In an older version of our PBL 101 workshop, we showed a slide with the “Elephant in the Room” installation by the British street artist Banksy (shown below). We were referring to grading, a topic that is huge but often avoided when educators talk about instructional reform, because (a) it’s personal to each individual teacher, (b) it’s “the coin of the realm,” especially in middle school and high school, so messing with the familiar grading system can cause a backlash among students and parents, and (c) it can be really tricky. 

In our work with teachers, we hear questions such as:

  • Do I have to invent a whole new grading system when we do PBL units?
  • How can I assign individual grades if students work in teams in a project?
  • How do I assess individual student achievement/mastery of content and success skills in PBL?

This post is about grading within a traditional context. In a later post we can get into more advanced issues such as, “What would a whole new system of assessment and reporting on student achievement look like?” and, “Should the college admissions process put less emphasis on GPA and test scores, and instead look more at projects and portfolios?” and, “Should we even have grades at all?”… Stay tuned.


elephant in a living room


Suggestions for Grading in PBL

 Here are some answers to the above FAQs and more:

You do not need to reinvent your entire grading system when you’re new to PBL, but you’ll need to make some adjustments. 

For example, there will be fewer traditional homework assignments, and perhaps fewer graded assignments generally, so manage your students’ (and their families) expectations accordingly. Instead, use checkpoints with a deliverable, which gets a “go/no-go” assessment, not grades or points, to tell students they’re ready to move on in the project. Emphasize formative assessment and use it often - without grades, just feedback on how to improve. (Btw, as you gain experience with PBL, you’ll see how the grading/assessment system needs to change in more profound ways, such as giving separate grades for content knowledge and success skills/work habits.)

Do not give one grade for the entire project.

Doing so would give too much weight to one grade, and also mask a student’s strengths and weaknesses in particular areas. Assign a grade or score separately to each major summative assessment or product.

Give far greater weight to individual work, not group work.

This will help prevent concerns about unfair grades, especially from high-achieving students (and their parents); also see item #2 above and #4 below. Don’t simply “jig-saw” the work in a project; if students only do one part of a product or presentation, they’re not likely to learn all that you intend. Make sure students have to truly collaborate on all parts of a project.

It’s OK to (occasionally) use traditional measures like quizzes and tests.

These tools can be part of your mix, along with written assignments, as they are especially useful for assessing individual student content knowledge in a project.

Use rubrics to make quality criteria clear, and use them for formative as well as summative assessment.

Rubrics help making grading criteria explicit and clear, even while acknowledging the truth that assessment involves subjective human judgment. We recommend separate rubrics—or at least separate sections of a rubric—for content knowledge/understanding and for success skills. Early on in a project, make sure students understand the rubric’s language, and have them practice using it on exemplars, and for formative self-assessment at checkpoints during a project. Having students co-create a rubric builds ownership and understanding.

Consider NOT grading the final product or presentation. The process is as (or more) important than the final product in PBL. 

You might be thinking, but grades motivate students! If I don’t grade the final product, what’s their incentive to do it well? Based on what we’ve seen and heard from teachers, a good project is plenty motivating to students. They want to do well because they care about the authentic problem or driving question. If students know they will be sharing their work with experts or making a presentation to a public audience, they don’t want to look bad. And finally, working in a team, IF the collaborative culture in a classroom is healthy, creates motivation to do good work; students won’t want to let their teammates down. 

Thoughts from PBLWorks National Faculty 

Finally, here are some wise tips offered by our National Faculty members, gleaned from classroom experience, when I asked them for their thoughts about grading in PBL. Some of these might push your thinking:

Erin Gannon:
“Involve students as much as possible! Create a rubric early on with students for important work so that the expectations are crystal clear, and be sure to refer back to it during work time. There should be no surprises at the end because students have a solid understanding of how they can show mastery/ability/understanding.”

Heather Wolpert-Gawron:

  • “In the spirit of being the coach, make sure that grades are used for feedback. If they are simply summative indicators of how close they got to some concept of perfect, that doesn't tell a student what elements are lacking.
  • Mix it up. Use rubrics for one assignment, screencast feedback for another, peer-scored for another, "outsider-scored" for another, credit/no-credit for some, stars vs. letter grades for another, etc.
  • Release their grade to them only if they prove they've groked the feedback. So many times the student cuts to the grade at the end of the artifact and never reads the "why." Only release that Holy Grail to them when they're comprehended the journey.
  • Not everything needs to be graded! In PBL, it's the process, not the product. What would it look like if the final product never saw a grade? It should instead be the result of a series of feedback opportunities earned throughout the unit.”

Randi Downs:
“If a final product is known, like a TED talk, letter to editor, podcast, etc. a powerful approach is to have the students participate in an "immersion" into that product. Students immerse themselves into bunches of TED talks, for example, and jot down what they notice works, one item per sticky note. Then, in groups, they categorize the sticky notes, label their categories, and share out. From this, we create our final product rubric. I learned this from Katie Wood Ray and her book, Study Driven. It’s pretty much how I had my students create their rubrics for every project.”

Ian Stevenson:
“A powerful process for reflection is to have students score themselves on the rubric whenever the teacher is going to use a rubric (as frequently as possible). This gives a good starting point for conversation with the student. I always asked students for specific evidence if their self-score was higher than mine (and was willing to change my assessment if they pointed out something that I had missed, or explained their perspective more clearly). It also forced me to have specific evidence in order to explain any differences I had that the student wanted to know. This reinforced their confidence with oral communication, especially with the more introverted students, as well as ability to defend their argument! Once I knew students were honest and reflective, I could stop grading so much and use their self-scores on more of the formative checkpoints.
“I love Randi's process of the product immersion so students can co-create the rubric. This is crucial for those projects where students are given significant choice in the products of the project. If students can self-assess on the physical aspects of the product, then the teacher can focus more on the content and visible thinking.”

Here are some more readings about grading in PBL:

Project Based Grading, by Mike McFadden

Evaluation Within Project Based Learning, by Michael Hernandez

PBL Pilot: Matching PBL With Traditional Grading
Standards-Based Assessment in PBL, by Matt Meyers

Developing Confidence Through Delayed Grading (video), Edutopia

How Do We Grade? – Grading and Reporting in a PBL/PrBL Math Class, by Jeff Devarona, New Tech Network

John is an education consultant and writer. He was the editor in chief at PBLWorks for many years.