How Depth of Knowledge Drives Learning and Assessment

depth of knowledge
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Depth of Knowledge—also referred to as DOK— refers to the depth of understanding required to answer or explain an assessment-related item or a classroom activity. The concept of depth of knowledge was developed in the 1990s through research by Norman L. Webb, a scientist at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research.

DOK Background

Webb originally developed depth of knowledge for mathematics and science standards. However, the model has been expanded and used in language arts, mathematics, science, and history/social studies. His model has increasingly become more popular in state assessment circles.

The complexity of an assessment task is increasingly more difficult because the level often increases requiring multiple steps to complete. Does this mean that learning and assessment should not include level 1 tasks? On the contrary, learning and assessment should include a diversified set of tasks requiring students to exhibit a range of problem-solving skills within each level of complexity. Webb identified four distinct depth of knowledge levels.

Level 1

Level 1 includes basic recall of facts, concepts, information, or procedures—the rote learning or memorization of facts—an essential component of learning. Without a strong foundation of basic knowledge, students find it difficult to perform more complex tasks. Mastering level 1 tasks builds a foundation allowing students to attempt to complete higher-level tasks successfully.

An example of level 1 knowledge would be: Grover Cleveland was the 22nd president of the United States, serving from 1885 to 1889. Cleveland was also the 24th president from 1893 to 1897.

Level 2

Level 2 depth of knowledge includes skills and concepts such as the use of information (graphs) or solving problems that require two or more steps with decision points along the way. The foundation of level 2 is that it often requires multiple steps to solve. You must be able to take what is there and fill in certain gaps. Students cannot simply recall the answer though some prior knowledge, as is the case with level 1. Students must be able to explain "how" or "why" in level 2 items.

An example of a level 2 DOK would be: Compare and contrast a composite, cinder cone, and shield volcano.

Level 3

Level 3 DOK includes strategic thinking that requires reasoning and is abstract and complex. Students must analyze and evaluate complex real-world problems with predictable outcomes. They must be able to reason their way through the problem logically. Level 3 questions often require students to pull from multiple subject areas using a range of skills to come up with a solution that works.

An example would be: Write a persuasive essay, citing evidence from other sources such as text, to convince your school principal to allow students to have and use their cell phones in class.

Level 4

Level 4 includes extended thinking such as an investigation or application to solve complex real-world problems with unpredictable outcomes. Students must strategically analyze, evaluate, and reflect over time often having to change their approach on their way to coming up with an amicable solution.

An example of this level of knowledge would be: Invent a new product or create a solution that solves a problem or helps make things easier for someone within the confines of your school.

DOK in the Classroom

Most classroom assessments consist of level 1 or level 2 type questions. Level 3 and 4 assessments are more complex to develop, and they are also more difficult for teachers to score. Yet, students need to be exposed to a variety of tasks at differing levels of complexity to learn and grow.

Level 3 and 4 activities are challenging in different ways for both students and teachers, but they also offer many benefits that level 1 and level 2 activities cannot provide. Teachers would be best served by using a balanced approach when deciding how to implement depth of knowledge into their classrooms.