That’s my band performing in the Finals of the ‘Battle of the Bands’ contest in Hong Kong.

I’m that crazy guy in the Hawaiian shirt playing tambourine in front of the keyboard in the middle. We played our hearts ❤️ out during our 30 minute set.

After the other three bands finished their performances we felt pretty good about our chances. They sounded great, but with our unique style we expected 1st or 2nd place for sure.

At promptly 10:30 p.m., the results came.

The 6 foot 1 organizer leaned over the front stage mic and said, “And the winner is..”

She paused for effect. ‘”Whit’s End.” After the sound of audience applause and my heart sinking to the floor, she announced the other runner ups. I anticipated hearing our name next, or at least 3rd. Nope. We weren’t called until last.

Out of four bands in the finals, we finished dead last.

I immediately wanted to know why?

Was our mix off? Was our compilation of originals too random? Were we not engaging enough? Were transitions between songs too long? Was it our instrumentation? Stage Presence? 

All these question would remain unanswered. Because the organizer stepped off stage the minute she finished the announcement. The house music came on and that was it.

Isn’t this the same way we often assess performance in school? 

Award students a final grade, and then ask students to move on.

Highly effective project-based assessment rarely, if EVER awards a grade. Instead, it offers specific feedback and insights according to co-constructed criteria; allowing learners to know exactly where they went right, and where they went wrong.

And while there may be surprises in the quality of work students produce, there shouldn’t be surprises around how the work will be evaluated.

Here are 5 mistakes to avoid when assessing project-based work:

  1. Mistake #1: Not using specific assessment criteria. Do you award an overall letter grade for student products? Performance? Work? DON’T. Students will suddenly attach arbitrary value to what they have produced, rather than understanding its specific strengths and areas for improvement. Instead, work with students to co-construct criteria/categories for evaluation. In our band performance these criteria might have included ‘creative composition,’ ‘audience interaction,’ ‘musical arrangement.’ After deciding upon criteria, co-write specific descriptors around what constitutes mastery according to each category.
  2. Mistake #2: Awarding points rather than feedback. Points are so arbitrary. The only time you might use them is if you are holding a competition; but I would avoid that unless multiple student teams are pitching for only one contract, grant, funding, or design space. Instead, offer feedback on student work. Hold sessions where you, relevant experts, and peers offer insight into the presenter and their work’s strengths and potential areas of growth.
  3. Mistake #3: Give students one attempt to demonstrate their learning. How many attempts do you give students to demonstrate mastery of a concept? Or in the case of a project-based experience, to create professional, polished work? In the Battle of the Bands, this was each finalists’ second attempt at learning. But the problem was that we hadn’t received any feedback in our first attempt. How would we know what to focus on for the finals? We tightened up our songs, added a saxophonist, and even purchased matching outfits; but these were all shots in the dark. If the final judges would have given us some indication after that first performance of what to focus on, our practices would have been infinitely more productive. The same goes for assessment in school. Students should have at least 3 attempts to demonstrate mastery of learning, with specific feedback provided after each attempt.
  4. Mistake #4: Don’t use exemplars/models. What does a winning Battle of the Bands Performance look like? This isn’t the first time this venue hosted Battle of the Bands. How beneficial would it have been to share a Youtube video of a past winner’s performance? (Granted, we should have done our homework and looked this up ourselves). 🙂 The same applies to project work. Asking students to build an architectural model? What does exemplary work look like in this field? Develop an elevator pitch? How are exemplary elevator pitches formatted? Providing exemplary work at the ONSET ensures students know what they are aiming for. *Word of Caution* Ensure you provide a wide range of exemplars to demonstrate multiple pathways to success, and to ensure students don’t just copy the primary example.
  5. Mistake #5: Try to assess everything yourself. Trying to assess multiple students, multiple projects, and multiple samples of work all by yourself is a formula for burnout. Instead, facilitate the assessment process and get others involved. This was the one part that the organizer of the Battle of the Bands actually did quite well. They had a QR code for the audience to vote, and invited guest judges to also assist in evaluating performances. How might you make assessment a collective process as well? Having students write books? Conference with students around their writing goals, and allow peer editors to help evaluate their work. Build models? Create a chart at the front off the room that lists required skill sets, and the peer to check-in with to get help. Making assessment a collective process will improve student work and save you countless hours of grading outside of school.

I felt bitter about losing the Battle of the Bands all morning; until my bandmate sent the video of our performance.

For 30 minutes I was glued to the screen. We were fire 🧯🔥. The levels were right, the energy was high, and our musicianship was 80% flawless. We were n’sync.

To me, that’s more important than any award we could have been given.

With the right 5 assessment moves, your students should feel the same way.

Here’s to your success!

Your [co] learning experience designer,

P.S. Since we are on the topic of music, I strongly recommend you and your students watch School of Rock. Not only because it’s a great film, but because it is a PERFECT introduction to Project-Based Learning. Email me at kylewagner@transformschool.com to find out why. 🙂