Assessments are a big part of any class, but they are sometimes misunderstood. When people hear the word assessment, they think of a test. A test is an assessment, but not all assessments are tests. This is very important to remember as a teacher. There are multiple ways for a teacher to assess what a student has learned during class. That is why Project Based Learning can be a valuable tool for assessment.
When a Project Based Learning assignment is given in my class that gives students latitude to create a project that demonstrates understanding in a way that is meaningful to them, there can be a wide variety of projects that could be submitted. That leads to a common question from teachers,
"How can you equally assess a wide variety of projects?"
The answer is simple as well as a bit complicated. The simple part is rubrics. Rubrics can be written in a way that don't focus on the tools that are used to demonstrate understanding, but focus on the concepts that the students are trying to convey. That part is where things get complicated.
Rubrics are not an easy thing to throw together. I wish I had more instruction on rubric creation in college. That would have helped me so much in my journey. One of things about rubric writing that needs to be embraced is that the first few rubrics are not going to be great and you will have to get used to adjusting them to ensure they are assessing the correct things and awarding points.
One of the very first rubric creators I used was Rubistar. It allows for the creation of multiple columns and rows that can be filled with language they provide or edited language that better fits your needs. After reading a novel in one of my ELA classes, I might create a rubric that focuses on the student's ability to demonstrate understanding of themes, symbols, motifs, etc. When it came time for student presentations, it was easy to have the rubric in front of me and check off the boxes that matched how they demonstrated understanding. I would jot notes down and then discuss the rubrics with the students the next day.
I have found that as the year went on, the students became more comfortable with the rubric structure and improved their projects over time based on the feedback that was given. That growth is what you are looking for in a class and the rubrics support that growth.
In terms of adding a grade to the gradebook, assigning points to each row and column can be difficult and it is important to try and balance the rubric so one aspect does not make or break the entire project. Also, avoid adding columns/rows that focus on non-instructional issues. For example, do not award/deduct points for "neatness" or "turned in on time" or any other concept that is not about understanding the material. I created some terrible rubrics in my early PBL days that gave too many points for things that focused on the aesthetics instead of the content. Rookie mistakes I hope this post can help you avoid.
Rubrics opened up a world of communication with my students because it allowed for specific feedback that created better conversations when we were able to sit and discuss their work. The back and forth about the final project were strong because of the rubric and the fact that I was there with them throughout the process.
If you are exploring Project Based Learning and are worried about assessment, that is natural, but do not let it be the reason you do not give it a try. Below are some resources that can help you on your journey.
IUPUI - Creating and Using Rubrics - This site has a link to a bunch of other sites to support rubric writing and provide some great examples. Check this out if you are serious about using rubrics for assessment.
Welcome back to the next installment of the PBL Q&A posts where I answer commonly asked questions about Project Based Learning. You can find the first post here if you want to catch up!
Another set of common questions I receive about Project Based Learning has to do with group work. Here are three of the most frequent,
1. "Should I assign groups or let students pick them?"
2. "What if a student doesn't want to work in a group"
3. "What do I do if I have students working in a group and one of the students is not doing the work?"
These are very tough questions to answer and can cause lots of stress for a teacher, especially if they are new to Project Based Learning. Let's unpack these questions and see what we can do provide some support when you encounter these in your classroom.
1. To assign or not to assign...
Group work is tricky because most of the time, it comes down to the chemistry of the group. As a teacher, if you do not know your students very well, assigning groups could be disastrous. The inner workings of the social structure of your students group might not be evident and conflict could pop up if students are forced to work together in groups. I have found that the start of the school year leans more toward student selected groups with some minor teacher intervention as needed.
Like all things school related, the age group of the students is important to consider. High school students are much better at choosing their own groups than middle school students. In my experience, having an honest conversation with students about choosing partners for projects really helps set the tone for the rest of the year. I explain that it is great to work with your friends, but you need to be able to trust them to do their part. I had friends that were great friends, but terrible work partners for projects. High School and Middle School students respond well to these conversations. Ultimately, I tell students that they can pick their groups and I will only get involved in extreme situations.
