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Assessing What Matters – Part 2 of 3

In my last blog posting, I outlined an overview of the challenges of effectively assessing learning in the context of Engineering Design projects. An Engineering Design challenge supports the development and mastery of content knowledge through application. It requires students to solve a somewhat messy problem by following a process. And it connects your classroom to the real world.

elephant assessment cartoon

Project-based learning has far more layers than direct instruction, so it makes sense that you need more ways to think about and structure assessment. At ProjectEngin, we typically look at balancing three main areas:

  1. Content and Skills

  2. Product and Process

  3. Individual and Group

In traditional instruction and assessment, the focus is on content, product, and individual. You may already have effective methods to provide both formative and summative assessment for all of those. Most of the teachers we work with find that the challenges lie in developing assessments that focus on the aspects that are hallmarks of project-based learning – skills, process, and collaborative group work. It is worth looking at the categories above in order to structure project assessments to complement what you already use. Here are some thoughts and tips on the both the “how” and “how much” of each category. In my final blog posting on assessment, I will look at key points, methods, and rubrics for formative and summative assessment in all these areas.

Content and Skills

Content assessment can range from more traditional quiz/test formats to performance tasks. Most Engineering Design projects are done in groups and it can be difficult to assess content understanding for individual students on a group basis. This is one area where a version of the tests or quizzes you may have previously used can be helpful. Keep in mind the standards you are following and don’t drill down to the smallest fact.  An individual assessment that checks for general understanding as a background for the project insures that all students have a reasonable starting point. Most of the teachers we work with will use a quiz on key concepts at this point, with a provision for retakes if needed. Remember that in addition to checking for understanding of concepts, you want to be certain that all members of the group have the background they need to succeed. Additional evidence of content understanding can be a required component of the final presentation and it can also be part of the required documentation in the Engineering Notebook, making the connection between concepts and design decisions. Most teachers find that it is easier to make assessment of content understanding a component of the individual grade for the project.

Assessing skills is a challenge. Unlike content, there are no clear boundaries or discrete checkpoints; our mastery of skills generally follows an often non-linear continuum. Rubrics are generally the most effective form of skills assessment. As mentioned in the last blog posting, the Buck Institute has some great resources and rubrics on its PBLWorks website. Student self-assessment of improvement in terms of the 4 C’s is also helpful. The Department of Defense’s  Education Activity program has created a good compilation of rubrics for both teacher and student assessment of 21st century skills. The document also has some good resources and references.

Most teachers are comfortable assessing collaboration, communication, and critical thinking. Assessment of creativity is often a bigger challenge. No one should ever be told that they are not creative; that just perpetuates an incorrect fixed mindset about creativity. Assessment of creativity should be strictly formative and it should provide constructive feedback. There should also be a high degree of student involvement in understanding (perhaps even designing) and employing the rubric or feedback form. As Ken Robinson points out in his book, Out of Our Minds, far from being an innate gift, creativity can be taught but doing so presents assessment challenges. “The educational value of creative work lies as much in the process of conceptual development, as in the creation of the final product. Assessment needs to take this into account…” (Robinson, 2011 ed.).  This brings us to a consideration of product versus process.

Product and Process

Traditional assessments typically focus on the product. A multiple-choice test shows us little about the thought process that lead to the answer, or final product. Artifacts such as papers and presentations are often assessed in their final form with little focus on the research or editing process. But there is an enormous amount of critical thinking and creativity inherent in constructing and revising those artifacts. One of the benefits of using the Engineering Design Process to frame projects is that various steps in the process highlight those skills as well as content development.

In our experience, putting more weight on the final product in assessments has a “beauty contest” effect. Students are more likely to take a “hands-on” approach, skipping over much of the “minds-on” learning that you hoped to promote.  A physical prototype will look better, go faster, or fly higher but much of the development will be occur in a trial-and-error method to see what works. A focus on the process will enable you to stress the need for planning, research, decision-making, and connections to curricular concepts. An Engineering Notebook allows students to document the decisions and connections that are part of the process. It can be used as a formative and summative document to assess the group’s work as they move toward a solution.  Much of the transferable learning is in the process and I suggest that you consider making your assessment of how well it was employed at least 65% of the final project grade. As educators, we are all aware that we cannot keep up with the explosion in knowledge. Developing a way to think about and use that knowledge is a lifelong skill that should be one of the key learning goals in our classrooms.

Individual and Group:

This is typically the most challenged part of any project assessment. There can be pushback from both students and parents, particularly those used to high marks on the individual assessments that make up most recorded grades. It is important that you have a clear explanation, identifiable guidelines, and as much transparency as possible. It makes sense to have a group component in your overall assessment since the work was done collaboratively and, in most cases, the project was designed to make it necessary to have a team approach to successfully complete it. But you need to be attentive to the fact that group dynamics are rarely perfect in a classroom environment. Student

Non collaborator

That individual component of the grade can be made up of content assessments, peer review, and your own observations of time-on-task along with any student self-assessment of skills. The group grade can be based on the final product and presentation (product), the Engineering Design Notebook (process) and your assessment of the group’s use of the Engineering Design Process and their problem-solving skills. You may also want to add a group self-assessment as well. Just be sure you have made all your assessment components and guidelines clear and reasonably weighted based on the project tasks and the learning goals.

In the third part of this series, rubrics and milestones for formative and summative assessments will be provided. Start thinking about how you want to structure the components of what you assess. Keep some of what you already use to assess content, products, and individuals while considering how to add consideration of skills, process, and collaborative efforts. If your students are going to be ready for a future that demands innovation and collaboration, that needs to be part of your classroom today.

dr seuss


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