George Lucas Educational Foundation

Practical PBL: The Ongoing Challenges of Assessment

Photo credit: Des Moines Public Schools, via flickr
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.

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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.