3 Ingredients for Assessing Learning in the PBL Classroom

One of the greatest joys in my job — in my life — is when I’m out in schools and classrooms working with teachers, helping them get a handle on how to shift from “NCLB-thinking” to “learning-by-doing” and creating Project Based Learning classroom environments. While I’m out in the field, I know there are usually 4 specific questions I’ll get asked in the course of the day. One of those questions is always a variation about how to assess learning in a PBL environment.

1933 - Grandma's 10th grade report card - hist...

1933 – Grandma’s 10th grade report card – history – Strum, WI (Photo credit: Rev. Xanatos Satanicos Bombasticos (ClintJCL))

I know I naturally speak in paragraphs, but “How do you assess learning in PBL?” is a HUGE question with a lot of facets.

So after some time reflecting (and a lot of over-30-minute-long explanations in the middle of my workshops), I think the simplest answer is this:
How would we assess performance to get a full picture of a student’s learning in any classroom situation? Would we only do pencil/paper tests and say that we’re measuring all that the student is gaining? Of course not. That’s a very two-dimensional view of what “learning” can mean.

So let’s start there. What we actually do is…


In any classroom, we use a variety of ways to collect information in order to “catch” a student demonstrating mastery in a variety of situations, based on a variety of learning styles:

  • teacher observation
  • rubrics
  • presentations
  • published work (writing/blogs, videos, etc)
  • self-reflection
  • peer assessment
  • group feedback
  • individual conferences/conversations
  • checklists of mastered skills & items
  • and yes, pencil/paper, multiple-response quizzes and tests

These methods aren’t isolated to only traditional classrooms. Nor are they solely PBL methodology. It’s just good teaching, right?

So when exactly do we use those methods?


Throughout a year, a unit, or lesson, we’re gathering information and data before, during, and after the learning, aren’t we? We might use one (or more) of the above methods as a formative assessment BEFORE we’ve begun the unit. Then we will often use several of the methods to gather formative data on the progress of individuals, as well as on the class as a whole, DURING the lessons in order to make “mid-stream” adjustments. Then, to end the unit, we’ll use one (or more) of the methods to take a final summative assessment of what each student has gained during the unit.

Does this sound familiar? It should. So far, these assessment methods and timing are simply good teaching, no matter what environment we’re teaching in. The process is likely more intense and more personalized in a PBL environment where the learning is more individualized based on skills or interest. It might need to be recorded differently than just as a “percent-correct” in the online gradebook. It probably won’t be a “daily assignment” grade that’s based off a worksheet, but we’re still gathering and recording data all throughout the process.

So, the ideas aren’t exactly foreign to you? Good! Because good teaching is good teaching!

But what exactly is it that we’re looking for as we’re using good methods for regularly gathering that formative and summative assessment data? What is it we’re collecting?

De Cito Eindtoets Basisonderwijs.

De Cito Eindtoets Basisonderwijs. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The information we gather is what tells the full picture of learning. In this information, we begin to see an authentic view of the active participation and growth of the learner. And, for the record, I do mean Learner, not Student. I have blogged about the difference between Learner and Student. Please do go check that out; it’s a short read.

Sure, Students can readily be measured by a 2-dimensional pencil/paper test, checking for accuracy of content memorization. But Learners require more time, more information, and more flexibility in how we view their growth. So here are a few pieces of information we might want to collect in our assessments:

  • academic content and learning, aka standards
  • time management skills
  • task management skills
  • grade level ability (at/above/below grade level)
  • pacing of their growth (at/above/below expected)
  • other specific skills, such as presentation and speaking, group work, persistence, etc

Yes, I’m suggesting that we 1) use as many of the methods above to 2) collect information about (soft) skills 3) on a regular basis. And combining Method, Timing, and Content, we can develop a broader assessment strategy for truly giving feedback to the student, to the parent, and to other teachers about who that Learner is and what s/he will need to continue to grow in our educational environments.

Because to do any less would be … less.

What information am I missing? What should be added to these lists? Your ideas and suggestions are highly welcomed as I continue to hone and sharpen my workshop responses.

Click on the LiveBinder above for additional assessment strategies, and sample rubrics & report cards for managing the information outflow.

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Written by GingerLewman

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