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PBL Pilot: Matching PBL With Traditional Grading

Matt Weyers

6th Grade Teacher, Byron (MN) Public Schools
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A photo of elementary school children listening to a naturalist at the zoo.
Students listen to a naturalist explain the habitat redesign project at the Oxbow Park and Zollman Zoo.

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

Project-based learning has been wonderful. Students are self-reporting how they're experiencing a deeper level of learning, and parents are saying that their children are actively (and often voluntarily) elaborating on their learning outside of school. We firmly believe that PBL is one of the best teaching methodologies available for the 21st century.

Students observe a wolf exhibit at the Oxbow Park and Zollman Zoo.

The opportunities to assess students on the 4 Cs (creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking) have been endless. Blending all of this into the traditional A-F grading system, however, has on occasion felt like pounding a square peg into a round hole. At this point in the school year, we feel that standards-based grading would be the best and most opportune solution to grading in a PBL environment. We feel fortunate, though, to have the administrative support we need for tackling these challenges. In this post, we'd like to look at some of our challenges, working solutions, and further questions to consider.

Problem #1: Lack of Traditional Homework

The lack of traditional homework (which we equate to assignments such as worksheets) has left us with a dearth of quickly-graded, easily-communicated tasks to put into our gradebook. We are left with only the major products from each of our projects (approximately three per quarter). And this has unfortunately left our summative grading and assessment systems open to interpretation by families and other staff.

Working Solution

We are combating this by:

  1. Utilizing assessments from MasteryConnect to add to our gradebook
  2. Incorporating "project checkpoints" where student groups are required to provide us with a specific deliverable prior to moving to the next step
  3. Simply not having a lot of grades.

Further Questions to Consider

How do we specifically assess each of the project checkpoints? Is it by creating individual rubrics for each checkpoint? Or is it a simple "go/no-go" for the students? If it's "go/no-go," how does that translate into a letter grade? How do we best combat the outside pressure we feel to make sure that we have "enough" grades? This last point brings us to Problem #2.

Problem #2: Parent Education

The small quantity of grades in our gradebook has justifiably left parents feeling out of the loop. Families in our district are used to seeing a relatively constant stream of homework every night with which to informally gauge their child’s progress in school. With the lack of traditional homework and with a radically different teaching philosophy than they are accustomed to, we need to provide different avenues for parents to remain engaged with their child's life at school.

Working Solution

We have worked to provide parents with Parent Education/Game Nights led by our parent focus group and designed to discuss some of the questions and concerns in a peer-to-peer format, maintain an up-to-date class blog, and send home a "Project at a Glance" form outlining the specific skills that each project will encompass.

Further Questions to Consider

How do we continue to gain parents' trust that their children are learning the same skills taught in non-PBL classrooms, albeit in a different format? If common assessments are not yet developed in our district, are standardized test scores the only apples-to-apples comparisons we have available to show this? (We hope not!) Focusing on parent education has made us also strongly consider the question posed in Problem #3.

Problem #3: What Are Grades Actually For?

We are fortunate this year to have a building administrator who is incredibly passionate about grading practices and the impact they can have on student self-efficacy. He is actively encouraging the staff to ask ourselves the question, "Am I grading for learning or compliance?" He voices equal concern that issuing students failing grades can have such a negative impact on student self-confidence that they may shut down to school and learning forever.

Working Solution

In response to our administrator, we are working to implement learning opportunities that are continuous and revisionist. Our present grading scale only allows students to be assigned an A, B, C, or Developing. The idea is that by removing the option of a D or F, we are communicating to students the idea that we will not let them fail. The tricky part is that it requires us to continually visit one-on-one with students until they show the proficiency we have deemed appropriate to receive an A, B, or C. Simply stated, we are working on grading for learning by allowing students to resubmit work as many times as needed to show proficiency.

Further Questions to Consider

Is this revisionist grading policy detrimental to our students as they enter different grade levels and the work force? We feel it is not detrimental, but what concrete information do we have to prove this?

We'd love to start a dialogue. As educators, how do you feel about the problems, solutions, and questions mentioned above? We would greatly enjoy hearing any ideas you have!

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Comments (18) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

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

That's fantastic news! This has been a phenomenal school year that I am sad to see is already halfway done. Thanks again for sharing our work. Have a great rest of the day!

Dave's picture

Very well written article with equally great problems to conquer. I believe our students will benefit greatly from learning how to find solutions to problems and truly learning as opposed to memorizing facts. Tough to grade using the old methods. Grading for learning is far superior to grading for standard compliance and students will have greater self esteem knowing they can solve problems by their own initiative. I wish I could offer some helpful advice on grading PBL. You have addressed the major issues and now you have to sell it to the parents and possibly to the school board. Best of luck. It would be interesting to track these students through college and see what they accomplish. My son had several PBL classes and easily takes on leadership roles in group work in college

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

Good afternoon Lynn! Thank you for your comment. I empathize completely with your concerns on how PBL meshes with the realities of Common Core and Standardized Testing. My colleague and I often wonder if the qualitative data we have on PBL remains as strong as it is, but the quantitative data comes into question - will PBL continue to grow as a viable teaching method in our district? We recently decided our plan to combat these fears the rest of the school year is: 1. Trust in ourselves and our students 2. Be thankful to have a supportive administration and 3. Lean on the wonderful online community of educators like yourself for help and support. Thanks again for your comment. Take care.

markbarnes19's picture
Education author/speaker

Wow! That's all great news, Matt. Thanks for sharing it, and please keep me posted about your school and results-only learning. I'd love to help if I can. Also, did you know that I've written a new book, Assessment 3.0: Throw Out Your Grade Book and Inspire Learning? It's coming out in a little over two weeks, published by Corwin. It should help even more with the transition you're making. Please stay in touch.

