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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Practical PBL: The Ongoing Challenges of Assessment

Katie Piper

High School Social Studies Teacher, Bellevue, Washington
AP Government Class Moot Court: Lincoln. Student justices and Judge Vaitheswaran preparing for the first case.

In recent years, most students in my project-based AP Government classes have indicated, in both class discussions and anonymously on surveys, that they prefer project-based learning to a more traditional classroom experience. They find PBL more fun and believe that it leads to deeper learning. However, two types of students often resist this model. Students of the first type generally do not enjoy school at all, and are looking for the path of least resistance. Because a PBL classroom is student-centered and calls on students to produce, less-motivated students will find it more difficult to "hide" and be left alone. The second type of student has already been very successful in traditional classrooms and is deterred by the challenges of this new model. These students are often highly motivated by grades, and worry that the project cycles will detract from direct content delivery.

Both types of students benefit from the option of choosing their role in project cycles to increase motivation. These students should explicitly hear the benefits of PBL and the relevance for their future lives. The traditionally successful students especially need to hear (and experience) that some methods of traditional instruction will still be part of the PBL classroom. These students may also be convinced that the structure of the project cycle will present them with a "need to know." This "need to know" will increase the depth of understanding and their ability to retain information.

Fair Assessment of Teamwork

To increase buy-in for both types of students, the most important thing a teacher needs to do is help build individual accountability -- and, by extension, trust -- in student teams. Even students who overwhelmingly favor PBL cite team dynamics and seemingly unfair assessment as the biggest frustrations. Understandably, students are resentful in situations when they are given one grade for a project in which four students contributed very different amounts. They are most frustrated when one or more students contributed nothing and still earn the grade. Furthermore, the grade is not likely to be an accurate measure of what any one member knows or can do. I have addressed the challenge of assessment and teamwork in the three following ways.

1) Individual Skill Areas

I have developed an individual semester portfolio as the most important measure of a student's skills assessment. From the projects produced by teams, individual students must select elements that they were primarily responsible for producing and discuss why they are best examples of each skill. At least two group members must be willing to attest that the element is primarily the work of the student. My six skill areas are:

  • Oral communication
  • Written communication
  • Assuming a role
  • Use of primary texts
  • Leadership
  • Being a team player

Students are held more accountable individually for what they produced, and I am able to better assess learning.

2) Role-Based Assessment

For project cycles in which authentic, specific roles are not as easily identified, I have created a model in which students cycle through tasks, playing either a lead or supporting role. They are only graded on the product produced when they are the lead. When in a supporting role, they are graded on their actions in support of their team. In this way, a high-achieving student can feel "safe" supporting a lower-achieving student without dominating or ultimately bailing her out, or worrying that he is going to be penalized with a lower grade because of her performance. A lower-achieving student does not need to be anxious about failing her group because her ability is not as great as her team members. If she is used to having stronger team members "cover" for her, a lower-achieving student may initially have some resistance to this model, but will ultimately see that it is more fair.

3) "Weighted" Scoring

I rely on a lot of self- and peer evaluations, as well as my own informal assessment of the team process, to help me score students' individual contribution to projects. Forms for team and self-assessment can be easily found online through resources such as the Buck Institute, and can be modified for many different classroom settings. These evaluations can then be translated into a score that reflects what each student put into a project. Students still see a final score on the project as a whole, which is important to pulling together a polished product, but are able to see that the contributions of each individual team member are accurately assessed. This "weighted" score also is a more accurate assessment of where they are with the skill of teamwork.

When students are working together in teams where they feel secure their individual contributions will be recognized and assessed, the teacher has the freedom to move about working more as a facilitator and less as a "sage on the stage." In this role, the teacher is able to help more students individually with where they are in their learning, and in doing so, can make PBL even more effective for all types of students.

Educator Voices: A Project-Based Learning Primer
Three teachers share best practices for unit design, implementation and assessment for project-based learning in the classroom.

Katie Piper

High School Social Studies Teacher, Bellevue, Washington
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In This Series
Three teachers share best practices for unit design, implementation and assessment for project-based learning in the classroom.

Comments (13)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

nym's picture

Your blog was a great reminder of different methods of assessments. It's important to find alternate methods in assessing student work. I feel I always use the same few tools when assessing units and sometimes forget to do the easiest thing, ask the students their thoughts on how they want to show me what they learned. We as teachers should listen to students when they tell us how they feel they learn best and how they enjoy to learn.

Using peer and self evaluations (as well as your own) sounds like a great idea because students are pretty honest about themselves and other group members.

Annette Duffy's picture
Annette Duffy
Middle School Language Arts and History teacher from Hill City, SD

Thanks for the post, I struggle trying to grade the group as a whole, I like your ideas!

