Wednesday, January 9th, 2019

How Do We Assess (And Possibly, Grade) Project Based Learning?

Project based learning experiences should call for a great deal of student critical thinking and creativity.

Author Ross Cooper

Erin Murphy and I facilitated a two-day project based learning (PBL) workshop for an inspiring group of educators from Madison City Schools, Alabama. As part of the workshop, we spent some time focusing on what assessment (and possibly, grading) can look like within the context of PBL.

When discussing this topic, it’s first and foremost important to keep in mind there is a difference between assessment and grading. Whereas the goal of assessment is to improve student learning, grading (or a grade) is generally used to evaluate current level of performance.

Should Projects Be Graded?

In short, the answer is a resounding “No!”

Project based learning experiences should call for a great deal of student critical thinking and creativity. And, research tells us that “carroting and sticking” these types of skills isn’t just ineffective, but detrimental.

Pause for a second and watch this Daniel Pink TED Talk, The Puzzle of Motivation, which is based on his book, Drive. Or, if you are in a rush, just watch from 1 minute 30 seconds to about the 7-minute mark. And, if you really don’t want to watch the video, here is the take-home point for this segment:

"If-then rewards work really well for those sorts of tasks, where there is a simple set of rules and a clear destination to go to. Rewards, by their very nature, narrow our focus, concentrate the mind; that's why they work in so many cases…But for the real candle problem [a problem that requires creative problem solving], you don't want to be looking like this [tunnel vision]. The solution is on the periphery. You want to be looking around. That reward actually narrows our focus and restricts our possibility."

Pink also makes it clear this experiment is not the exception to the rule: “What's interesting about this experiment is that it's not an aberration. This has been replicated over and over again for nearly 40 years.”

Looking back on my work as a fourth grade teacher, I can draw a straight line from Pink’s work to my use (or misuse) of grades as the carrot and the stick. The more I engaged my students in project based learning, the more I realized that grading the actual project was not only unnecessary, but potentially harmful.

If Not Grades, Then What?

In short, the answer is feedback.

Feedback tells us (1) where we are, (2) where we need to go, and (3) how to get there. And, in a learning space, feedback generally takes on three forms: teacher to student, student to student, and student to self. While all of these are likely to occur at one point or another, to promote student agency we should mostly be aiming for student to self. But, we need to create the conditions for this type of feedback to be the norm while also making sure the feedback connects to what students need to learn.

To assist with this process, we use the Progress Assessment Tool (PAT). The PAT contains three columns: left, learning targets to be assessed; middle, each target’s strengths/success criteria; right, where self-reflection and feedback is provided in relation to each target. Of course, ideally, much of this feedback is student to self, but teachers and other students should be able to help.

(The PAT is detailed in Chapter 7 of Hacking Project Based Learning, a chapter that is available for free in the Hack Learning Anthology.)

As students work through their projects, we can use the PAT, student reflection, and formative assessments (non-graded) to provide us with sufficient evidence as to whether or not each student has hit his/her learning targets.

But What If I Don't Have Sufficient Evidence?

Sometimes the above formula won’t cut it, and a bit more will be needed to determine “Who got what?” This “bit more” can take the shape of more formal assessments such as quizzes or tests that assess students on the project’s learning targets, not on the project itself. Also, ideally, these assessments would be formative in nature, with their data being used to drive instruction. (But, of course, it is also understood that grades are sometimes needed for one reason or another.)

Your PAT/Rubric Is Busted

There will be instances in which you’ve just begun a project and you realize your PAT/rubric is busted, in need of some major revisions. There will also be instances in which the project is near its end and you just don’t have enough information to confidently conclude who knows what. From my experiences, both of these problems were more likely to occur when (1) I was a PBL rookie, still learning how to make it happen effectively, and/or (2) it was the first time I was rolling out a particular project, and it was near impossible to foresee all the twists and turns we would encounter along the way. So, if and when you find yourself in the dark regarding whether or not students learned what they were supposed to learn, don’t be afraid to issue a formal assessment or two.

