Assessment and Project-Based Learning

A recent tweet from a new twitter connection has prompted me to write this post on how I assess my students as part of my project-based pedagogy. It can be quite tricky to make this type of approach to learning fit within the narrowing ‘assessment of learning’ approach to assessment that many schools favour. The preferable ‘assessment for learning’, or even better ‘assessment as learning’, is the beating heart of project based pedagogy.

In his book ‘Evidence-Based Learning’ (a book born from the seminal work of John Hattie, ‘Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement’) Geoff Petty documents the significant impact that feedback or ‘assessment for learning’ has on a student’s learning (Hattie records the effect size of assessment for learning as .81 whereas assessment of learning only has an effect size of 0.31). I find this evidence compelling (not simply because it reinforces my own teaching practice) because it runs counter to how many (if not most) schools approach assessment. The introduction of standardised testing in Australia (NAPLAN in Years 3, 5, 7 & 9) as well as the immense focus on the final HSC examinations in Year 12, means that teachers have lost sight of what ‘works’ in education. The focus on ‘teaching to the test’ *might* mean that students are being given feedback as they work through practice test papers on remedial punctuation, spelling and grammar lessons/tasks given, but if the focus is on the test – a very limiting assessment of learning – then students are not truly learning. Anyway, I’ll save my thrilling discussion of assessment for another post, lol.

So … how have I been fitting my project-based pedagogy with its inherent ‘assessment for learning’ within the rigid ‘assessment of learning’ framework already in place at my school and within the broader education context (NAPLAN, SC, HSC)? It has been hard, and to be completely honest I think overall my students have *possibly* not done as well on the final whole-cohort assessments of learning as they may have if I have spent every lesson using the direct-instruction method. I agree with what Dr Steven Paine observes in his interview with CNN, ‘Lower test scores in the short term, he said, would be a product of more rigorous tests and passing thresholds, not lower performance.’ I guess you could say I’m arguing that the assessment we have at our schools don’t actually assess the real learning gains students make – it’s assessing the end product, not the process and this is problematic. The biggest problem with assessment of learning is that it does not give students the feedback they need to improve. If students fail to ‘build-in’ opportunities for teacher, peer and self-feedback throughout the learning cycle, students easily become disengaged, demotivated and continue to make the same errors unchecked. Of course another problem of assessment for learning (and the biggest problem I believe) is the failure to assess those skills that have been coined ’21st century skills’ by so many hip teachers. I guess you could just call them ‘life’ skills. Those things like cooperation, critical and creative thinking, ability to use digital technologies to enhance learning, collaboration, presentation skills, problem-solving, confidence, ethical thinking, persistence … all of these things are so essential to being a human being in the today. These things have not been officially assessed as long as I have been teaching at my school. Of course they are implied within the English Syllabus and even on school reports – but teachers often use their observations of students in class to ‘assess’ if a student has certain skills.

I have posted previously about my efforts to change all of our assessments to ‘assessments for learning’ rather than ‘assessments of learning’. I’ve still not finished Petty’s ‘Feedback or assessment for learning’ chapter but when I do I will blog about it. I know my approach will change (again) after this reading – and that’s a good thing for me and my students. I’m sure what I’m doing in my class already doesn’t reflect what is the ‘PBL-way’ but I’m making it fit with the context I am working in. Essentially students require meaningful and clear feedback as they learn. Part of PBL is the breaking down of a student ‘grade’ into smaller components over a period of time. Each ‘component’ contributes to the students’ ability to complete the final product and presentation of learning. Here is an example below.

In English students need to learn to write stories. One of our assessments was the writing of a short story focusing on an issue explored in the novel being studied. Originally students were handed out the assessment notification two weeks before the task was due. The notification included a description of the task as well as the marking criteria – all written in teacher-speak. It was up to the individual teacher teach directly to the task in that two weeks, or to continue teaching the novel. Students wrote the story at home – often the night before the due date – submitted the story and two weeks later they received a grade and possibly a one sentence comment. It sounds awful writing that down – but it’s how (I’m guessing) the assessment process works at most schools. I changed this task to include required formative assessment elements. Students are given the assessment task notification four weeks before the task is due. The task requires students to complete four parts over the four weeks: story plan, draft story, finished story, reflection on process. Each part is worth equal marks. This is nothing new to those teachers who teach practical subjects or the highest level of English. It is, however, a process more effective for student learning. Each part of the assessment is marked either by the teacher or peers and constructive, meaningful feedback given. Students use this feedback to redirect their learning.  Of course the reality of this being implemented is that not all teachers are giving equal amounts of feedback and the students still perceive the polished story as being what ‘matters’ because it is handed in officially, marked by another teachers and given a mark out of ’15’. I don’t think the task is a complete success yet.

