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Understanding Depth of Knowledge

Written by
October 21st, 2021

Alignment between standards or unpacked learning targets during assessment creation and instructional planning is crucial for developing a year long Curricular/Assessment Scope and Sequence.  Depth of Knowledge (DOK) is the thread that ties everything together.  

Consider the following scenario: Educators identify priority standards, possibly unpack standards into learning targets, plan their instruction, and then give some sort of assessmentwhether it be a state test, district test, or a grade-level common assessment. 

Most likely, the results from these assessments would be disappointing. This is because the instructional Depth of Knowledge almost certainly would not match the Depth of Knowledge on the assessment.  

Backwards planningwhere teams unpack the standard into learning targets, align the targets to their DOK, build out corresponding assessments, and then plan instruction at the same level of DOKprovides much better student data that allows teams to improve teaching and learning.  

This article explores the importance of Depth of Knowledge (DOK).

What is Depth of Knowledge?

Depth of Knowledge (DOK) is a cognitive rigor model developed by Dr. Norman Webb in 1997. The DOK model involves 4 levels that describe different depths of student engagement required to complete a task. It was originally developed to systematically analyze how well standardized tests aligned to the expectations of the content standards they sought to assess. However the usage of the DOK model has since evolved to evaluate all educational materials including standards, assessment questions and tasks, curriculum, etc. 

DOK levels provide educators with a common language to effectively communicate about the required level of thinking students must be able to demonstrate as articulated in the standards—and whether teaching, learning, and assessment are aligned to those expectations.

How to Determine Depth of Knowledge

A common misconception is that DOK can be easily identified from the verbs used in a given standard or learning expectation. A quick search for “Depth of Knowledge” on Google returns many image results showing a wheel of verbs categorized by the 4 levels. Dr. Norman Webb himself has disputed this resource.

Though the verb may provide a clue, to determine the DOK of a given standard or learning objective, the focus should be on what comes after the verb. Understanding the concepts described after the verb of the standard—in combination with the mental processing required to achieve that level of understanding—are the key components to identifying the DOK of a given learning objective. 

What Depth of Knowledge Measures 

It’s also important to keep in mind that DOK differentiates complexity and not difficulty. 

The DOK of a test question seeks to explain the thinking, action, or knowledge that is needed to complete the question or task. Low DOK does not necessarily mean low difficulty and vice versa. 

Take for example if I were to ask you to name the first President of the United States. You would simply need to recall the answer (DOK 1), and the likelihood of getting the correct answer is high (low difficulty).

Now imagine if I were to ask you to name all presidents, in order, along with the years in which they served. Like before, you would need to recall the answer (DOK 1), but the likelihood of getting the correct answer has plummeted (high difficulty). The difficulty of the task could become less over time as you study the presidents, but the complexity will never change.

Leveraging Depth of Knowledge to Support Learning

Knowing the DOK of standards is critical to ensure that we are planning instruction and choosing standards-based materials that match the complexity in which students will be expected to show their understanding on end-of-year accountability assessments and, more importantly, in college and careers. 

Students should be given ample opportunity to engage at the level(s) of complexity intended by the standards, including opportunities at the lower DOK levels in the beginning of the instructional progression. Hess’ Cognitive Rigor Matrices provide curricular examples by content area and are an invaluable resource when planning instruction and designing assessments that match the depth of the expectations of the standards.

When designing assessments, questions and tasks should be chosen that align to the cognitive complexity expectations of the standards as well. By choosing assessment content that provides students with various opportunities to demonstrate their understanding across different DOK levels, educators can monitor and more deeply understand where students are in their learning and which standards may require additional intervention and resources to get students up to the depth expectations.

To learn more about how Illuminate’s Content offerings are aligned to DOK and can help provide deeper insights into student learning, contact our team. 

Additional Resources




Illuminate Education equips educators to take a data-driven approach to serving the whole child. Our solution combines comprehensive assessment, MTSS management and collaboration, and real-time dashboard tools, and puts them in the hands of educators. As a result, educators can monitor learning and growth, identify academic and social-emotional behavioral needs, and align targeted supports in order to accelerate learning for each student. 

Ready to discover your one-stop shop for your district’s educational needs? Let’s talk.

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