If you’re an educator, you’ll know the word rigor by now and what it means to your student’s education.

But you may wonder if some tactics and approaches could increase rigor while encouraging dynamic and innovative learning designed to improve engagement levels. We believe there is and that it’s through categorizing your academic tasks according to the complexity of thought. We believe this will allow you to gain insight into your student’s mental requirements throughout your different tasks, which will grant you the perspective you need to create a rich learning experience for all your students. An easy way to do this is using Webb’s ‘Depth of Knowledge’.

This article will provide an insightful guide to understanding Webb’s depth of knowledge and offer exercises and tips for implementing it into your classroom and your learning plans.

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What is Webb’s Depth of Knowledge

To fully understand the approach of the depth of knowledge as developed by Webb, we must first understand when it is used and why. To do this, you need to consider calculating cognitive depth as essential in educating young minds. For teachers, arguably, the most critical question is one of practice: “How do we create rich environments where all students learn at a high level?” By asking yourself this question, you put the motions in place to evaluate and then progress and improve as a teacher, which will improve your students’ education and development. By having a solid understanding of the environment in which you expect students to learn, you can manipulate and direct it in a way that cultivates a space designed for effective yet challenging learning.

This is where the depth of knowledge comes in. Depth of knowledge is a way of measuring cognitive depth. It gives you the perspective you need to correctly evaluate your teaching method by categorizing the tasks you set for your students according to the complexity of thinking. By doing this, you can see where your class is currently at in terms of complexity and set yourself challenges to progress this further.

In terms of depth of knowledge is categorizing different educational tasks according to the complexity of thinking required to complete them. Depth of knowledge is used through the understanding of different levels. These levels act as the categories you should measure your set tasks against to see which mental components and skills they focus on. Using these levels, you can see the ratio of the education you are currently providing and can move forward by further developing the categories needing more help.

The levels used in Webb’s Depth of Knowledge

Below is a guide to understanding the work of Norman Webb’s Depth of Knowledge at categorized levels.

Level 1: Recall and Reproduction

Tasks at this level involve recalling facts or applying simple procedures. These tasks do not require cognitive thinking beyond remembering the correct response for a formula. Some examples are copying, defining, computing, and recognizing.

Level 2: Skills and Concepts

The student is expected to make decisions regarding their approach at this level. These tasks require more than one mental step, such as comparing, predicting, and organizing.

Level 3: Strategic Thinking

At this level of complexity, thinking is more abstract, as students must use planning and evidence. These are tasks that have multiple valid responses. Some examples are solving non-routine problems, designing an experiment, or analyzing genre characteristics. Level 3 tasks require students to justify their choices.

Level 4: Extended Thinking

Tasks at this level require the most amount of complex cognitive effort. These tasks tend to involve synthesizing information from multiple sources, often over an extended period. They could include transferring knowledge from one domain to solve problems in another. Some examples of tasks at level 4 would include: analyzing multiple texts to extract a theme, designing a survey or interpreting the results, and writing an original myth in an ancient style.

How you can use it in your classroom

More and more educators are introducing depth of knowledge into their classrooms to help them design better instructions. They use this way of evaluation to get an overall insight into the skills that each of the tasks they set involves and the complexity levels they ask their students. By using depth of knowledge, teachers can see any disparities in complexity and skill. They will be able to manage their curriculum better and what it offers to their students for a richer experience.

There are ways you can implement depth of knowledge. Below is an exercise you may wish to try to better your understanding of the cognitive depth of the tasks you use in your classroom while simultaneously improving the rigor of your instruction.

  1. Keep a list of every task you ask your students to do – daily, weekly, or in one subject. This should include classwork, homework, and projects.
  2. Sort these tasks into categories using depth of knowledge.
  3. Work with a colleague(s) to review the groupings. Many tasks will be easy to categorize. However, some will require a more profound discussion and some assistance clarifying your understanding of the levels. You should strive towards consensus, and below are a few tips you could use to do this: Consider the cognitive effort the student must use to complete the task. The verb doesn’t define the level.
    Some tasks may fall in between, and when in doubt, assign them higher.
    Extended time by itself doesn’t make the task level 4.
  4. Analyze your groupings – do you spot any patterns? Is there an even distribution across levels?
  5. Rewrite level 1 or 2 tasks to become level 3 to increase the complexity levels.

How do I know I am applying it right

If you’re now wondering, “what is a reasonable distribution?” Or if you should be teaching at a higher level, it’s important to remember that the depth of knowledge levels is not sequential or developmental. Students do not need to master a lower-level task before moving to a higher one. It is good to incorporate both to encourage a more diverse and engaging approach. It is also not developmental, as the levels are not restricted to specific age ranges. All 4 levels can be applied to any age group. It’s just that what constitutes a level 3 for a pre-schooler will be much different to a middle schooler, and as long as you, their educator, are aware of this, then the depth of knowledge is helpful at all ages.

If you hope to find the right balance, why not ask yourself these questions?

  • What kind of thinking do I want students to do routinely?
  • What’s the most effective way to spend the time in the classroom I have?
  • What would I want my child to be doing?

Depth of knowledge is a tremendous educational approach to increase rigor and further develop your class’ cognitive thinking skills. We hope that through this article, you can capitalize on Webb’s teaching to better your own.

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