Assessment in Project Based Learning: Frequently Asked Questions

May 10, 2016
Visit Andrew Larson at Magnify Learning!

Visit Andrew Larson at Magnify Learning!

Answer this multiple choice question: 

The end of May means…

a. The end of a school year that raised questions about my assessment practices
b. The end of a school year where I knew exactly what all my kids knew and could do
c. The beginning of summer (a.k.a. “when teachers don’t work”)
d. The beginning of professional development season and time for PBL training!

If you answered “a”, “d” or both, then read on for some insight into one of the most common topics of conversation at PBL trainings: assessing student work in the PBL environment. Teachers want to feel assured that their assessment of students’ content knowledge and skill set will be compatible in a project- based setting. Here are some common questions with some responses based on personal experience.
Do those of us that do PBL on a full- time basis still do traditional assessments and give traditional homework assignments?
Yes. We do tests, quizzes, and homework assignments just like everyone else. I think there are some best practices with respect to using these traditional assessments, though; first, there should be clear and obvious ties to the context of the project. This isn’t a big stretch, most of the time. We ask students to apply the standards to solving authentic, real- world problems, and in doing so, it isn’t a lot of extra work to create or re- word assessment items (test questions, etc.) to tie back to the scenario of our project. The same goes for homework, although in most project- based classes I am aware of, there’s more of a balance between traditional skill- building type homework and project related research. For example, as we learn about DNA replication and the possibility of mutations that arise during that process we might end a traditional content homework with something like this:
“How do the events of the Interphase portion of the cell cycle help us inform our audience about the dangers of too much sun exposure?”
Math classes are the one area where traditional homework is a particularly important necessity; repetition, repetition, repetition is still a key factor in success when it comes to building numeracy skills.
How do you balance individual and group assessment?
In a word, equally. When one switches to a collaborative learning environment, there is sometimes a tendency to swing perhaps too enthusiastically to group assessment. This is a mistake for a few key reasons. First, and most obviously, it can encourage freeloading. We all know that, in a pure sense, all students can contribute to the success of a project in many diverse ways; we also know, in a pragmatic sense, that if less motivated students know that their grade will be the same as the highly motivated in their group, they might just decide to float. Second, in the high stakes of high school, parents of high achievers do not want the transcripts of their children to suffer because of an overemphasis on group assessment. Last, an overemphasis on group assessment doesn’t reflect the reality of the work force. Yes, most jobs today involve team collaboration. However, most such jobs also involve individual performance reviews as well. Should PBL teachers assess group products on a whole- group basis? Yes. To what extent should they try to balance the individual and group assessment? In my opinion, equally. My personal rule of thumb is to make a final, high- stakes product an equal weight to more traditional assessment such as a test or essay.
How is your grade book set up?
In trainings, we generally reserve the discussion of assessing skills outside of the content for the last part of the week, simply because there are so many other PBL- related processes to wrap the mind around. But with the emphasis on workplace skills increasing nationally, weighting of grades into categories is becoming a more recognized practice. Back when I taught at a traditional school and with a traditional gradebook, I was often disenchanted with my single- category gradebook. I assigned points for effort, work ethic, speaking, group work, and other things, but they all appeared strictly as “biology.” Clearly that’s not accurate. While it is not necessary to have weighted grades in a PBL environment, it is preferable to most of us and certainly reflects a more accurate representation of the whole student. If a school or instructor has the liberty to create grade categories such as content knowledge, work ethic, and oral and written communication skills and collaboration, then I would encourage them to test those waters.
Before you “go rogue” with a gradebook setup that is nontraditional, make sure that a) you have permission to do this, b) the category types and weights are highly public to students, parents, administrators and other stakeholders, and c) you have a plan for assessing these items in a sensible way (see the next section.)
How does one actually assess 21st Century/ Workforce & College Readiness Skills? 
The business of creating assessment tools for oral or written communication, work ethic, or collaboration is not light work which should be done in isolation. It’s also not uncharted territory. Your district may already have such rubrics, but if they do not, there are many existing frameworks for assessing these skills. Request or search for samples at New Tech Network or Buck Institute for Education.
When assessing these skills, it’s important to give student discrete subskills on which to focus. For example, in a given journal entry, students may be asked to focus on transitions, or grammatical accuracy, or use of passive voice. In any given oral communication assessment, they may be asked to focus on evidence, or clarity, or avoiding filler words or distracting gestures. In any given collaborative task, they may be directed to focus on making a decision based on consensus or troubleshooting a conflict. On a larger, culminating assessment there may be more skills assessed (or not,) but giving students the “heads up” on your expectations is as important with these skills as it is with content.
How does PBL fit in with other assessment practices such as Standards- Based Grading?
Over the course of my time doing PBL, I’ve written a lot of content rubrics, and after several years, have gotten comfortable and kind of good at it; the question I have, though, is, “why do I keep writing new rubrics year after year?”
The approach that I have traditionally used (and still do in some situations) is to write a project- specific assessment rubric that embeds content into the scenario in which students are working. For example, a biology project involving a skin cancer public awareness campaign would have all of the cell division, mutation, gene expression and gene regulation concepts embedded in the context of students creating a skin cancer social media campaign or some other form of public outreach.
This all has worked fine for me. The question, though, is that knowing that our standards don’t change (uh, well… at least not every year) and that we will therefore provide curriculum and instruction on those topics perennially, why are my rubrics not also the same each year?
I’ve experimented this year with Standards- Based Grading, and many of you reading this will be more experienced than I in this realm. My general sentiment is that I really like it for several reasons. Most importantly it’s geared towards mastery. A student may start off at “level 2” of content mastery for a given standard but end up at level 3 or 4. Students are very receptive, I’ve found, to working towards mastery if they know what the expectation of mastery is, and if they are allowed to build on and revise their knowledge.
It is still necessary, of course, to create tools that show the specific expectations for a final product. But, with Standards- Based Grading, students are demonstrating their progress towards content mastery gradually, and along the way, as opposed to just at the end of the project. My personal professional development for the summer is to continue to develop Standards- Based rubrics for my AP Biology course… a very daunting and time consuming task, but one that I know is a good investment of time.

Assessment is arguably the most critical part of the Curriculum/ Instruction/ Assessment “trifecta,” because it is how we can demonstrate results. Most of us see and understand how valuable PBL is as a model when it improves engagement, gives students a vehicle for applying their learning, and enhances workforce/ college readiness. But the world wants data that demonstrates the efficacy of PBL. Good assessment is of paramount importance for having good data that will give more teachers and schools the confidence to try PBL or improve their PBL practices.

This blog originally appeared in Magnify Learning.

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