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Using formative tools for better project results

5 min read

Career-Technical Education

In a high-school art room, I watched a student working at an easel. When I asked about her progress, she explained that she was attempting to paint sunflowers in the style of Monet, her favorite artist. She told me she liked how the flowers were looking but said the vase was giving her trouble. She planned to keep reworking it, applying layers of acrylic until she got the play of light just the way she wanted. Then she laughed and said, “You should see what’s underneath! I bet there are three or four versions beneath this one.”

Not only was the student producing a lovely painting — which would one day grace her family’s living room — but she was paying close attention to her learning process. At the end of each class, she added a short reflection to her project journal, which she was keeping on a Google Doc shared with her teacher. She noted both frustrations and breakthroughs, documenting what she learned from failures as well as the suggestions and critiques (from her teacher and peers) that helped her make improvements.

At the end of this inquiry project, her finished work and artist’s statement would be publicly exhibited. She would receive a final grade, scored with a rubric to assess both product and process. As I listened to this student describe her learning experience, however, it seemed that the more meaningful assessment was happening long before the project came to a close.

Assessing for learning

Across the arc of a well-designed project, teachers build in frequent opportunities to assess for learning. Formative assessment opens a window on student thinking and, when applied frequently, sets the stage for timely feedback, just-in-time instruction, more productive classroom conversations and revisions that lead to higher quality results by the end.

How can you incorporate more formative strategies into projects?

When I’m talking with groups of teachers about project-based learning, I often challenge them to brainstorm all the formative strategies and tools they can list. Most teachers have a hefty toolkit of strategies they use to check in on student understanding, from informal observation and check-ins to journals, exit slips and quizzes. Technology offers more assessment tools, such as Twitter or TodaysMeet for back-channel discussions, Padlet for digital exit slips, Socrative or PollEverywhere for gathering student response, or Evernote for collaborative note taking. In one workshop, a team of creative teachers came up with 42 different formative assessments tools during a five-minute brainstorm!

Keep these tools and strategies handy throughout the PBL process. At the planning stage, you can anticipate opportunities for formative assessment. If students will need to make sense of challenging reading material, how will you check their understanding? If the project includes a research component, how might you assess students’ progress when it comes to information literacy? If students are producing digital stories, are you providing feedback to improve their storyboards at the draft stage? Add these assessment milestones to your project calendar — but don’t stop there.

Vary assessment strategies. During the “messy middle” of the project, when students are deep into inquiry and revision, be ready to do more assessments on the fly. It’s common in PBL for student teams to be working on different products to demonstrate what they are learning. That means you may need to vary your assessment strategies from one team to the next. Teach students how to give and receive peer feedback, too, so you aren’t the only “assessor” in the room.

Look beyond content mastery. Don’t limit your check-ins to content mastery. In team projects, for example, you may want to get a reading on how well students are collaborating. Ask them to focus a journal entry on team dynamics. Their responses may tell you that it’s time to reinforce conflict-resolution strategies or facilitate team meetings to troubleshoot challenges.

Facilitate self-assessment. Encourage students to make self-assessment a habit, too. Invite students to request workshops or mini-lessons in areas where they want more help. One PBL teacher reserves a corner of the class whiteboard for just this purpose. Use journals or blogs to encourage goal-setting, self-assessment and reflection throughout a project.

Attention to assessment across the arc of a project usually leads to better results at the end. What’s more, students come to appreciate formative assessment as something that deepens their learning. The young artist I described earlier can see her work getting better with each new layer. As you think about how to take learning deeper in PBL, what tools and strategies will you employ to help students become more aware of their own progress?

This blog post was produced in partnership with ISTE.

Education writer Suzie Boss is the author of several books about project-based learning, including the ISTE bestseller Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age. Connect with her on Twitter via @suzieboss, and join her at ISTE 2014 for two interactive sessions on project-based learning: