[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,
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!
On 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.”
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). (more…)