[Note: I’ve added further clarification to my argument in a comment below the post]

We call it PBL– Project Based Learning– but inevitably as we immerse ourselves in the practice and the thinking about it, we recognize the limitations of this term.

As I increasingly write and share thoughts about PBL, I find, and I know others do too, especially helpful the clarification provided by explaining what it isn’t– as for, example, it’s not Project-Oriented Learning, not an enrichment activity or an independent assignment– and the illumination offered by the metaphors– PBL is not the dessert, it’s the entree.

One of my concerns is that the term PBL makes a mistake in reinforcing the understandably pervasive, but in my eyes problematic, perception that the project itself– the thing students make or present or publish or post– is what the PBL experience is all, or mostly/especially, about.    It isn’t.    But saying PROJECT based learning makes it sounds as if it is.

“Learning by doing,” (LbD), or “Learning by Project Preparation” (LbPP) would, I’m arguing here, better capture convey the heart of what I call high quality, 21st century PBL.  (as do inquiry based learning and challenge-based learning, both of which are in the conversation but, in my experience, far less prominent/established as PBL).

Rethinking PBL this way helps us rethink how best we assess student learning in PBL, something for which that many teachers in surveys report feeling especially under-prepared for and lacking in proficiency.

The heart of my argument here is that despite the understandably common norm,  we shouldn’t assess the project.  Don’t.  

Don’t choose or create and apply a rubric for a “quality project,” and don’t tell student that their grade is based on the quality of their project.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t grade student learning– although I realize there are many who wish we could dramatically reduce or eliminate grading.   No– I’m operating inside the current conventional world of schooling and grades, the same one in which most of us live.

Assess not the project, but instead, assess the 3-6 things you’ve decided you want students to want students to know, or know better, and be able to do, or do better, at the end of the unit.

In assessing these concrete, specific, public things, you will most certainly seek and accept as evidence of their learning their final projects/products, but we’ve now re-conceptualized that assessment in meaningful ways.   And, essential to remember, is that we will seek and accept other things in addition to the project as evidence of their learning.

Time out here for a minute.  Let’s review what other key PBL resources say about assessment.

First up, the excellent free guide from High Tech High entitled Work that Matters.    Here from that book is the guru Ron Berger on the topic.

Assessment isn’t just about the final product.   Teachers often mistakenly presume that a project’s final product is the only thing they should assess, which leads them to assume that they should be able to tell whether the kids learned what they needed to learn by looking at the final product.

Actually, assessing what kids know is ongoing throughout a project. The product is the motivation for learning the material, but it won’t demonstrate that they learned it all. For example, in the physics standards project (see page 51) each kid only demonstrated one physics concept, so how do you know that they learned the rest of the material?

The answer to this question is that the project isn’t the assessment. You can assess what they’ve learned before the book project comes out, and afterwards. In Physics Standards they gave all the students a physics test with all the concepts in it. You need to do assessment throughout the project so that when they’re doing great artistic stuff, you know that they know what they need to know. You can’t leave it all to the end.

Ron Berger, Chief Programme Officer,
Expeditionary Learning

Note the emphasis he places here on not leaving assessment all to the end, and indeed, the project might not be able to capture and convey all the things you want students to learn.   You have to assess more than just the project, and you can give tests along the way, even.  Tests! 

work-that-mattersOn the following page of the High Tech High booklet, this is reinforced: “You may want to have a separate assessment of knowledge, such as an exam.”

And more:

Has the student learned the curriculum content required for this project?

The process followed here is much the same as for the assessment of skills,with one important difference: your project plan should include the essential curriculum content for the project. As a result, much of this will be considered ‘non-negotiable’, though it is still important to have students co-construct the process.

So, for example, you might ask students to determine how they will present the content knowledge they’ve acquired through the project (they might do this through an essay, quiz, presentation, film, etc).

Where possible, your project design should avoid the separation of content
knowledge from technique and skills development. Your assessment strategies
should reflect this too.

