Powering Your PBL Course: Deeper Assessments

May 26, 2016

Alix Horton

This blog post is part five of a series designed to support you as you plan for an upcoming school-year dedicated to deeper learning for your students via Project Based Learning.Many thanks to Drew Schrader for collaboration on this series, which is cross-posted on his awesome blog, Learning Habit. Thanks to Erica Snyder at Teaching Channel for all her help with these posts as well.  You can check out her work here.  

You can find the other posts in the series here:


powering-your-pbl-course-performance                 Part One: Power Standards  

                 Part Two: Deeper Learning Skills

                 Part Three: Driving Questions

                 Part Four: Let’s Get Real

                 You can also find a template for keeping track of your thinking here.



Powering Your PBL Course: Deeper Assessments

If you’ve been following along this blog series, you’ve been thinking about key power standards for your course, identifying deeper learning skill priorities, brainstorming some potential driving questions, and beginning to think about authentic applications of content in challenging, real-world contexts.  It is worth pausing in this process at moments like this to keep the big picture in mind.

At NTN, we want our students to be deeper learners; we want them apply knowledge and understanding of important content to meaningful contexts, real world issues, and challenging problems. We also want them to be able to communicate, collaborate, and show agency over their learning. These outcomes are the reason we promote PBL. Our projects require students to complete tasks that provide an opportunity to develop as deeper learners. These tasks also allow us to assess where students are in the pursuit of knowledge and skills.

Deeper assessments of applied knowledge and deeper learning skills are often referred to as performance assessments.  Performance assessments are open ended, requiring students to synthesize, apply, and/or articulate their knowledge and understanding.  As Linda Darling-Hammond and Frank Adamson note in Beyond Basic Skills“In a performance assessment, rather than choosing among pre-determined options, students must construct an answer, produce a product, or perform an activity.” Performance assessments are not selected response; they don’t require regurgitation of memorized facts, and if you’ve administered a performance assessment, you won’t have the same answer from everyone.  This is what makes performance assessments so powerful for assessing deeper learning.  As Darling-Hammond and Adamson go on to say, “Because they allow students to construct or perform an original response rather than just recognizing a potentially right answer out of a list provided, performance assessments can measure students’ cognitive thinking and reasoning skills and their ability to apply knowledge to solve realistic, meaningful problems.” 

While PBL naturally lends itself to performance assessment opportunities, carefully planning possible assessments early ensures that you won’t miss any opportunities to assess students in a more meaningful way. Traditional assessments like problem sets and quizzes can be used to help stimulate and monitor learning throughout a project, but generally speaking, robust performance assessments will be the most useful assessments in a PBL class because they assess the outcomes we care about most.

Planning Performance Assessments

Consequently, as you plan for your upcoming year, it will also be helpful to consider performance assessments that allow you to assess the outcomes you’re prioritizing.  Let’s consider the same power standard we thought about earlier, “Students will understand the structure of atoms and how that structure affects chemical properties and material interactions.” You might be considering a scenario where students  explore radioactivity and explain the process of nuclear decay using their understanding of atomic structure.

As you think about how to design that explanatory task, you should pause and consider what you will be able to assess when you look at student work from the task. Obviously you will want to consider how well it gives you evidence of learning for your power standards. This would also be a good time to look at the Knowledge and Thinking rubric for your course to see if there are particular elements of disciplinary knowledge and skill the task would let you target effectively. Maybe you see this as a good opportunity to target students’ ability to “articulate a science related issue” and explain its scientific context.  You can also consider how the task allows you to assess your prioritized deeper learning skills. Perhaps this feels most aligned to a modest written task that would also allow students to practice the feedback and revision elements of agency.  Often considerations of assessment design and opportunity help tune and tighten a project idea, giving a good general idea a much clearer focus. Getting clear on “the end in mind” from an assessment angle often has the additional benefit of stimulating new ideas about the project context and application.

As you think about your power standards and authentic applications, you might consider:

  • Ways students might construct answers to the driving questions or address issues or solve problems. What are the assessment implications or opportunities for these different ways?
  • Products that would allow you to assess students’ critical thinking and understanding of a topic. How might that knowledge and thinking show up in a particular product?
  • Disciplinary and prioritized skills you are hoping to target. What types of activities would allow students to authentically demonstrate those skills?

By prioritizing important standards and outcomes, considering authentic applications of those priorities, and carefully designing performance assessments that allow you to see how students are progressing towards that knowledge and those skills, you’re well on your way to planning projects that will help your students become deeper learners.  Welcome to the network.  We can’t wait to see where this early thinking will take your projects- and ultimately, your students.

This blog originally appeared on Literacy for Living.

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