professional conduct. (if you define it)
  • Demonstrate professionalism and cultural sensitivity while interacting and communicating with others.


It could be argued that these learning outcomes are a bit fuzzy. What is appropriate, professional conduct, after all? What is cultural sensitivity? But if we clarified these terms in the learning outcome, we’d come up with a pretty long list of traits—so many that the learning outcome would be too cumbersome to be effective. In these cases, I’m okay with leaving these learning outcomes as is, provided that the rubrics used to assess them explicate these terms into traits with clear, concrete language that students easily understand.


So, no, I don't think we should abolish the word "demonstrate" altogether, but think twice--or even three times--before using it.

Categories: Learning goals

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7 Comments

Reply Hem Dayal
9:25 PM on August 1, 2018 
Hi Linda
What about "Demonstrate competence in teaching" as a learning outcome in a capstone teacher ed course as well for a programme outcome in a teacher ed programme?
Reply Linda Suskie
11:50 AM on July 18, 2018 
Thank you, Michael! Great example.
Michael Heel says...
Hi Linda --

Thanks for bringing this comment to the forefront of assessment discussion.

For several years now, I have been advocating to our faculty that "demonstrate" is not interpreted properly in Bloom's, and that we should take the verb literally. If the knowledge (or more often, the skill) is observable, and can be assessed through observation, then great, let's use it. So, "Demonstrate proper use of laboratory equipment" has long been my best example of the effective use of the verb. Otherwise, I challenge folks when they use "demonstrate" to tell me "how" the student demonstrates that idea, skill, knowledge. With that conversation usually comes the appropriate verb!

Thanks for keeping everyone current!
Reply Michael Heel
10:32 AM on July 16, 2018 
Hi Linda --

Thanks for bringing this comment to the forefront of assessment discussion.

For several years now, I have been advocating to our faculty that "demonstrate" is not interpreted properly in Bloom's, and that we should take the verb literally. If the knowledge (or more often, the skill) is observable, and can be assessed through observation, then great, let's use it. So, "Demonstrate proper use of laboratory equipment" has long been my best example of the effective use of the verb. Otherwise, I challenge folks when they use "demonstrate" to tell me "how" the student demonstrates that idea, skill, knowledge. With that conversation usually comes the appropriate verb!

Thanks for keeping everyone current!
Reply Linda Suskie
7:16 PM on July 15, 2018 
Thanks, Amanda! We don't have standard assessment terminology yet, and the good side of that is every college can use whatever terms work best for its community. I use "learning goal" (and I know I'm fighting a losing battle) because I've found some people think "learning outcomes" refers to ACTUAL outcomes (i.e., assessment results) rather than INTENDED outcomes (i.e., learning goals).
Amanda Udis-Kessler says...
Super post. At Colorado College we have more or less successfully removed "demonstrate" from learning outcomes (as we call them so as not to confuse them with curricular goals) but we have found a different use for "demonstrate", namely "demonstrations of learning" (replaces assessment measures, which humanities professors have not liked so much).
Reply Linda Suskie
7:13 PM on July 15, 2018 
Good point, Steve. I've concluded that learning goals are the hardest part of assessment. Some situations need fairly specific, qualified statements, as you suggest, while others need broader, even somewhat fuzzy statements. In the latter, often a rubric can be used to explicate the goal.
Stephen Ehrmann says...
Great post, Linda! I agree with everything you said, but I'd like to add a point. Learning goals such as these, even the best ones, sound as though the skills are generic; if you're good at "demonstrating professionalism and cultural sensitivity", presumably you are good in any context. But we know that's rarely true. A person may demonstrate competence 1 (creativity, for example) in context A, but not in context B. I'm imagining 3 levels (at least):
* person is unable to demonstrate the competence in one context
* person is able to demonstrate the competence in one context but has neither succeeded or failed in demonstrating it in another context
* Person has some track record of demonstrating the competence in at least two contexts.

Does that make sense?
Reply Stephen Ehrmann
12:57 PM on July 15, 2018 
Great post, Linda! I agree with everything you said, but I'd like to add a point. Learning goals such as these, even the best ones, sound as though the skills are generic; if you're good at "demonstrating professionalism and cultural sensitivity", presumably you are good in any context. But we know that's rarely true. A person may demonstrate competence 1 (creativity, for example) in context A, but not in context B. I'm imagining 3 levels (at least):
* person is unable to demonstrate the competence in one context
* person is able to demonstrate the competence in one context but has neither succeeded or failed in demonstrating it in another context
* Person has some track record of demonstrating the competence in at least two contexts.

Does that make sense?
Reply Amanda Udis-Kessler
10:15 AM on July 15, 2018 
Super post. At Colorado College we have more or less successfully removed "demonstrate" from learning outcomes (as we call them so as not to confuse them with curricular goals) but we have found a different use for "demonstrate", namely "demonstrations of learning" (replaces assessment measures, which humanities professors have not liked so much).