I appreciate the suggestion for opportunity being provided to students to have input on how the content of the curriculum in the PBL unit might be demonstrated, what evidence will be sought and accepted, for that learning.   Excellent.

I quibble just a tad with the message to avoid separating assessment of content and skills development.   My reading of Brookhart, which informs much of this post, is that we need to be as clear and specific as we can about what exactly we are assessing in each assessment we undertake, and far too often it will muddy the waters to blend assessment of content knowledge and skills.

That said, perhaps it is best to focus on the “when possible” which leads that paragraph.   Sure, when possible.  Those teachers highly experienced, savvy, and proficient at both PBL and PBL assessment who are effectively uniting content and skills in their PBL design and assessments– I’m not trying to take anything away from them.  I’m trying to support teachers newer to PBL or wishing to improve the quality of their PBL assessments, and for them, I think, separate, separate, separate until you have renewed confidence and proficiency to try blending “where possible.”

PBL_Starter_Kit_2011Over at BIE’s book, the PBL Starter Kit, they speak of, on pages 59-60, the importance of conducting ongoing formative assessment to check student learning, and say

To assess content knowledge and understanding, have students take a quiz, do a quick-write to explain a concept, or complete an individual homework assignment.

On pages 79-80, more help is provided about how student work should be graded.

Grading suggestions in PBL:

Instead of giving one overall project grade or score, assign a grade or score to each product or performance in the project.

Include a mix of individually earned grades and group earned grades in every project, and record them separately in your grade book.   Especially when you’re new to PBL, play it safe by giving more weight to individual grades.

Separate grades for demonstrating 21st century skills from grades for learning subject-matter content. 

Note that  they recommend separation of grades for skills and content, different from the High Tech High Work that Matters recommendation.

boss bookIn Suzie Boss’ authoritative book, Reinventing Project-Based Learning, she recommends drawing on a “variety of assessment strategies… including criteron-referenced, alternative assessments and performance assessments.”

She goes on to cite the work of Paul Curtis at New Tech Network Schools, where they

measure students progress across several categories.   ‘A teacher might have one category for how well a student knows the content, another about written communication, another for critical thinking, and another for work ethic.”

So again, in the spirit of clarifying PBL by confronting some of the misunderstandings around it, let me offer this counsel for assessment:

  1. Determine, yourself and/or with your students, how students will demonstrate that learning, and in other words, what evidence you will seek and accept for that learning. 
  2. Never be unwilling to give a good-old-fashioned test as one of the ways you will collect that evidence. 
  3. Specify to yourself and your students the purpose of each assessment. 
  4. Don’t assess the final project; don’t create a rubric for the final project as a project.   
  5. On your own or with your students, develop the rubrics for each of the finite specified skills and content you want students to master, and then collect the evidence of students demonstrating these skills and content from a variety of sources, including, of course, the final project. 

I recognize that perhaps some will think I’m splitting hairs in the distinction I’m making between numbers four and five above–perhaps it is purely semantics.   But, I believe there is value in reconceptualizing PBL assessment.   Too often teachers wrestle– I know I have– with applying a single grade to the breadth of a project, even with a rubric that offers subsections.

Too often we put too much emphasis on the final project through the PBL experience, teachers and students alike, because that that is where the grade will be, which can’t help but generate the perception in kids and even in teachers that the purpose of the project is to produce a quality project.   How easy it is for all of us to think that!

But it’s not.  The purpose of the project is to for students to learn the skills and content determined to be most important in the experience of doing the project.   By redirecting our attention to assessing these things, we both explicitly and implicitly redirect our students’ understanding of why they’re doing what they’re doing; by grading by ways additional to the project itself, including tests, we reinforce their understanding that the point of the exercise is to learn the material, content and skills.  In doing so, we will help overcome the misconceptions the very term PBL can create and shift it toward what we intend, LbD– Learning by Doing.