Mark Lang's picture
Mark Lang
Independent consultant and leader on education transformation

Thanks for your open description of your journey with PBL and related assessment. I think you already know the answer to your questions about grading. Traditional letter grades are really a compliance-focused exercise. They have no place in a true PBL environment that is focused on learning. Let me suggest two things:

First, to assess in a way that complements PBL, identify all the skills and content you intend students to learn on their project. Include not just academic skills but collaboration and the other C's as well as personal habits like grit if they apply. You can then create rubrics for each of those skills, and share them with the class at the beginning of the project. Then let each student evaluate his or her progress on each skill regularly during the project using the rubrics, and you can weigh in, also. This will help the students recognize progress in their learning all along the way, and it will give you a running indicator of progress in meeting the competencies you want them to master. It can be shared with parents, also. This is really competency based, which is in line with PBL. Note that you only care whether each student eventually masters each competency. If they are failing somewhere along the way it does not matter as long as they get it eventually. This is one key difference in a competency-based assessment.

Second, because you still need grades, I would wait until the end of the project. Then ask each student to determine what overall grade he or she believes is deserved based on the progress with the competencies. Then have a discussion with each student to see if you agree and talk through any differences. Most of the time students will be harder on themselves than you would be, and the competency assessments you have been doing all along provide strong justification for the overall grade. In most cases any disagreement can be worked out in a discussion, and that will be a rich discussion. In the rare cases where disagreements remain, some teachers go with the student's judgement. You will have to decide what gets entered in the permanent record--perhaps a compromise. However, for the immediate situation, you can remember both your grade and the student's grade and share both with parents. The goal here is to keep the focus on learning and mastering the competencies, not on a grade.

We have to find creative ways of helping students learn even within the compliance focused environment that government policy dictates at the moment. Congratulations on your dedicated efforts to do just that. I hope these suggestions are of value or at least get you thinking about viable answers.

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

Good evening Mark L.,

I have to apologize for the delay in responding. I have been on paternity leave for the past few weeks and took an extended break from "all things school". Thank you for the wonderful response to our questions. Like you, I feel that we have to find creative ways to assess students in the compliance-based culture that current policy dictates we live in. My colleague and I have already had a wonderful discussion regarding your posted suggestions. Thank you again for your advice and input, as it is helping shape the grading conversation in our district. Take care!


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

Good evening Mark B,

I apologize for the delay in responding - I have been away from school for a few weeks to be with new family. Thanks for the information about your new book. I was incredibly happy with "Role Reversal" and am looking forward to another engaging read upon purchase of "Assessment 3.0". In addition, I will be sure to pass along any updates on implementation of a ROLE in our classes in the future. Thanks for all of your support!


Mark Lang's picture
Mark Lang
Independent consultant and leader on education transformation

For Lynn and others worried about performance on standardized tests, this seems to be a common fear. I don't think there is any research that formally demonstrates how students learning through PBL do on traditional tests. However, there is strong anecdotal evidence. Two schools I have visited, Manor New Tech High near Austin and High Tech High in San Diego, conduct essentially all of their instruction through student-directed PBL. While not focusing on the state exams, their students all do very well. At Manor, for example, more than 90% of students score proficient on the Texas exams for Math and Language Arts. Teachers review all the required state standards associated each year with their given class, and they try to select or guide project activities so that the activities connect with those standards or at least key ones. In keeping with true PBL, there is no set order in which material is covered. Rather, students encounter different content and skills naturally as they come up in the various projects. Different students take different paths in the open-ended projects. However, they all share their results with each other, so that all the students learn something of what others did from each other, and this broadens their exposure while allowing each team to focus on a deep issue or direction of their choice. Competency-type assessment is a natural fit to this environment.

Another thing I sensed in talking to students is that they are much more engaged in their learning and appreciative of their teachers (mentors). Because of that, they are more willing to put their best effort into the few days a year when exams come up. And they are not stressed by being forced to continually prepare for the exams. This likely helps to improve their scores, also.

Remember that tests are with us because people outside education felt that education was not meeting the needs of business and society, and so needed to be held accountable. The graduates of the PBL schools are highly engaged and prepared for real world challenges. It is obvious when you visit, talk to students, and particularly observe their work. Employers are extremely happy getting these graduates. I am confident that the press for standardized exams will go away if more schools start turning out such students.

Ksenia's picture

Good job, Matt! I agree with you, that PBL is one of the best teaching methodologies in our time. We also work in this way in our High School. Students tasks are more complicated, so we began to try different task management software. For example, we use https://casual.pm/ a few months. It allows to track dependencies between tasks, so students can plan their work more effectively. It's very simple, visual and free for Public Schools and NGO. Maybe, it can be useful for you too.

freewind582003's picture

We're taking PBL one step at a time in our school. As a Sped inclusion teacher in most science and math classes, I am lucky to be working with great math and science teachers who make learning fun and engaging . It's not always pencil and paper task but applying key concepts to real world problems. I have seen how our students performed in state and district wide assessments. Even if they are in Title I and at lower end of the socioeconomic status tape, , their performance is improving compared before. PBL establishes real world connections, more collaboration among students, students take more control of their learning and most of all, a higher level of student engagement.


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