Review of Exemplars

Written by: Ellen and Alan Alquist, IB/PYP Consultants,

Ellen and Alan Alquist have worked for years with International Schools, principally in the Middle East. Ellen has also been a consultant to International Schools in Europe and Africa. Her focus has been on the International Baccalaureate, Primary Years Program (PYP), Understanding by Design (UbD), mathematics and science. In this short blog, Ellen and Alan describe why and how they use Exemplars with these programs.

When teachers consider lesson planning, they typically think of the assessments last. This is natural, because the end of a unit of study typically culminates with the “big test,” or “final exam.” This misconception, however, causes inefficient and ineffective instruction. Assessment should be considered first. Careful consideration of summative assessments is fundamental to effective instructional planning. This is especially important when designing instructional units for inquiry-based learning or “Understanding by Design.” Making assessment the primary focus causes the teacher to concentrate on exactly what it is she or he wants their students to be able to do and understand as a result of instruction.

Assessments such as those designed by Exemplars provide a practical and rigorous way of doing this. The tasks are grounded in real-world experiences, and include a rubric and anchor papers with which to evaluate student responses. Materials are also aligned with national, IB and Common Core standards.

In our experience oversees, we use Exemplars tasks as a way of focusing teachers on assessment first when working with them on implementing the PYP (Primary Years Program) or UbD (Understanding by Design). After selecting an Exemplars task suitable for evaluating students’ mastery of the central ideas or enduring understandings in a particular unit, the teachers did the assessment themselves. They then marked their papers against the anchor papers. This led to a discussion among the teachers about the appropriateness of the particular assessment for the unit of instruction in question. When there was consensus that the assessment matched the goals of the unit, the task was adopted as a summative assessment. Occasionally modifications were made to be more culturally appropriate, depending on the country in which the tasks were being used. The numbers in a mathematics assessment were also tweaked from time to time to achieve a more curricular alignment.

After giving the test, teachers used the anchor papers to evaluate the students’ performance. The overall results were discussed by the teachers and used to inform planning for future teaching. It was often decided that the learning engagements or lessons needed to be altered. In many cases the Exemplars task was very suitable, but the teachers realized that the initial instruction had not adequately prepared their students for success. Use of Exemplars tasks had a dual benefit. Not only was student thinking revealed in greater clarity, but also teachers were able to be more reflective about their practice.

Many of the teachers we worked with reported that their students were genuinely engaged and enjoyed working on the assessments. This differs sharply with the typical student reaction to end-of-unit tests. In contrast to standard testing practices that assess products, the tasks set forth by Exemplars provide teachers with a way to examine the processes of student thinking. This is particularly important because research shows that teachers using alternative assessments focused on process are more disposed to be flexible and responsive to their students’ learning needs. (Spinelli 2001) Teachers who routinely use process-oriented assessments tend to continue expanding their practices with a greater range of choices and strategies. (Larrivee 2000) Teachers, staff developers and administrators seeking ways to transform and improve instruction will find Exemplars an invaluable resource.


Spinelli C. G. 2001. “Interactive teaching strategies and authentic curriculum and assessment: A model for effective classroom instruction.” Hong Kong Special Education Forum 4(1): 3–12.

Larrivee, B. 2000. “Transforming teaching practice: Becoming the critically reflective teacher.” Reflective Practice 1(3), 293–308.