This post is #9 in a series of 10 posts that serve as extensions of the 10 chapters in Hacking Project Based Learning, which I coauthored with Erin Murphy. This post is an extension of Chapter 9, which focuses on summative assessments. #HackingPBL
For all of the posts in the series, tap/click here.
Once again, as educators start to implement project based learning (PBL), two of their more popular questions are: How will my students and I know they are learning what they are supposed to be learning? How will I assess this? Yes, as stated in 5 Reasons Your Rubric Needs a Makeover, some form of a rubric is part of the answer. However, the conversation doesn’t end there.
While we can use a version of a rubric to provide students with feedback (in relation to the project’s learning targets) while the learning is taking place, I don’t think we should be so quick to ditch the paper and pencil test that is given after this learning has occurred.
Here are four reasons to potentially assess PBL with a (somewhat) traditional test.
1. The rubric isn’t enough to know “who got what.”
Ideally, as a result of a PBL unit’s formative assessment process and the feedback collected and given along the way, teachers and students should have enough information to determine who has learned the necessary material and who has not (even without assigning grades). However, in reality, there will be instances in which the project is near its end and you just don’t have enough information to confidently conclude who knows what. And, from my experiences, these instances 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 paper and pencil test (after a day or two of review). After all, this option is a whole lot better than pointing to what your students created/accomplished, and claiming something like, “Of course learning is taking place. Look!” (not that I’ve ever done that…).
2. You don’t want to squash critical thinking and creativity.
If-then rewards [such as grades] 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.
I also called upon this quote (and more of Pink’s work) in a previous post – Should we grade 21st century skills? – to help conclude critical thinking and creativity should not be graded in isolation during PBL, since the research tells us “carroting and sticking” these types of skills isn’t just ineffective, but detrimental. Now we can take this conclusion one step further by claiming projects shouldn’t be graded at all because the learning should be dripping with critical thinking and creativity, and by grading the overall project we are inherently grading and thus probably stifling these skills due to the added pressure students feel. So, don’t grade the project itself, but instead possibly issue a follow-up test that assesses students’ understanding of the concepts learned and called upon during the project.
3. Trying to be too progressive can backfire.
My first few years in the classroom I was constantly challenging myself to be more and more progressive by always exposing my students to teaching and learning experiences that were new to me. 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, as one of my mentors reminded me, “Students don’t care if it’s new to you. What matter is that it works for them.” While assessing and grading based strictly on a project may feel progressive and forward-thinking for the teacher, more traditional techniques (such as a paper and pencil test) 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 tests 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 abolish written tests, we must remember that stakeholder experience is primarily influenced by our actions and their perceptions, not by our swagger.
4. Group work needs individual assessment.
One of my favorite memes declares, “When I die, I want the people I did group projects with to lower me into my grave so they can let me down one last time.” Now, even though this quote may be humorous, as a teacher we are doing our students a disservice if we are allowing for these conditions to occur. While the majority of projects are completed as groups, group grades are not appropriate because they 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 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 assessed and graded with a paper and pencil test.
But, what does the test look like?
If you’ve made it this far (and I know you have), you are probably wondering what this test might look like. While a complete answer to this question is beyond the scope of this post, here’s an excerpt from Hacking Project Based Learning to get the ball rolling:
When creating any summative assessment you want to blur the line between what instruction and assessment look like. In other words, it would not make sense to engage students in PBL, which necessitates inquiry and higher-order thinking, and then hit them with a multiple-choice test that mostly emphasizes rote memorization. At the same time, it would not make sense to engage students in direct instruction and lower-level thinking, and then suddenly expect them to be able to express in-depth knowledge through an essay exam.
- Generally, I prefer essay format, 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 while wasting time on grading. If the test 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. 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
Finally, bottom line…
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.
So, have the courage to provide feedback throughout the project to promote learning (not compliance), consider a paper and pencil test after the fact, and always be working towards not having to grade at all.
What are your thoughts on pairing PBL with a paper and pencil test? How do you think PBL should be graded, if at all?
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