Teacher helping a student

Assessment is one of the aspects of PBL we hear the most concerns about. Teachers, administrators, and sometimes parents ask questions such as, Is everything assessed in the culminating presentation or final product in a project? How do we know what individual students have learned if everything’s done as a team? How do we assess success skills like critical thinking, problem solving, and collaboration? How do we reconcile assessment in PBL with grading and other traditional practices and measures of achievement?

who, what, how, chart for assessing pal

We answer these questions by beginning with a reassurance that you can still use many traditional assessment practices during a project. Like another of our Project Based Teaching Practices, Scaffolding Student Learning, teachers don’t need to throw away what they already know how to do and start from scratch when they start using PBL. After this reassurance, however, we then move to explain what may be some new practices – and new mindsets – required to assess student learning in the PBL context. I discussed this sometimes-tricky topic in a recent hangout with three members of our National Faculty, Kelly Reseigh, Michelle Spencer, and Andrew Miller.

When I asked why assessing student learning is important in PBL, and how it differs from traditional assessment, all three guests emphasized the more active role of students in the process. Kelly said, “Kids need to know where they’re at” both in relation to standards and personally what their goals are. She pointed out that traditionally, teachers say “I know my kids” but “It’s not enough for teachers to know their kids, it’s important for kids to know themselves.” Assessment practices in PBL should reveal useful information and give students an opportunity to reflect on their progress.

“Students are hungry for feedback,” agreed Michelle, “So assessment can be celebratory, and show growth.”

Andrew pointed out that since projects tend to be lengthy, students need to know where they are in the process. It’s not like traditional practice, when students are assessed on a lesson-by-lesson or assignment-and-test basis and don’t need to keep track of where they are in relation to the requirements of completing a project over a longer period of time.

Our National Faculty members, rock stars that they are, were able to name several best practices for assessment in PBL that I think are worthy of a special list:

10 tips for the best practices of PBL Assessment

You’ll have to listen to the hangout to hear Kelly, Michelle, and Andrew expand on these tips and hear examples of projects that illustrated them. Andrew explained more about how grading should not be used for compliance, and how PBL teachers find other ways to engage students – by asking them to do authentic work. He also suggested teachers emphasize the temporary nature of grades, and focus on having a growth mindset: “This is where you’re at now, but you will move forward.”

Finally, I asked about some common pitfalls teachers face when it comes to assessment in PBL. Michelle warned of the tendency of teachers to “teach it more, teach it harder” when trying to improve a skill such as writing. “It’s well worth the time and energy it takes to teach students how to assess each other’s writing; it’s powerful.” Andrew noted how some teachers, when they realize some students didn’t get a concept, call a halt to everyone’s project work and re-teach the whole class, perhaps out of fear of letting go. Instead, pull the students who need it to the side for a mini-lesson, and let the other students continue working. Kelly mentioned that teachers she’s observed often spend quite a bit of time designing a project but not enough time planning assessment. I agree, because as you can tell from the above discussion, it may take time for teachers new to PBL to build their skills for assessing student learning, since it requires not only using familiar tools in a new context but learning new practices and, perhaps, changing beliefs.

Do you have questions, examples, or tips to share about assessing student learning in PBL? Please enter it in the comments below.

Some material drawn from Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning (ASCD 2015) authored by the Buck Institute for Education.

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