Group Work

While the majority of projects are completed as groups, group grades do not account for the fact that each student within any particular group (no matter the size) will develop different understandings at different rates. In other words, no two students are the same. Here, one of the strategies I tried (and failed at) was the jigsawing of a project, with each student in a group being held accountable and graded for a specific, unique portion of the group’s work. While this approach helped to tidy up and streamline “who did what,” students were able to skate by without having to immerse themselves in (and be assessed on) valuable aspects of the project. However, what did work for my students was group work in which groups and individuals received feedback along the way, and then at the conclusion of the project each student was formally assessed.

So You Want to Be Progressive!

While I do believe we should always be moving forward, students and parents don’t always associate the latest and greatest with what meets their needs. And, while assessing (and possibly, grading) based strictly on a project may feel progressive and forward-thinking for the teacher, more traditional techniques (such as a paper and pencil quiz) can be incorporated to assist students in feeling comfortable with PBL, especially when they are younger and/or inexperienced with this type of learning. At the same time, I have found that the use of more traditional assessments helps to ease concerns with parents by providing a balance for those who may be wary of the progressive nature of PBL. So, even though we may have the confidence to end written assessments, we must remember that stakeholder experience is primarily influenced by our actions and their perceptions, not by our swagger.

What Does the Assessment Look Like?

Here are ten questions to consider when designing a project based learning assessment:

For Each Question

1. For each learning target assessed, is it assessed to the same depth to which it has been taught? In other words, are our questions mirroring our instruction? (Webb’s Depth of Knowledge can help.)

2. For questions that assess higher-order thinking, have we considered grading with a rubric as opposed to marking it right or wrong? (Universal rubrics can help.)

3. Could students get the question correct or get a high score without understanding the material, or could they understand the material but somehow score poorly? In other words, will the question provide valid data?

For the Assessment

4. Do questions relate to the project’s primary learning targets that have been taught, while potentially omitting questions related to learning targets that aren’t emphasized as heavily during the project (and could possibly be assessed informally)?

5. For each learning target, does the assessment give students enough of an opportunity to demonstrate mastery while not asking for an excessive amount of information/answers?

6. Based on a student’s answers, could we determine his/her level of achievement for each assessed learning target (and then differentiate accordingly)?

7. To the greatest extent possible, are we reporting out student achievement for each learning target (e.g., standards-based grading), as opposed to combining everything into one score (e.g, percentage grades)?


8. Are we formatively assessing throughout the project (and then differentiating accordingly), as opposed to waiting until the end to formally check for understanding?

9. If this is a formative assessment, are we using its data to drive instruction (without issuing grades)? If this is a summative assessment, are we issuing grades while still maybe allowing for students to be retaught and regraded on content with which they’re struggling?

10. From the beginning of the project, do students know when formal assessments will take place? (Consider including this information in the project’s directions.)


- Generally I prefer open-ended questions, as students are usually already so consumed and preoccupied with their PBL work that distracting them with another performance task could take too much emphasis and time away from the learning. If the assessment comes after the PBL experience, I have found students appreciate the change of pace. And, if crafted properly, student answers won’t all necessarily have to look the same, as there will be “wiggle room” for the exercising of creative expression.

- I have heard the cries of those who claim, “Students should be able to demonstrate their knowledge however they want!” I disagree. Throughout the school year a wide array of opportunities should exist, but at certain points students should be “forced” to communicate what they know in written/essay format, as this is a valuable skill in and of itself (as long as their literacy skills, or lack thereof, don’t interfere with their ability to communicate what they know). Also, when assessing and grading in other formats  e.g., videos, posters, various apps, etc. – let’s make sure not to prioritize flash over substance.

In the End

Erin and I frequently present on the “Yes, buts…” of project based learning. And, without question, the biggest obstacle/pushback of all is “But I need grades…”

We believe this is the wrong conversation.

In Embedded Formative Assessment, Dylan Wiliam reveals that combining grades with careful diagnostic comments is a waste of time. When handed feedback and a grade, students first look at the grade. Second, they look at the grades of their classmates. Third, they ignore their feedback. If we truly want to move students from where they are to where they need to be, feedback in the absence of grades is the answer.

So, have the courage to provide feedback throughout the project to promote learning (not compliance), consider formal assessments if necessary, and always work toward abolishing grades to the greatest extent possible.

How do you assess (and possibly, grade) project based learning?

For more on Ross Coopers blog

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