Haejin Yang's picture
Haejin Yang
10th grade English teacher from Seoul, South Korea

This is great tips! Thanks!
I have one question. What is the best way to group students for a group project?
Do you give them freedom to make their group with the classmates they want? Or, do you group them by certain rules (e.g. alphabetical order, drawing lots..)?

Justin Banitt's picture
Justin Banitt
High School Math Teacher from Minneapolis, MN

I really like the idea of PBL learning, but I am still a little confused about its role in assessment, specifically summative assessment. I work at a school there has been much discussion about what makes a student's grade. The philosophy adopted by the administration is that a student's grade should reflect what the student knows and can do. This was to eliminate the "free points" given for attendance, participation, and good behavior. The intent was to level the playing field for all students within the school. I like your ideas about self- and peer-evaluation to keep the students honest about contributing to the group. How long does it take to get a class to the point where they are able to work effectively with each other? I could only imagine what the first couple of days of this would look like in my junior high mathematics class! Also, how do you effectively measure comprehension of every student in your class during PBL learning?

Amanda's picture
Amanda
High school social studies teacher

I like the idea of PBL. It is very important for students to have some accountablity to the group. As they become adults it is great for them to realize that others depend on them, and it is not all about "me." I feel like this would be great to adopt in part into my classroom. I especially like how you use peer and self-evaluations with the weighted grades to get rid of the dead weight partners that are out there, but still manage to keep that team continuity. My only concern is that I feel more and more students are coming into my classroom unable to function independently. The need teacher or peer reasurrance that they are doing it "right" all the time. I am nervous of completely going away from having individual work as a important part of a students grade. Yes, teamwork is important, but so is a student being able to be independent and make decisions on their own.

Lucas VL's picture
Lucas VL
High School English Teacher

The PBL model seems intriguing to me and seems like it could work well in the English classroom. As a teacher who tends to shy away from group work, I can see some of the benefits of the style you propose and student owning their own learning and working collaboratively as a group - an invaluable skill in the global world today. I am particularly interested in #3's weighted scoring. I hesitate over giving the same grade for every kid in a group because as you point out, often 1 or 2 of the kids pull most of the weight and the others slack. I could see perhaps a core group grade and then an individual score or weighted score to help establish equity.

-Do you have more resources where I could learn more about PBLs?
-Also, so you find the PBL model slows down the pace of learning? Or is the trade-off in the depth of material covered and its endurance? Just curious.
-Finally, how long does it take your traditional students and low-achieving students to assuage their fear and accept the model (since you point out these two groups tend to resist this model)?

Lucas VL's picture
Lucas VL
High School English Teacher

The PBL model seems intriguing to me and seems like it could work well in the English classroom. As a teacher who tends to shy away from group work, I can see some of the benefits of the style you propose and student owning their own learning and working collaboratively as a group - an invaluable skill in the global world today. I am particularly interested in #3's weighted scoring. I hesitate over giving the same grade for every kid in a group because as you point out, often 1 or 2 of the kids pull most of the weight and the others slack. I could see perhaps a core group grade and then an individual score or weighted score to help establish equity.

-Do you have more resources where I could learn more about PBLs?
-Also, so you find the PBL model slows down the pace of learning? Or is the trade-off in the depth of material covered and its endurance? Just curious.
-Finally, how long does it take your traditional students and low-achieving students to assuage their fear and accept the model (since you point out these two groups tend to resist this model)?

Eric's picture
Eric
EBD Teacher

The PBL learning model seems great for students. I have a hard time using this model with my students. Most of my students tend to be in the group that likes to get by with doing as little as possible. I like the idea of using self reflections. If I were to do more of this in my classroom I would meet with my students after each evaluation to discuss with them why they responded the way that they did. Having students make portfolios to keep track of their learning is a great way to keep students thinking about what they are doing. Any advice on how to help those less motivated students create PBL projects would be helpful.

Katherine McLaughlin's picture

I have been using problem based learning in my college classes for a coupe of years. As I get more and more familiar with all the in's and out's of PBL, I am realizing their is a real art to assessing student learning when students are in group. I like your idea of using weighted scoring from self and peer assessment and my own observations during work time on their projects. I have been using reflection logs after each class and there were comments about other members not contributing to the task. I usually do the reflection logs anonymously, but may change that in order to get feedback on how the group is working. I also appreciated the resource that one of the people who posted on your blog, www.peerfeedback.org. Do you have any other ideas on how to assess students fairly when you only see them for four hours a week and only have a few challenges in per semester for them to work on?

Laura Ford's picture

Lain - love your idea for group sharing of the grade. I also will be requiring my students to keep individual notebooks this year to have them track their task completion and add a few short essays on what they learned/their experiences.

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