An extension of this part of the process focuses on the students that are not asked to join a group and this where it is important to really know your students. I have found asking a group of students to include the one looking for a group to join to invite them in is often very successful. I have seen amazing friendships blossom because of this approach. Other times, there are students who are not included in groups because they have a history of not doing their work. This issue leads to question 2.
2. Flying solo in group work
Many people find it hard to believe, but I am an introvert in many ways. Large scale group projects are not always my things and I only enjoy them if I can do my part of a larger project on my own or I am working with a close group of friends that understand my eccentricities. We often forget about our introverted students in the classroom in a rush to have everyone socialize and have "normal" interactions in the classroom. Sometimes it is ok to let the "quiet kid" stay the quiet kid.
Every lesson I have created that has a PBL element allows for the flexibility to be completed as a solo project. Every project has the opportunity to be expanded based on the number of students in the group. For example, if the average group size was three, an assignment for a novel we read might ask for 3 examples of theme and three examples of symbolism be showcased in their project. That would break down to each student being responsible for a theme and symbol example. If the group had four students, It would be up the examples to four. I tell the students that if they want to add more students to the group the work, and the expectations, go up. Group work is not about packing in as many bodies as possible to reduce the workload for everyone. After a certain number of students, there are diminishing returns.
For the student that goes solo, I will have a conference with them and see what we can do to adjust the assignment for them to meet them where they are. There are so many different reasons why a student might want to go solo for a project. I think it is important to have conversations with your students to find out where they are. I have had students tell me they are working the late shift the next two weeks to help their family and can't work in a group because they'd never be able to meet up with them. Some have had serious anxiety issues that make it difficult to connect with others outside of the classroom. Having these conversations with students is important because it will inform you on how much you will nudge them to work with other students.
I've encouraged students to push themselves to work with other that might not be in their friend group and see how different ideas can come together to create some interesting projects that really push their thinking. There have also been times when the group got the work done, but it was not an awesome experience. That is the reality of group work sometimes and it is important for students to understand that as well. Sometimes group work does not work the way we want it to and that leads us to questions 3.
3. Carrying the group
The toughest part of group work is when someone in the group is not doing their part. It is important to be upfront with students at the start of the year about the process that is in place when students are in groups and they feel one of their partners is not doing their work. Every teacher needs to create a process that is good for their students and must be comfortable adjusting it from class to class as needed. Here is the process that I had in place for my classes,
1. Talk to your group member to see if they need any help with their part of the project. Encourage them to see the teacher if they are having trouble getting started.
2. Privately talk to the teacher if you feel the project is getting close to the end and a group member has not completed or started their part of the project.
1. Once a student has had a conversation with you about the lack of progress, go over to the entire group and check-in with them about their progress. (Note: Hopefully project check-ins are a normal part of your class period while students are working on projects so this should not seem weird.) Ask each student where they are at and if they need any support. This is usually when you will see that a student has not been doing the work needed for the group project.
2. Have a private conversation with the student to see what type of support they need to be successful for the project. Some many things can be going on in a student's life that a school project is not a priority. This check-in can inform the next steps.
3a. The student was just stuck on an idea and was afraid to let their friends know. You help them get started and they are back on track with the rest of the group. An extension can be given for the whole group if the student needs a little extra time.
3b. The student needs to work on their own because of personal issues. The project is adjusted for the student so they can be successful and focus on the project in a way that does not add to the stress and anxiety they are already facing. Consider reaching out to other teachers and the appropriate school resources depending on the severity of the personal issues. The project is adjusted for the group as well as so they can focus on their work and not worry about the loss of their group member and the work they needed to complete.
3c. The student says they will get it together after the talk and shows some progress. Unfortunately, they do not finish their part of the project and the rest of the group is worried about their grade. Luckily, the project can be assessed based on the different parts that the students completed as individuals and their grade will not be harmed because a member of their group did not complete their part.
This last part opens the door to the next question I will write about next week that addressed the grading of project based learning. Here is a hint, it involved rubrics!