When it comes to skills like those mentioned above, I think it is interesting to actually look into our syllabi and reporting measures to take note of what students are actually required to learn and how this diverges from what teachers actually assess. In my syllabus I know there are outcomes about these skills:

Stage 4:      ( 11)    uses, reflects on and assesses individual and collaborative skills for learning.

Stage 5:    ( 11 )  uses, reflects on, assesses and adapts their individual and collaborative skills for learning with increasing independence and effectiveness.

Stage 6:   (9)  A student assesses the appropriateness of a range of processes and technologies in the investigation and organisation of information and ideas.

(13)                  A student reflects on own processes of learning.

The final five reporting outcomes for our student reports refer to a student’s behaviour in the classroom, ability to work independently, organisational skills, team-work etc. Are these actually taught and nurtured in a teacher-centred classrooms? Probably not! Are these being included on assessment criteria by the teachers who are required to assess these skills? No.

Built in to my PBL is a series of investigations, products and a final presentation of learning. Each task involves teacher, self and peer-feedback. Students actively engage in goal-setting and reflection tasks. Unfortunately the skills I know my students are strengthening as a result of PBL are not being ‘officially’ assessed because of the rigid assessment of learning framework I work within. This will slowly change as I get my hands on each assessment task and *suggest* a facelift. Assessment is a massive driver of teaching and learning – we can’t ignore it.

My PBL is by no means perfect, but I can say that I am much more engaged with the learning needs of each of my students this year than I have ever been. I’ve seen my students move from resistant team-members to active and engaged learners. Unfortunately the types of whole-cohort ‘official’ assessment they encounter don’t really assess these skills. It’s changing. Slowly.

23 thoughts on “Assessment and Project-Based Learning

  1. The question you are raising, is do the exam results, that give us quantitative data, really matter when the students are deep learning. So often, the dynamic is proof of learning in numbers. It is tangible and easy to measure. But I know, from your classroom and mine, success is much more than just a Band 6.
    When I did the Ministers Quality Teaching Award, one criteria was my teaching values – I stated that I wanted students to learn no matter what the results, and to walk away having enjoyed learning. I have not changed my view – and from this, students get better results.
    You are so passionate Bianca! It is hard not to compare yourself to others, but you are so deeply engrossed and knowledgeable on PBL… the students trust and know that their learning goes beyond a mark on a piece of paper they will never look at!
    I give you an A+

    • Thanks for the A+ Jess – oh the irony that I just read ‘grades degrade learning’ – bahah!
      Of course there are going to be issues relating to grades when the assessments are flawed. That’s my whole point – if the assessment (e.g. standardised tests) don’t measure ‘deep learning’ it makes sense that the assessment needs fixing. Not going to happen anytime soon. Unfortunately because so many schools are now using the results of standardised tests to judge the quality of teaching and learning we’re pretty much viewed as Band 6 machines. We get to sort the perceived ‘good’ from the ‘bad’ for the unis … blah!

  2. Great post Bianca and congratulations on your efforts to balance required assessment tasks with authentic student learning. I will be trying to adapt your approach to my science and Maths classes in future.

    • Thanks Britt – let me know how you go. It really is SO hard to implement and I think the need to dismantle almost all you know about teaching means it won’t easily have widespread application or adoption. I can’t see it being useful to keep going with the teacher-centred, exam-focused drivel that’s happening in most schools. PBL offers heaps to kids and teachers imo.

  3. Excellent reflection of your practice BH. Coming from a special education perspective this PBL approach for assessment that strengthens learning as it happens, iterative step by step by step, is far more practical and ‘real world’ than the arbitrary date and age based assessment which is implemented as a matter of policy, not pedagogy, currently.

    • Thanks 🙂 I think reflecting like this makes me realise how normal assessment of learning has become and really how ineffective it is. There are significant long-term ramifications of this approach for young brains … self-perception is impacted massively by the ‘grade’ we are given by teachers – often students ‘pre-grade’ themselves e.g. ‘I am a C. I will never be an A’. Shocking 😦
      I think one surprising thing is that assessment for learning is actually included in my English syllabus … it just isn’t being implemented by teachers who are constantly bombarded with mixed messages from a variety of contextual influences. But alas, that’ll have to be another blog post! 🙂

  4. Nice post. I’ve got this thing about deep learner being performance towards competence, and that is the world that digital has created. Edumacation (exams and gravitational, functional literacy) is based on the idea the world is competence then performance based. Ie, get your mark, then you can … rather than this knowledge enables you to apply to … if we enable society to do the latter, it fundamentally breaks the model of only the academic elite shall win, which in turn challenges the order of power.

