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Assessment Part 3: How and When

In the first part of this assessment series, I highlighted four questions that you need to keep in mind when developing assessments for Engineering Design projects.  Those questions were as follows:

  1. What do you want to assess?     

will this be on test 2
  1. When do you want to assess?

  2. Who will you assess?

  3. Why do you want to assess?

Traditional assessments typically focus on content, end-of-unit tests, individual performance, and determining a grade. Using a project-based approach that requires students to work in teams and to apply what they know (and the new ideas they discover along the way) adds some additional components to the assessment picture. A project or performance task allows you to assess skills, group or team efforts, and the overall process. As I noted in the previous post, you don’t need to change everything, but you do need to re-evaluate the components of your assessment. We have already looked at what and why in the two earlier posts; this article deals with the more practical aspects of when and how.

Create a Vision to Guide Your Assessment Choices

Every project has some unique assessment needs and challenges, but it helps to keep a few core principles in mind. I typically follow these percentages guidelines for most projects;

Process / Product             65% / 35%

Group / Individual            70% / 30%

Skills / Content                 60% / 40%

My guidelines are based on my overall approach to education and what I hope to help young people learn; how you design your assessments should reflect your vision. I believe that a problem-solving process has far more value than any one product. It can be and often is (as reported by students) a method that finds a way into lots of other projects and disciplines. Current and future jobs require a team approach due to the shear complexity of many factors affecting them, so collaboration is a critical skill. Assessment that highlights group work is important if we hope to teach collaborative skills. And content can be found everywhere, but the skills needed to apply and to master new ideas need to be learned and practiced. Think about what it is important for your students to learn and develop assessment guidelines that will support those goals. Setting percentages such as those above provides a landing spot for the various assessments you will employ. You can employ both formative and summative assessments in line with guidelines you have set, or you can focus on defining a grade based on summative assessments based on the percentages you have in place.  Depending on your school norms and where you are on the assessment spectrum, your percentages may be different than those above. Keep the idea of incremental change in mind and make adjustments when you and your students are ready.

How to Assess

Most project-based learning practitioners make use of rubrics for formative and summative assessment. The three that I most commonly used are a peer assessment rubric, a single-point rubric, and an analytic rubric that covers the various components and skills that make up the Engineering Design Process. They can be used as both formative and summative assessment components depending on your needs. In addition to these rubrics, more content and project or skills-specific rubrics can be used to highlight important learning objectives. Parts 1 and 2 of this series identified a number of helpful resources, and you can also find a terrific compilation of rubrics and information on Kathy Shrock’s website. In our work, we are increasingly using single-point rubrics for student and group self-assessment at the middle school level. Some of the teachers we work with use content assessments that are similar to the ones they have traditionally used. They feel this gives them additional feedback about the effectiveness of the project in developing understanding.

When to Assess

As I noted before, the project your students are working on is an assessment. It is a performance task that challenges them to think critically and creatively while working together to apply their knowledge to solve a problem. That sounds great, but it can be overwhelming to assess in a way that allows you to make sense of the degree of learning and to generate a fair grade. Since my work focuses on using the Engineering Design Process as a framework for projects, I use key points in the process for formative and summative assessments.

The teachers we work with at ProjectEngin like the idea of thinking of the Engineering Design Process as having three or four phases, rather than being a cycle of multiple steps. It makes it possible to insert small summative assessment measurements at the end of each of those phases if you choose to. This might be an important consideration if you are working on a lengthy project and there is pressure (student, administrative, or parental) to report progress in terms of some grades. In other words, there should be evidence of problem definition before moving onto the divergent thinking phase of generating multiple solutions. An evaluation of effective brainstorming and some planning should precede the building phase. The principal summative evaluation is at the end of the project when students provide evidence of process (Engineering Notebook or ENB), a product (a prototype), and they are able to present their work. The table below summarizes where different assessments can be made throughout the process.  Please note that the steps and assessment points correlate closely with the Engineering Design Disciplinary Core Ideas, Performance Expectations, and Practices specified in the Next Generation Science Standards.

Assessment Points in Process

What is most important about this table and the idea that the process always frames the project is that it allows for assessment to be ongoing and focused on both skills and content. The framework of the Engineering Design Process (EDP) enables you to identify and highlight the skills needed to solve a problem and it can be used to do the same for your students. Making the EDP the organizing core of your projects gives both you and your students the opportunity to focus on increased mastery of skills as you move through multiple challenges.

In summary, the answer to the questions of when and how to assess is to do it throughout the project and to do it with student involvement. Specified criteria for success and connections to the full spectrum of the learning experience are more effective than a “cover the material, take a test approach”. Time for feedback, reflection, and modification is critical if we hope to develop lifelong learners.  And remember that part of modeling never-ending learning is to continually assess and modify the assessments to align with the skills and ideas that you hope students will learn.


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