That ‘Dirty LIttle Word’

Every time I lead a PBL workshop, the participants always dread Day Two.

It’s the day we talk about that ‘dirty little word.’


Most are surprised that such a topic could seep its way into what is supposed to be an innovative and immersive learning experience, let alone be the day’s focus.

After all, isn’t project- based learning supposed to remove the shackles of high stakes testing and arbitrary grades!?

They are right to be apprehensive. Several studies show that grades are in fact the most ineffective way to engage students and deepen learning.

But what many do not realize is that you can assess student learning without using grades.

They are the same strategies employed by managers of projects that exist in the real world. The strategies are listed below. I hope you find them useful!

#1: Co- Create Project Deadlines

Giving students an un-defined and extensive period of time for a project is going to lead to one of two results; first, they will either procrastinate until the project is due; or second, they will hurriedly compile their work and spend the remaining period of time finding ways to get distracted.

Breaking projects into pieces and creating deadlines will naturally raise stakes and keep students focused. Work together with them from the date the project will be exhibited/ due to establish milestones to help them get there. This will help ensure their final product is the result of several productive iterations.
How might you involve students in the co- creation of deadlines? How might you make these deadlines visible to students? How might you use these deadlines as opportunities for real and authentic feedback on their work?

#2: Involve Experts

During a biodiversity project I recently led with a teaching team, we invited two experts to help ensure students deepened their understandings; the first was a grad student from the local university studying insect behavior, and the second was a member of the bird watching society who mapped out birds’ migratory patterns. They helped point out insights to students during our visit to the local park that myself and the teaching team would have never seen.

The experts also exposed students to the information they include in tours for the public. This information helped students better understand how to impact and influence their audience during their student- led tours.

What experts can you involve in your project? What expertise exists in your parent body? Do you have connections to a local university conducting research in a relevant field?

#3: Use Formative Assessment

Most of us understand the purpose of formative assessment. It helps provide invaluable feedback for students in route to their summative creation. The same rules apply during a project- based experience. Formative assessment involves rough drafts of maps, handouts, pamphlets, field guides, research reports, magazine articles, videos or any other products that help students create professional final products. The difference is that in a project- based experience, students are completing work for a professional audience. The work is relevant and necessary.

Invite others to offer feedback on student work. Ensure that the feedback is kind, helpful and specific. The more eyes on their work, the more likely students will be to create something that serves of real value.

How might you structure in formative assessment in the course of the project? What protocols will you use? How will you help students in understanding the targets for their work?

#4: Reflect Continually and Often

Learning does not happen simply because a concept was taught. Learning is the result of both experience and reflection. During projects, I encourage students to keep a process journal which helps explain describe how their thinking has changed. It includes a log of their work, preliminary evaluations of their work, and how their thinking has developed in relationship to the deeper concepts.

Reflections don’t always have to be written. Circle students at the end of class and ask them to share their progress with the group.

This process creates natural ‘high stakes.’ It makes the project about more than a closed conversation between the student and the teacher- but rather, and open dialogue with a community of learners?

How might you schedule reflection throughout the project? What processes will you use? How might you use reflection to help students demonstrate growth throughout the project?

#5: Exhibit, Exhibit, Exhibit Work

I cannot over- stress the importance of exhibition. Providing students with a public audience will raise stakes in a project more than any other strategy. Why? Because kids want to share their work.

Many novice PBL teachers wait until the end of the project for students to exhibit work. And while this is still exciting for students, it doesn’t foster steady and focused engagement during all stage of the project- based experience. Start by having student exhibit for each other. Next, invite the experts you used to deepen  student learning in the initial stages back to hear what they have done. Finally, invite a healthy cross- section of the community when students exhibit their final work.

Even your ‘low achievers’ will rise to the occasion. If they don’t, they are letting down more than just themselves and the teacher; but an entire community.

How might you exhibit student work? Who is an appropriate audience for your students’ work? How might you prep the audience for student work to ensure their feedback is kind, helpful and specific?

Got more ideas for raising stakes in a project without awarding a grade? I would love to hear them! Finally, I have included a protocol below that is very helpful for helping students receive feedback on their work. I hope you find it useful.

As always, don’t be afraid to reach out if you want to work through a dilemma you are having with PBL. I’m only a simple e-mail away!

With students first!