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.