Scaffolding Formative Assessments within Project Based Learning

I've had a breakthrough in assessment with Project Based Learning, (PBL). I presented a dilemma that I was having to my CFG group a while back regarding assessment within Project Based Learning. People that advocate PBL are quick to point out its life connections but don't seem to have a good grasp on assessment practices of it. This was my question:

"How can we ensure that during a PBL activity all students are assessed accurately and honestly in a way that help provides feedback towards mastery of learning standards?"

I've had too many instances of inflated group grades in PBL wherin the alpha student would do all the work and the beta students would reap the benefits only to be "called out" during a summative test. PBL has obvious authentic connections, but in my experience using this format for thematic learning, I've noticed that group work often takes a counterproductive effect as the "smart" students try and motivate the weaker students only because they feel that their grade will be impacted negatively. For some of these students the focus is on "the grade" rather than "the learning" or "the experience". We might see such cooperative learning as part of the real world, but it can take a toll on self esteem if the stakes are high and defeat positive connections we hope to engender through such experiences.

My Goals
My goals were simple in this protocol. I asked my group that the following recommendations be made:
  1. Students have the opportunity to work towards mastery of knowledge and skills.
  2. Students compact out (be excused) from dry boring summative tests at the end of the unit. Although these were in my opinion, accurate, they did nothing but share learning with me. The nature of PBL was that the learning be "aimed" at an audience.
  3. By the time the culminating project was reached, all students have had sufficient practice of skills thus eliminating the need for a final test.  
Other Challenges
I had about 15 benchmarks to teach and assess but didn't want to cram them all into the project. I did something akin to this with our recent unit on functions, but for our unit on exponents and roots I wanted students to have a real in depth understanding of the Pythagorean theorem along with artistic principles, and environmental implications of their design.
Enter Formative Assessments Through Group Conferencing
Formative assessments are those little check ups to indicate whether or not students have learned something and provide the opportunity to reteach if necessary.  I have used entry and exit interviews with my students at the beginning and and end of lessons in the past but one suggestion from my CFG group was that students manage their own learning. One suggestion that stuck with me is to frame approaches to PBL like a cooperative learning or literature circle roles, where one member is the "taskmaster" who is in charge of reporting whether or not people are on task or have met learning expectations. If not, help them and indicate them to the teacher so that they can provide help when needed.

This would take place during warm ups after lessons to give enough time to digest learning activities and apply them through subsequent lessons. Each group had a taskmaster who would report on the skills of the group which in no way affected student grades. All students chose their groups ahead of time and connected through Twitter and reviewed through skype chats prior to the lesson.

Students spend 5-10 minutes on a warm up when they walk into class. This entry interview has standards from previous lessons.
When everyone was finished, I met with group leaders about solutions while the rest of the class did extension activities.

A group leader debriefs the warm up with his group members to explain the solutions.

On this group's log sheet after our first warm up, group leaders indicate which members have gotten a problem correct to identify areas that they need to work on.

After our third warm up, students were beginning to show signs of mastery and ones that were not were given one on one instruction with the teacher or other enrichment.

The Project: Bridging Differences. GRASP Tasks

Final Projects
By the time the final project had rolled around, the need for assessing learning through traditional testing was gone. All students had demonstrated that they had met the benchmarks throughout the unit a number of times through formative opportunities, and were scaffolded and spiraled through harder and harder problems to ensure a higher level of understanding. I didn't need to follow up with banal questions afterwards and felt that all students had an individualized learning experience.

In this project "Building Bridges" the students combined some mathematical use of the pythagorean theorum, artistic principles, and environmental awareness to integrate across disciplines.
Building Bridges Rubric

I'm proud of the work that students did during this unit of study. They're starting to utilize social media to discuss their learning, reflect on their own mistakes and work together for a common goal all the while while devoting some class time to independent practice of skills and as a time to work together on a project.

I feel for the first time that assessment was not distorted in any way which has always been a problem for me in the past. Each class had spiraling opportunities for assessment and debriefing with the student's group leader and myself to ensure working towards mastery of skills. After each lesson, we were able to apply each piece of learning to an architectural product.

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