How Do You Assess Project-Based Learning

teacher evaluating students working on electrical circuits

Many students believe that what is important to learn is what is “on the test” because, they believe, it is important to teachers. However, what is important to teachers has little to do with the kinds of assessments they use. Teachers hope that students can think critically and solve problems, but often they do not know how to design quality assessments of meaningful learning. The reason is that meaningful learning is not easy to implement, requiring them to develop those skills.

Students at all levels of education have a deficient understanding of content and skills because they were required to represent what they know in only one way. Adequate assessment of problem solving skills requires more than one form of assessment. 

When students are engaged in meaningful learning, they learn how to recognize and solve problems, comprehend new phenomena, construct mental models of those phenomena, and given a new situation, set goals and regulate their own learning (learn how to learn). Most contemporary research on learning has shown that learning tasks that are situated in some meaningful real-world task or simulated in some case-based or problem-based learning environment are not only better understood, but also are more consistently transferred to new situations and therefore it is authentic. 

How to Engage Students in the Assessment Process

In a project environment, teachers and students collaborate on assessment. At each stage of the assessment process, teachers and students work together to collect data, make decisions about individual progress, document progress, and set goals. This collaborative process helps students become self-reflective, self-monitoring learners who regulate and take responsibility for their own learning.

Assessment of Student Understanding

This process of assessing student understanding consists of a three step procedure:

  • The teacher and the students gather information that will help in forming generalizations about student learning
  • After gathering information, the teacher and the students assemble and present the information in some fashion so that it is recorded
  • The teacher and the students evaluate the assessment information. The purpose of the evaluation is to make judgment about student growth, to set goals, and to report information to students and their parents

Gathering Assessment Information

Observation-Based Assessment: Observation is a great way to gather data. Those play a key role in a teacher’s minute-to-minute decision making during a project. However, observations can also be planned and formal. A teacher can also purposefully listen and watch a particular student while he solves a problem, reads aloud, or creates a project to identify problem areas

Discussion-Based Assessment: Discussions can be used to extract information about students’ knowledge, skills, and attitudes. This form of assessment is less threatening to most students than are traditional forms of testing and consequently, invites broader student participation. These are the various ways in which discussions can be used for assessment:

  • Discussions can provide rich information about students’ understanding of important concepts. 
  • Discussions can also be used to identify students’ process skills and thinking patterns during investigations. 
  • Discussions can be used to check students’ attitudes 

Anecdotal Records Assessment: Anecdotal records include written notes that describe student behaviors made at or near the time that the behaviors occurred. After a class period, teachers can make notations about students’ understandings, types of questions they asked, and possible misunderstandings demonstrated.

Checklist Assessment: To keep track of students’ observations, teachers often keep checklists. These checklists can be used to evaluate knowledge, skills or attitudes. When used for assessment, checklists can count or tally the frequency of something.

Classroom Interview Assessment: In a classroom interview, students can explain in greater detail what they understand, how they are progressing, what problems they are having, or what steps they or the teacher might take to improve learning. In an interview, the teacher can get to know students, work on individual student goals and clarify misunderstandings and concerns. Interviews provide a depth of information that other forms of assessment cannot. They also provide opportunities for clarification of classroom observations.

Performance Assessment: PBL assessments should be authentic, which is to say that they should be structured so that students can display their understanding of problems and their solutions in contextually-meaningful ways (Gallagher, 1997). To address this type of authentic learning, teachers are encouraged to discard outdated evaluative methods in favor of assessment systems designed to provide information required to improve performance. The concept of performance assessment tries to answer the question: Can the student perform the task? It is not whether they remember how to solve problems and not whether they remember the domain content required to solve problems. Rather, can the students solve problems similar to the ones they have been taught? Can they perform problem solving? How well did they solve the problem?

Performance assessment includes these elements:

  • Students must construct a response or a product rather than simply select from a set of predefined alternatives or answers.
  • Assessment consists of direct observation or assessment of student behavior on problem-solving tasks.
  • Assessment of the quality of the product or observation using a rubric that is, a description of desirable performance.

Assembling and Presenting Assessment Information

In project-based learning there are two ways to assemble and present information: artifacts and portfolios.

Artifacts: Artifacts are the products that result from an investigation: writing samples, journals, physical or computer models, drawings, videos. Artifacts which represent students’ work are a concrete product that can be assessed. Artifacts can be presented to an audience or parents. Students are more motivated to complete investigations and put forth their best efforts to develop artifacts when they see a purpose to the activity. 

One type of artifact is the daily journal. In a daily journal students record personal events, experiences and reflections relating to the work they are doing. They offer several advantages over other forms of assessments:

  • They enable students to assemble some of their own assessment information.
  • They permit the teacher to conduct assessment at the most convenient time
  • Journal writing encourages students to connect what they learn to their daily lives
  • Journal encourage candid teacher-to-student or student-to-student communication

Portfolios: Portfolios are collections of student artifacts, can be thought of as both objects and methods of assessment. As objects they are a place of holding materials such as digital products, physical products, drawings and other materials that are representative of student work.  A Portfolio assessment is a process of collecting representative samples of students’ work over time for purposes of documenting and assessing their learning.

Making Judgements From Assessment Information

The purpose of evaluation is to make judgments about student growth, set goals and report information to students and their parents. In the past, teachers used assessment mostly for reporting grades, and only the teacher had a voice in determining how well the students were doing. Today, assessment techniques give students a voice in the assessment process. 

A survey of students’ favored assessment types (Van den Berg et al., 2006) found students were wary of self-assessment and peer assessment as being too subjective but supported co-assessment (by peers and teachers) as this provided an element of peer assessment with the perceived “safety net” of teacher evaluation. The preferred assessment type was the reflective journal, which they felt gave an insight into group dynamics, facilitated feedback on the project and enabled students to explain their performance. Formative assessment of journals was preferred but students were also happy for part of this to be summative. However students felt it essential that the reflective journal should be kept confidential from other students and avoid frequent entries.

Scoring Rubrics: In order to assess performance, it is necessary to construct descriptors of the required actions, thoughts and operations so that we know what good performance is. These descriptors are called rubrics

Rubrics describe performance (good performance and bad performance). They often take the form of a scale or set of scales used to assess a complex performance but also used to improve performance by the student. There is no single right way to go about developing a rubric. To learn more about rubrics, check out our “How To Design Rubrics For Project-Based Learning” section.

Peer Assessment: A critical part of assessment in PBL is the feedback students receive from their peers. Peer assessment can provide valuable insights. Students can evaluate each other’s contributions, providing feedback on teamwork, participation, and understanding of the project material. Peer ratings, however, are not sufficient feedback and neither are single letter grades. The instructor should also provide detailed comments about each student’s strengths and weaknesses. Having students evaluate their own performance can be a valuable task as well (Bridges, 1996).

Student Self-Assessment: Encouraging students to assess their own work and process is crucial in PBL. This can include writing reflective essays or journals, discussing what they learned, what they found challenging, and how they might approach things differently in the future.

To encourage self-assessment, teachers may suggest some guiding questions, as follows:

  • What did you find easy about doing your project?
  • What did you find difficult about doing your project?
  • What was the most important idea you learned? Why?
  • How does this relate to the driving question?
  • What do you like about your project or the artifact you created?
  • What do you feel are its strengths and weaknesses?
  • What would you like to improve or change?
  • What skills would you like to work on?
  • Are you satisfied with your progress in answering the driving question?
  • What else do you need to investigate?
  • In what areas do you think you improved most?