Criteria for Effective Assessment in Project-Based Learning

Andrew Miller from the Buck Institute shares some factors for success.

February 28, 2011

One of the greatest potentials for PBL is that it calls for authentic assessment. In a well-designed PBL project, the culminating product is presented publicly for a real audience. PBL is also standards-based pedagogy. Oftentimes when I consult and coach teachers in PBL, they ask about the assessment of standards. With the pressures of high stakes testing and traditional assessments, teachers and administrators need to make sure they accurately design projects that target the standards they need students to know and be able to do.

In addition, teachers need to make sure they are continually assessing throughout a PBL project to ensure their students are getting the content knowledge and skills that they need to complete the project. Below are some criteria to ensure that your PBL project demands that demands high expectations, aligned to standards and assessed properly.

When designing, use R.A.F.T. as a way to ensure an Authentic Culminating Product

R.A.F.T is great teaching strategy that many teachers use in activity-based lessons and assignments. In it, students are given a topic (T) and must make a few selections. They choose a role (R) that they will take on individually and as a group, such as marketer, author, blogger, campaign manager, etc. They choose an Audience (A) obviously related to the role. It could be students, parents, voters, a CEO, or even a doctor. Students also choose the format (F) that they will use, such as webpage, press release, letter, museum exhibit, or podcast. Again the possibilities are endless.

This strategy is a great technique to use when figure out the culminating product for PBL. You as the teacher can decide the aspects of R.A.F.T they will and also allow for student voice and choice. It helps to ensure that the product they create is real world, targeting real content and for authentic purpose and audience. This leads to student engagement.

Target Select Power Standards

However, PBL's intent is not to cover, but to get in depth authentic assessments that truly show a student has mastered a few given standards. When students are going in depth on a targeted standard, a teacher can be confident that they have learned that target. If a teacher covers a standard, can a teacher be certain that all students truly have an understanding of the learning target? Many teachers might say "I don't have time to go in depth." I might reply "So what else is new?" There is never enough time to target every standard, so it is important to focus on power standards and target them in depth to ensure deep learning for all students in the classroom. When I train teachers in PBL, I use this analogy to explain an effective framework. There is shopping with intent to buy, and also exploratory or "window shopping." I have found that teachers respond well to this analogy with regards to Standards and PBL:

"When you go window shopping, you often spend a few hours walking down the street or the halls of the mall window shopping. You look in the window at a coat you might want to buy. You even enter the store and try it on. You might even try out a cologne or perfume. Or, you might simply admire the iPad that you want to buy at the Apple store.

"Conversely, when you go shopping with intent, you most always know you want to buy something. Standards and PBL is a lot like this. You have the intent to purchase an item. The task is deliberate. You have a mission. You need to buy a gift for a friend, or you want to buy a pair of shoes. These are the ones you take the time to truly explore, think about, try on, and finally purchase with your hard-earned money. It is the same way with standards. There are some standards you "buy." THESE are the standards you mean to assess. There are also standards you "window-shop." These are the standards that you might encounter and explore in the project, but do not intend to full assess. As a teacher, you need to think about which standards will your students 'buy,' how you will teach them, and how your assessments will demonstrate the learning."

We know that learning is not segmented. In science, you might be working on writing skills. In math, you may be working on speaking skills. That is what makes learning exciting and what allows students to make connections across disciplines. However, there must be clear intent of the instructor of what is truly to be assessed. Using this framework will allow you, the teacher to categorize and target the power standards you need to, and ensure true alignment with you assessments and standards. These might be power standards determined by your department, district or team or personal learning community (PLC). Again it depends on what forces are at work, but you are the teacher that is designing the PBL project. In order to have a targeted and aligned PBL, ask yourself: "What standards are my students going to buy, and what standards are they going to window-shop?"

Select 21st Century Skills to Teach and Assess

Just like selecting targeted power standards, you should also select 21st century skills to grade and assess. My top 3 are collaboration, presentation and critical thinking, but of course technology literacy is always a popular one. Just remember that you must teach what you intend to assess. Perhaps your students will experience critical thinking for this PBL project but be taught collaboration and also assessed. The Buck Institute has a variety of rubrics available, so you don't have to "reinvent the wheel."

What does 21st century assessment look like? Well, there are many ways to show that students have collaborated. Perhaps they create a wiki to show they have collaborated. Perhaps they have portfolio defense where they showcase how they critically through throughout the project. Perhaps student presentations are on YouTube. I encourage you think creatively about how you have students show they learned a 21st-century skill and share any thoughts in the comments area below.

Formatively Assess Only for Purpose of Revision and Improvement

In order to be transparent to parents and students, you need to be able to track and monitor ongoing formative assessments, that show work toward that standard. There must be a place to have this data so that effective conversations can be had for all partners in the learning of the student. In addition, you use the formative assessments to give meaningful feedback to students and specific ways to improve. It serves to improve your practice as an educator, demanding you refine and improve your instruction. In addition, it holds students accountable, because there is an exit slip, worksheet, draft, or quiz due often.

Here is the idea that may "upset the apple cart": As I teacher, I know the complications of grade books. As a teacher you sometimes feel the need to put everything in the grade book in order to ensure that students are doing their work. However, there is philosophical dilemma here: If the grade is the performance, why does practice factor into it? I recommend only having the summative assessment count for the majority of the grade. Formative assessment is practice, and summative is the performance. You might protest "If I don't count the worksheets and assignments I give out, then they won't do it." If I were there, I would answer, "You trying to 'cattle-prod' your students into doing work by giving leverage in the grade book instead of focusing on the real problem - Your students aren't engaged."

The focus should be on creating relevant, inquiry-based and engaging summative assessments. When the summative assessments have these characteristics, formative assessments and assignments will be relevant to students. The daily work is filtered through an authentic task that is engaging. Your students will do the work and it will improve the culminating product that will ultimately show they know the content and skills.

Next Steps

If you use these criterion and advice, you can be more confident that the PBL project you create is engaging and really calls for targeted learning. Your students will learn rigorous content and skills for an authentic task. As you master these techniques, make sure you are transparent in your assessment strategies with all partners in the learning community: administrators, students, parents and community stakeholders. As this a paradigm shift, you will encounter resistance, so make sure you communicate how PBL is assessed transparently.

Today's guest blogger is Andrew Miller, who currently teaches a variety of project-based courses online and serves on the National Faculty for the Buck Institute for Education. He travels nationally, training educators and presenting at conferences around his many areas of expertise including Project-Based Learning, Culturally Responsive Online Teaching, and Online Education. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @betamiller where you will find links to many of his blogs.

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Filed Under

  • Assessment
  • Formative Assessment
  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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