    You can watch this in Massively Minecraft every day as kids get feedback on their learning – from the environment, the objects and the players interacting with it. I wince when teachers ask me about gaming – they always want to assess it using methods that are oppositional to the performance towards competency methods. This further causes a rift as games are not inherently ‘constructivist’ or ‘social-constructivist’ – in fact when they want to you to learn something important – they can be very behaviorist, almost Pavlovian.

    The questions in HS is “Is it your job to get scores and kids into University (the numbers of HSC students that could – but don’t go – would surprise most parents) … or to keep them there or anywhere they want to go next. Anyone who thinks their job is to get my kids band 6 scores needs to find another job IMO, and that is core to the PBL and GBL ethos – soft skills are hard to measure with a dip-stick, so often left as fuzzy statements as you’ve said.

    I’ll take fuzzy over remembering inane facts anytime. I used to teach IST, a topic I think I could teach year 4/5 to do these days with ease using PBL.

    I don’t for a second imagine the ‘system’ will take it seriously – hence the need for people with no money or power to band together, become a foundation and push the agenda, though evidence based practice.

    You can teach my kids anyday. I think what you are doing here is creating levels of trust that is so sadly lacking in class. The kids don’t trust that what they are doing is anything more than busy work or history. A game will always tell you why something matters – and not since 1988 has the end been ‘game over’ – unlike testing, which seems to get worse not better.

    • This comment is so epic that I am scared to reply … maybe I don’t need to reply and I should just let it sit in the radiance of its own awesum – no?
      BUT alas I love the click click of my fingers hitting the keys on my mac so I’ll endeavour to respond thoughtfully to your post.
      I think you’re right. The way we get where we want to go isn’t dictated by what qualifications we have. I guess you could think of a DIY punk band as an example. Think about Fugazi – my fav band ever – they didn’t go through university to become qualified as DIY hardcore musicians. In fact, the guys cut their teeth in a band (Minor Threat) that sometimes barely resembles what most people call music … they got their instruments (without a licence – oh no!) and started smashing away at them. Eventually through a process of trial and error, probably mimicry and feedback from themselves and their peers, they strengthened their product and created something wholly unique and awesome. This was before youtube, so they didn’t get cyber punters, they got flesh and blood punters – maybe a few to begin, maybe a whole bunch, depends on the context. Now think about the seven year old playing minecraft. He is thrown into a virtual world where he has no knowledge, skills or inventory. Within a week he has mastered so many skills in the game he wants to create a video and share it with other new users on youtube. How does he make the video? Does he go and complete a course ‘youtube video production 101’ and get a certificate? No! He just starts asking questions, checking out other vids and messes around with the software. He creates before he is deemed a ‘master’.
      Why do we expect mastery before we allow creativity? The damn blooms taxonomy is fucking up schools cos teachers won’t let the kids move on to ‘create’ before they’ve ‘mastered’ the other levels of thinking. Duh!
      So now I know where I screwed my last unit – I expected them to show competence before they were allowed to perform – and this resulted in epic frustration for the kids.
      Hmmm … I wonder if this comment just undermines what I’ve been reading in my book about learning. I guess it was published in 2006.
      OK – thanks for frying my brain once again … oh, and Mr 7 just left for school saying ‘computer classes are boring mum, I know it all – wish I they’d let me play minecraft’
      PBL = DIY punk awesum. Nice ;0)

  5. interesting post – and certainly a good insight into how English is taught and assessed.

    I’m writing a series of PBL posts and my most recent one is helping students manage tasks and time. It’s pretty much what you say above but in my typical list-form (I am partial to lists). I also highlight the importance of feedback – assessment for and of learning. In PBL, teachers can create multiple opportunities for feedback.

    I think you’re on the right track!

    • Cool – thanks for the link! I’ll have to RSS your blog to edmodo … so glad you’ve taken the challenge of implementing PBL. I’ll be interested to see what framework you’re using for your PBL – I think it varies significantly from teacher to teacher which is great as we should always vary our practice for our context. Still, there are some elements that I think are integral to meaningful projects … another post I guess 😉

      • not sure I understand your question. PBL is a framework in itself in terms of teaching, learning and assessment. If you mean what approach to PBL, then I’d say a balancing of both process and product.

        My posts are drawn from my expeience in real life project work in technology systems development. I’ve worked as process and project manager as well as consultant for these roles so I have a bit to say about projects. The trick is mapping it into the school context. This is why I like to read how teachers like you are implementing PBL in their classroom and subjects.

  6. Thought that your commentary was insightful and should be read more widely.
    This is the sort of thing that most of my colleagues believe and yet the community at large doesn’t seem to be interested in entertaining. Appearance over substance is the underlying problem. Shudder to think that we jumped on the band wagon with George W and the US.
    Hope the National Curriculum mirrors your point of view on learning and assessment.

