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Why Assessing PBL Is Hard—And What to Do About It

March 16, 2020

By: Elizabeth Kelsey, Kendall Hunt RPD Intern

Project-based learning (PBL) is a research-backed educational method that puts students in the driver’s seat of their learning. By focusing on student choice, open-ended inquiry, and learning through projects and problem solving, PBL builds creativity and critical thinking skills.

The problem with PBL, however, is that its open-ended nature naturally makes assessment tricky. No two projects arrive at the same end product or final answer—nor should they. That’s one of the beautiful things about PBL: each student or group will find a different path to a different result. This allows for differentiated learning and helps students learn from the brilliant, unique ideas of their peers, but it also means the teacher has a more difficult time assessing them equitably.

It also makes it difficult for students to self-assess because self-assessment assignments often offer students a model, such as a well-written paragraph, to which they should compare their own work.  In PBL projects, that’s not always possible, especially with your most creative students—who, of course, should be praised for their ingenuity, not made to feel they should mark themselves down because they don’t match the model.

The long and short of it is that PBL looks different from student to student, and each learner comes to a different conclusion and even learns different things along the way. The different problems and triumphs of each project will naturally lead students to have different epiphanies, meaning that you can’t necessarily assess them on whether they learned the same thing as their peers (because they probably didn’t).

So then, just how do you standardize?

Short answer: for PBL to work, you have to have goals. These should be articulated to the students (or created with student input) at the start of the PBL unit. Here are three questions to help you get started.

  1. What, exactly, do you want your students to learn?

“But I thought you just said all the students will learn different things!” you’re saying now.

Yes, they will. But the project, at its core, should be designed to teach some overall topic or skill. Is it an academic concept, such as the different types of sentences or the characteristics of living things? Is it a social or learning strategy, such as how to use a dictionary or how to respectfully disagree with peers? Whatever it is, make sure the goal is clearly stated, and continually refer your students back to it. A good question to ask is, “What’s our learning goal for this project, and how does that idea address that goal?”

  1. Why is PBL the best learning option for this situation?

You need a reason why you think your students should use PBL to learn this topic. What can they gain from this learning style, and why is it more beneficial for this subject than other learning approaches? For that matter, why is the specific type of PBL you have in mind—creating video trailers, for example—more beneficial than a different project format, such as designing a social media campaign? What made you want to use this specific type of PBL in this specific instance? The answer to that question will show you what you may be unconsciously thinking your students stand to gain from PBL, which can then become part of your goals.

  1. What is your timeline for the project?

Students need to know up-front what the expectations are in terms of deadlines and drafts, or they can’t possibly assess themselves (or be assessed) accurately. It’s also difficult for them to plan when they don’t have a timeline for how long they have to complete work—there’s no way to self-regulate and set realistic goals. Of course, technological snafus and other interruptions may force you to be flexible, but it’s important to have structure before you begin. A clear timeline keeps students accountable and gives you an unambiguous means of assessment based on expectations that aren’t different from learner to learner.

In the end, PBL assessment is difficult, but it’s nowhere near impossible. With clear goals in mind, you’ll be setting your students up for success in the PBL arena!

What methods have been successful for you in assessing PBL in the past?