Every project in every class will present teachers with a new problem that has to be addressed. Group projects can lead to some amazing leaps in learning. Some can be downright disastrous. I will leave with a project from a group that I was worried about, but managed to pull it together and blow the class away. I present to you, The Great Gatsby Rap
If you have any questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments or to message me on Twitter @TheNerdyTeacher
I've decided to start a series of posts based on the common questions I get from teachers about Project Based Learning. There are some commons problems that teachers encounter when using PBL in the classroom and I thought I would help address them. Also, there are some misconceptions about PBL that some teachers have that prevent them from embracing it in their classroom. I will also talk about those and hopefully clear up confusion about them.
"I feel like I don't have anything to do when students are working on their projects."
There is this feeling that teachers that use PBL in the classroom are not "doing" as much as teachers using a traditional lecture approach to instruction. This is both correct and incorrect. During PBL in the classroom, you should not be spending much time lecturing. In a sense, you are doing less in terms of lecturing and that is why it might feel like you are not doing as much.
During PBL time in the classroom, since the teacher time is not dedicated to lecture, it should be dedicated to engagement and conferencing. While it might not be possible to conference with every student in one class period, it is possible over multiple periods. Start with the students who might need more attention and work your way around the room. The conversations are good for helping students fine-tune their project or get support in other ways from the teacher. It is also an opportunity for the teacher to get to know the students a little better as they explain their approach to the project. You will find that you are busier checking in with all of these students than just standing and talking to the class for an entire period.
The difference in these two approaches is they type of engagement that happens in the classroom.
The teacher speaking and the students listening is passive engagement. Even then, you cannot be sure if a student is even passively engaged because they might be looking at you, but you can't be sure their focus is on what is being said. Passive engagement does not work for many students. They need something more from the class if they are going to be successful.
When the students are working and the teacher is moving around the room, you have active engagement. Students are researching, designing, building, and are otherwise engaged in different ways. The teacher is physically moving around the room and engaging in conversations with students to learn about their projects and offer support as needed. You can see if students are actively engaged because they will be doing something or talking directly to you.
Project Based Learning is about giving the students the chance to explore and learn in ways that are meaningful to them. As a teacher, it is important to fight the urge to just become a passive member of the classroom during this time. Get up and engage the students in their work and you will find that you are "busier" than the times you lectured for the class.
Come back and check out new posts on PBL. If you have a PBL questions, send it to me and I could make it the next post! You can find me on Twitter and Instagram @TheNerdyTeacher.
These ideas really had me thinking. For the first question on who is an authority on STEAM, some people responded by naming people they thought were an authority. I took it the question as something a bit more abstract. More of "what makes someone an authority on STEAM". You can find my thread here,
Finally had some time to digest and read all of the replies. I'm trained as a 6-12 ELA/SS teacher. My interest in PBL led me to Makerspaces. Makerspaces led me to learning to code to help students. Everything snowballed after that.
Overall, I think the A in STEAM covers the humanities. I think ELA is in STEAM. I think social studies is part of the A in STEAM. I think STEAM is school. Because of that, I do not believe there is anyone that can claim to be THE authority on it. I think there are people that bring tons of knowledge to the STEAM arena, but it is next to impossible to be THE authority. Being an expert in STEAM doesn't make you an authority on it either. I do not have experience in urban/rural STEAM, but there are those that do. How can I be an authority in STEAM for those areas where I lack experience? I have written books, spoken internationally, and worked with schools from across the country on MakerEd, STEAM, PBL, and other topics. I have learned from every group I have worked with over that time. While I think I can help educators on their learning journey, I do not have all of the answers and can't claim to be the THE guy in these areas. Everything I have learned has come from experience and what others have done before me. I am lucky that I have the opportunities to share that learning with others and I make sure to connect people with others that can be more helpful than me. It's important to know that you don't know everything. That is how we grow.
Ultimately, I warn everyone to be wary of anyone that claims to be THE authority in any field. It suggests that they have very little to learn from others and that is not someone you want to bring into your school/district.
What are your thoughts? What makes someone an authority on anything?