    • That’s very kind of you to say, Rich. I fear it is too verbose for a wide audience, lol – probably too self-referential as well!
      It’s nice to know that you’re colleagues feel the same about assessment – perhaps you can just work from below and make the changes yourselves? I think the best changes are bottom-up. The ‘wider community’ don’t know enough about assessment to be brought into the equation – frustrating how our profession is subject to the attitudes of the ‘lay-person’, don’t see that with doctors do you?
      The Draft English Syllabus AND the Australian Curriculum: English both encourage assessment of learning. At the recent ETA conference it was explicitly addressed by a keynote speaker. It’s just that we get mixed-messages from a variety of stakeholders – students, parents, community, school executive, peers etc. Such a confusing time for teachers – our struggle with it all really shouldn’t be underestimated!

  7. This post really resonates Bianca. The pitfalls of the Assessment of Learning are clearly outlined here (and are seen in every de-motivated classroom where students are only concerned with “will this be on the test?”).
    I think it is important that we are trying something different with PBL because those life skills that aren’t assessed are EXACTLY what are needed for our students to get on outside our school context. As Seth Godin says” “School is great for teaching ‘school’.” But life isn’t school and school (as it is most of the time) doesn’t reflect life out there. One positive side-effect of PBL is that it has ME excited about teaching again. I like the process of working through the process and working collaboratively towards shipping a product.
    As long as your students realise that the test doesn’t matter, the skills and understanding gained from the process will help them achieve a band 6 in LIFE!

    • @bevenden I agree completely that PBL has the benefit of getting the teacher excited too. This shouldn’t be underestimated! Not only do our classes then become a whole new source of professional development (as we give ourselves permission to extend our own learning alongside our students, participating in the community of learners), but it gives us a much needed source of energy and inspiration to carry out our work.

      @bhewes – do you think that if Project Based Learning better suits Assessment FOR and AS learning, maybe other approaches stemming from the same experiential/constructivist perspective could be harnessed for Assessment OF learning?
      e.g. I am considering planning my next semester around using:
      i. Inquiry based learning (assessment = critical/reflective essay) assessment as learning
      ii. Project based learning (assessment = project + review of pedagogy used in class project) assessment for learning
      iii. Challenge based learning (assessment = make lesson plans for English) assessment of learning
      …do you have a view on the merits of these other approaches?

      • Hey Kel 🙂

        I keep changing the focus of my research question … maybe it needs to be multiple questions? I wanna look at assessment, feedback, technology, student engagement, teacher engagement, how its implemented, blah, blah – lol.

        To your questions … I really am a complete nOOb at this and haven’t done any research into challenge based learning or inquiry learning so can’t even pretend to answer you questions with any authority at all. I always associate CBL with the Apple brand and as such am not interested in pursuing it, lol. I’d say PBL is a lot about the framework – it includes inquiry and challenges, haha. Did you design the assessments or the pedagogy first? I’m sure that other pedagogies include assessment of learning practices – direct teacher instruction can. Problem is, most don’t. Don’t think I answered your question(s) 😦

    • Exactly! I wouldn’t say my Adv English Year 12 class is demotivated by the tests – more like strung out by them! It’s become this state of hyper-attentiveness to anything that mentions HSC or Band 6 – so yes, if these students see the work as not contributing to this ‘goal’ then they tune-out. Makes sense really – what need to change is to goal. Wanting to get a ‘Band 6’ as a means to get into university shouldn’t be the driver for learning. The disconnection between what the HSC assesses and the skills the students need to be successful at university and in their future employment is something that must be addressed also.
      I want to know more about this ‘shipping the product’ language you’re using – where did this come from? Is the ‘product’ central to your PBL? How do presentations fit into your current practice?
      I agree with Kelli – PBL should be about keeping both the teacher and the student engaged as learners. We should be challenging each other. Makes the job of a teacher less about ‘wok’ and more about ‘awesome’. lol.

      • Just going back through some of your posts & comments and found this one. Sorry I didn’t get back to you. I suddenly (for some reason it happens about this time of the year, getting sick of the teaching norm, etc.) start to engage with how i can make my classroom better.
        The term “shipping the product” comes from Seth Godin’s LINCHPIN, where he talks about Apple & Job’s mantra “Real artists ship”. I can recommend it and his ebook STOP STEALING DREAMS (if you haven’t read it already). Again, sorry to have left this reply so long. Maybe it doesn’t matter anymore, or maybe more than ever – who knows?!?!

  8. Pingback: Pedagogy or assessment – what comes first in PBL? | Kelli McGraw

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  11. Thank you for sharing such a detailed write up of PBL. So many times as I read I found myself shaking my head in agreement especially when it comes to PBL increasing engagement. What has your experience been with using PBL with students with special needs?

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