George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Choosing Effective Assessments for PBL

By diversifying the manner of assessment in project-based learning, teachers can get a fuller picture of what students know.

August 17, 2022
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A common question that emerges as we design and implement problem- and project-based learning (PBL) is how do we effectively assess student learning?

While there are likely many answers to this question, all answers should be anchored to using

  • a range of assessments to capture student learning in different ways;
  • multiple assessments over time to ensure that we have multiple snapshots of student learning;
  • assessments to inform teaching and learning before, during, and after a unit of study; and
  • assessments across levels of complexity to identify student progress to ensure that quality learning is occurring.

When these ingredients are in place, teachers and students alike are better able to understand the quality of our teaching and the progress of student learning—and, as such, carve a path forward in the teaching and learning process.

Rigorous PBL by Design

Rigorous PBL is defined as an inquiry-based methodology that requires students to solve real-world problems by learning surface, deep, and transfer learning.

Rigor is defined as the equal intensity and integration of surface (“I know” ideas), deep (“I can relate” ideas), and transfer (“I can apply” ideas).

For instance, a student may know the names and specific properties of elements on the periodic table (surface), compare and contrast different elements based on their behavior as represented on the periodic table (deep), and apply their learning in an experiment when making a case for refining strategies for extracting oil (transfer).

In PBL we want to find a way to provide a range of these assessments across the unit of study. In rigorous PBL, we divide PBL into four phases:

Phase 1: Students encounter a real-world problem requiring them to determine the expectations of solving the problem.

Phase 2: Students build new knowledge and skills that are critical to meet curriculum and project expectations.

Phase 3: Students deepen their knowledge and skills by engaging early and often in classroom discussions to solidify understanding of core principles and practices.

Phase 4: Students learn transfer-level skills to solve the problem(s) presented during Phase 1.

Diversifying Our Assessments

We can assess student learning in a number of ways. Here are three approaches to assessment:

1. Stop and assess. One way is to interrupt students’ learning and provide them with an assessment. This could take the form of a test, quiz, or formal presentation. This is likely the most common form of assessment in classrooms.

2. Assess in action. Another option is assessing students as they engage in the learning, and we simply assess their performance without stopping them in the moment. This could take the form of watching students debate, solve a math problem during independent practice, or redraft a paper in class.

3. Have students construct the assessment. The final option is for students to construct the way in which they want to be assessed. In this process, students and teachers work together to identify the areas that need to be assessed, and students devise a way to show that practice. Suppose a student wanted to showcase their understanding of geometric angles: They may propose drawing and labeling a number of angles in front of the teacher.

When we design assessments, we want to ensure that they meet each level of surface, deep, and transfer. As such, it’s helpful to create a simple grid that lays out each level of complexity and each type of assessment.

Diversifying Our Use of Assessments With Students

We use assessments for a number of reasons. One is to assess the end of a learning sequence and report on a student’s learning. We call this a summative assessment. We also use formative assessment, or the collection of data along the course of a student’s learning journey to appraise current performance and make adjustments.

In both uses of assessment, we want to think about how we can support students in being actively involved in knowing their performance and planning next steps. Here are three ways to support students in being actively involved in the assessment process:

  • Pre-assessment. Ask students to jot down where they are in their learning, how they will perform in their learning, and what next steps they will likely need to take.
  • Post assessment. Ask students to evaluate any and all discrepancies between their pre-assessment and their current performance. Ask students to share out next steps they can take to improve.
  • Weekly/daily check-ins. Ask students to appraise their current performance using tools such as success criteria and current assessment information and discuss potential discrepancies in that appraisal. Work with students to develop next steps to improve or enhance their learning.

Putting It Together

How do we put all of this together to enhance student learning in the PBL environment? Let’s look at an example to solidify this new understanding of diversifying our assessment portfolio.

Phase 1: During the entry launch, we may use “stop and assess” as a way to identify student prior knowledge. We may “assess in action” by listening to students as they work on initial tasks or complete a need-to-know list.

Phase 2: Teachers and students are engaging in daily 2-to-3-minute check-ins on performance. Teachers are weaving a number of “stop and assess” and “assess in action” assessments at the surface level.

Phase 3: As students deepen their learning, teachers may capture summative assessment data of student surface and deep knowledge. This is a great opportunity for students to engage in a pre-/post-assessment reflection and determine next steps. In addition, this process may serve as fodder for students to develop a student-constructed assessment for showcasing all levels of learning during phase 4.

Phase 4: During this phase, the teacher is relying more on “assess in action” at the transfer level as well as student-constructed assessments to make judgments on student learning and to feed forward their thinking to students.

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