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Tackling the Assessment Elephant

At ProjectEngin, we have conducted many workshops designed to help teachers begin the process of incorporating Engineering Design practices and thinking into their classrooms and curriculum. And we are generally successful in terms of creating engagement, enthusiasm, and commitment to change in the educators we work with. But there is a moment in every workshop when someone says “This is great, but I need grades. How do I assess this?” And the room goes silent…

Whenever you use active and project-based learning approaches, assessment becomes more challenging. When you intentionally focus on skills such as creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking, in addition to curricular content, developing a meaningful way to assess learning may seem close to impossible.

Couple all of that with the disconnect between forward-thinking teaching and high-stakes, standardized testing programs and it can easily deflate the atmosphere in any room of once enthusiastic educators.

So how do you manage this elephant in the room? Designing assessments that truly reflect and monitor learning is always a challenge and it becomes even more challenging when you are dealing with project-based learning. We encourage educators to do it one step at a time. Keep the assessments you have and think about ways to modify or add to them. Make use of some real-time in-class formative performance assessment first – it minimizes your work outside of class and solidifies your role as a guide in classroom projects. Involve your students in the development of assessments by brainstorming what they think truly reflects what they know and how well they have learned.

It helps to keep four questions in mind before you even move onto the question of how to assess.

  1. What do you want to assess?

  2. When do you want to assess?

  3. Who will you assess?

  4. Why do you want to assess?

In traditional forms of assessment, the answers to those questions is often content, final product, individuals, and “for a grade”. And even when there is a change in the delivery of a lesson or unit, those things are still significant components of assessment.

Things change a bit when you start to use a more skills-oriented project-based approach. There are more components to assess, more milestones where you can include assessments and generally, a change in the design of the assessment.

Traditional Curriculum UnitEngineering Design Challenge  (Project-based Learning)











For a grade; often mostly summative

Measure of learning; increased formative information

Using the Engineering Design Process to frame projects and activities can help you to develop formative and summative assessments at key points. It also provides a way to value and assess the process more than the final product. Because Engineering Design challenges and projects are active learning tasks that ask you to apply what you know to solve problems, they are performance assessments. So, in many ways, there is no reason for having to think of assessment as being a separate task or assignment that students need to complete. Following the process of analyzing and understanding a problem, considering multiple solutions, and prototyping, testing, and modifying one possible choice provides ongoing evidence of creativity, collaboration, communication, critical and systems thinking. There is assessment built into the steps of the project. You just need to know how to look for it and how to categorize, manage, and analyze it.

The following characteristics of Engineering Design projects make them a little more challenging to assess and it would be helpful to keep them in mind as you develop assessments.

Engineering Design Projects – What and How to Assess

Characteristics of Engineering Design Projects

Impact on Assessment

Resources and SuggestionsStudent-led learningOngoing formation of ideas and concepts requires  ongoing formative assessment and checkpoints; providing summary of key concept understandings provides framework for concept-based summative assessment.

Systems thinking, impacts, connectionsAssessment of complexity and connections is challenging. Standards-based rubrics and concept maps may be helpful. A Structure for Assessing Systems Thinking also provides some standards.

Multiple solutions/no one right answerContrary to traditional summative assessments. The project should provide evidence of learning through application of concept; makes it an authentic assessment. Constructed scenarios that involve evaluation or ranking of possible solutions against constraints, criteria, and user needs allow for assessment of both process and product understanding. Scenarios focused on meeting constraints due to curricular concepts (i.e., restrictions due to gravity, environment, etc.) can allow for assessment of concept understanding.

Skills AND content richProcess should always matter more than product; rubric-based assessment of skills probably most effective; student self-assessment also valuable. Buck Institute rubrics for creativity, collaboration, presentation, and critical thinking are excellent starting points.

Traditional assessments of content can be used as checkpoints or individual assessments.

Group workGroup should function as team; evaluating collaboration can be challenging – peer and self-assessment summative assessments  can be helpful; ongoing teacher observations can provide formative assessments. The Eberly Center at Carnegie Mellon University has some good guidelines for assessing group work.

Process-orientedThis is where much of the learning happens. Need documentation of the process for both formative and summative assessment; value of the Engineering Notebook; periodic group “check-ins”; daily observations; single-point rubric focused on EDP for self and formative assessment.

Real world; messy problemsSummative assessment requires a focus on connections, rationale for decisions; critical thinking and creativity are paramount as well as understanding of key concepts and identification of “need to know”; Buck Institute rubrics (above) extremely helpful. For generalized assessment of critical thinking and problem-solving skills, a hypothetical design challenge or an actual case-study example (older students) can be useful.

Well-designed projects are performance assessments that can provide both formative and summative feedback on content understanding and skills-based learning. My Fulbright research in Singapore focused on the use of an Engineering Design project as a performance task related to a secondary Physics mechanics unit. Not only did it result in better understanding of force and energy concepts, but it made clear the creative and innovative nature of Engineering.  It also allowed teachers to stress and assess creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication while maintaining clear connections to the subject content (Kaiser 2014).

As teachers, we are too often faced with those who directly equate assessment with grades. Students want to know what it takes to get an A; parents look at grades as evidence that their child is working hard and shows academic promise; and administrators often view the number of grades in a gradebook as evidence of sufficient course content and rigor. If you are trying to change how you teach, how you assess will need to change. It will need to match what happens in your classroom.

You can expect some pushback against group-based assessments; you may still be expected to give written exams; and you may have to justify that there is enough objectivity in your assessments. Move slowly, realizing that there is a broad range between traditional assessments and the assessments that will truly measure the impact of the learning experience you hope to create.

In the next two posts, we will look at the specifics of individual versus group assessments, provide ways to assess skills, and highlight the role and placement of summative and formative assessments. But you don’t need specifics to take inventory of how well your current assessments fit the way you hope to teach. If your students need lots of review before a test, if the “Will this be on the test?” is a frequent concern, and if students show little interest in understanding their mistakes, the assessment is just a separate task, not a part of the learning experience. Start thinking about change on that level and the details will follow.                       

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