It’s not easy for me to admit it, but in my initial year as the Project Based Learning coach in my school department I almost lost my entire first cohort back to more traditional teaching methods. Luckily for me they were the early adopters—ready to try something, open to the try resulting in disaster, prepared to learn from their mistakes and to try again. As it is, they were somewhat discouraged. They had spent hours of their time planning a project and weeks of their time facilitating a project, only to end up with products that didn’t clearly reflect student learning. They had no idea what grades to give their students, no idea if their students had really learned what they meant to teach, and weren’t sure if they should go back and teach the content another time “the old fashioned way” or just move on to the next unit.

“Align to Standards” is a deceptively complicated strand in BIE’s Project Based Teaching Practices rubric. At first even I was deceived, thinking “This is not hard. I just choose a standard and make sure it’s in my project somewhere.” But it is hard. Creating product criteria that are “clearly and specifically derived from standards” and “allows demonstration of mastery” requires careful thought and planning—especially if our standards expect students to demonstrate in-depth understanding of concepts. It’s easy to look at a student’s product and see if he or she knows what the three branches of government are. They are clearly labeled. Looking at a product to assess a deep understanding of how the three branches of government function as checks and balances for each other isn’t so easy to do.

So how do we assure that our products are standards-aligned in a way to allows us to assess students for mastery? Here are three tips to keep in mind.

Think about your standards as the learning necessary to complete the final product—not as the final product itself 

Your driving question is not “How can I use my understanding of the way a bill becomes a law to make my town better? It’s “How can I, as a citizen, change the laws in my town to reduce our carbon footprint?” Once students start along the path toward changing a law, they will need to know everything within your social studies standards that you need them to know. The product needs to require the use of the knowledge, understanding, and success skills that are your focus for the project. Demonstration of mastery of some standards might not be visible in the actual final product; it might show up only in the process of developing the final product. Be sure you are looking for signs of standards mastery at all stages of  product development.

Use a rubric

I know BIE National Faculty members say this almost every chance we get, but it’s true that checklists are only useful when measuring completion. If you want to measure quality—and learning—you have to use a rubric. Rubrics often have a bad rap; start talking rubrics in an educational setting and eyes may roll. I think this is because rubrics were, in the past, used to measure things that didn’t require rubrics. And they were often not good.

Rubrics are necessary when there are multiple standards being assessed in a single product, and/or when you’d like to give students detailed feedback on the progress they have shown in a product toward meeting a standard. Use detailed language in your rubric, and include as much vocabulary from the original standard as you can—and as much as is student-friendly. Think about how you will know that a student has met the learning standard through creating a product. That’s your “3” column. Then think about what a product that is almost there will include. That’s your “2” column. Consider leaving the “4” column blank; that’s where your students can surprise you with the creative ways they exceed your learning standards. Also, don’t worry about the “1” column. In my classroom, anything that rates a “1” is an automatic do-over. It’s not something my students can be proud of, and it’s not something I am going to assess. (I’m also not sure how it got past all the critique rounds, but that’s for another blog.)

Authenticity is your friend 

A product that is designed to align with the ways adults in the world use standards-based knowledge, understanding, and success skills is a product that is aligned to those standards. And don’t be afraid of simulations; the students in the medical interns project we show in BIE’s PBL 101 workshop were completing standards-aligned products even though their “patients” were not real patients.

Standards-aligned products are a critical part of a high quality project, but they are often assumed to be in a project plan instead of carefully constructed. The next time you develop a project, take a few minutes to think about what your students might produce and where you will be able to see their mastery of standards. Will it be in the final product itself, as part of a written component or presentation? Will it be in their research, as they take notes on different body parts and what makes the human body a system? Maybe it is in the follow-up questions they ask a guest speaker in order to decide on a theme for a parade? Wherever those demonstrations of mastery might show up, know where they are, and be ready to look for them.

Angela Marzilli, National Faculty
PBLWorks National Faculty member Angela Marzilli is currently the PreK-12 STEM and PBL Coordinator in the South Portland, Maine public school department. She also facilitates high school-level project based forensic science and math classes, and teaches elementary language arts classes.