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PBL Pilot: Formative Assessment and PBL

Matt Weyers

6th Grade Teacher, Byron (MN) Public Schools
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Three boys and a girl standing in front of class doing a presentation
Students presenting ideas to City Council on how to make our city more fun.

Editor's note: Matt Weyers and co-author Jen Dole, teachers at Byron Middle School in Byron, Minnesota, present the ninth installment in a year-long series documenting their experience of launching a PBL pilot program.

Formative assessment is a crucial element of project-based learning and the education profession as a whole. Understanding how to swiftly and adeptly modify the scope of your lesson based on the needs of your students will play an enormous role in their learning. When we embarked this year on our journey of PBL, we found that there were several formative assessment strategies unique to PBL. In this post, we'd like to focus on two strategies that we found most helpful.

1. How Did Today's Lesson Tie Into the Driving Question?

What is a driving question?

A driving question is the roadmap to an entire project. An enticingly-written driving question will hook students into learning the exact content that we know needs to be covered according to our teaching standards. For example, here's the driving question we are currently using, developed with a "tubric" (a downloadable tool that helps you create specific and actionable driving questions): "How can we create a piece of art to be displayed in the Rochester (Minnesota) Skyway that represents basic human rights?" This question allows us to instantly tie the lesson to our language arts and social studies curriculum.

Using the driving question as a formative assessment

Using the driving question as a formative assessment is a relatively simple process. At the end of every lesson, ask the students, "How did our lesson today relate to the driving question?" If they are able to successfully respond and elaborate, you will know that you have tied the lesson sufficiently to the project and that you have a better feel for future instructional needs.

2. Refer Back to the Need to Know List

What is a need to know list?

A need to know list is an essential element of PBL. When starting a project that is organized around a driving question, it is helpful to have students generate a list of what they feel they need to know in order to successfully and completely answer that question. Once generated, this list serves as the perfect formative assessment tool by becoming a living document in which, by class vote, teachers can add or remove items from the list as they are answered. The true beauty of need to know lists is that, with a well-written driving question, students will naturally respond that they need to know the content knowledge outlined by the teaching standards the project is intended to cover.

Tacked on the wall: Driving Question and Need-to-Know List
Picture of our current, "What "art" our rights?" project wall.

Using the need to know list as formative assessment

At the end of each class period, ask students if they feel there are any items that can be crossed off the need to know list because they have been sufficiently discussed and answered in class. To gauge understanding, ask students to do a "thumb check" -- pointing a thumb upward if they feel they have sufficient understanding of the item from the need to know list, and pointing a thumb downward if they do not. If even one student gives a thumbs down, the item should stay on the list so that you can revisit it later as a class. This helps provide teachers with informal data on student understanding of the topic.

Do you have any favorite methods of formative assessment? If so, we would love to hear them! And please feel free to follow our journey at our Byron 5th blog.

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Launching a PBL Pilot Program
Launching a PBL Pilot Program: Follow two middle school teachers through their first year with PBL

Comments (9) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

haney_gerald's picture

I agree "Driving question" do let you assess and relate to a specific idea. I would rather call it a technique, teaching it to young kids can help improve the observational skills of the students. Thanks for posting. Hope to read more. Keep writing...

Tamsin Henry's picture
Tamsin Henry
Lecturer from South America

Very educational and innovative post! I absolutely love the strategies of "Driving question" and "needs to know list" The driving question can act as a kind of exit slip/formative assessment in the concluding stages of a lesson. This will help the teacher to know whether students have internalised the concept and to what extent. It would also show how the teacher has made connections (developmentally) throughout the stages of the lesson, with students experiences and knowledge. Similarly, the needs to know list is somewhat like the KWL chart. It will help teachers to know students current levels of understanding and what they desire to know about that specific project or topic. One method of formative assessment that works here in the South American classroom is that of a modified version of Jeopardy- where students are asked questions based on the concepts covered in the lesson and they are rewarded on a point system for correct responses. Thanks for sharing, I look forward to more intriguing articles and resources from you!

Matt Weyers's picture
Matt Weyers
6th Grade Teacher, Byron (MN) Public Schools

@haney - Thanks for the comment! I like the idea of calling a Driving Question a "technique". I think anything we can do to increase the observational skills of our students is a worthwhile endeavor. Thanks for reading our blog series. It has been an amazing experience for us. Have a great rest of the day.

-Matt

Matt Weyers's picture
Matt Weyers
6th Grade Teacher, Byron (MN) Public Schools

@Tamsin -

Thank you for the kind words! I'm finding the longer I teach, the more I begin to understand how important formative assessment is. I appreciate your thoughts and ideas. I never made the connection between a "Need-to-Know" list and a KWL chart. You are right - they do have some striking similarities. Can I ask more about your Jeopardy system? It sounds awesome. Do you keep track of student points over the course of the unit? Sounds fun! Have a great rest of the day.

-Matt

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Tamsin Henry's picture
Tamsin Henry
Lecturer from South America

Matt,
Thanks for responding to the ideas! As a lecturer, I use many forms of formative assessment to ensure that my students understand even the simplest concepts that they are taught. However I got the idea of jeopardy as formative assessment when I observed a student-teacher for practicum. It's just like the original game with slight modifications. The teacher selects two teams in this case and asks them questions. For each question there is money and points alotted to correct responses. However the questions are designed to test all levels of Bloom's Taxonomy. You can use it on individual students or in groups. When I use it, I use it at the end of particular units and sometimes I convert points and then add a grand total after which I reward the group or students with highest points. You can even modify it to suit your differentiated classroom. What do you think!
Tamsin

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Melinda King's picture

Hi Matt;
I am new to PBL and this post is very helpful. I like your idea of using the driving question as a way of assessment and crossing items off the list.
Student teaching as a form of assessment has been working very well with my students. They are young enough where they really enjoy "playing teacher" and it is easy to see if they understood the concepts taught.
I am looking forward to reading more articles about PBL.

Matt Weyers's picture
Matt Weyers
6th Grade Teacher, Byron (MN) Public Schools

Melinda,

Thank you for the wonderful comment! I wish you best of luck on your PBL journey. We found it to be a transformational journey for everyone involved. Have a great rest of the week!

-Matt

MSimmons's picture

Thank you for writing these articles. I have been reading about and researching PBLs for a year but have been unsure how to start the process. I want to make sure the leading question will fit with our standards yet be meaningful for real life. Because of these articles, I"m am going to try to create at least one project per semester this year and add on from there. Thank you.

Matt Weyers's picture
Matt Weyers
6th Grade Teacher, Byron (MN) Public Schools

MSimmons,

Thank you for your comment! It is awesome to hear from another educator who is interested in PBL, and all of the fantastic learning opportunities that come with it. I would love to hear your ideas, thoughts, and reflections on PBL and how it has impacted your students' learning. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help in any way. Take care and have a great night!

-Matt

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