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March 4, 2021

Project Based Learning: Assessment and Other Dirty Words

Assessment. Accountability. Benchmarks. Pacing.

These words all carry such negative connotations, yet they’re a driving force in the world we must exist in as educators today. As teachers, we must toe the line every day between progressive ideas tugging at our hearts and external standards with accompanying responsibilities.

Is it possible to move beyond this “either-or” paradigm?

In my work as a Project Based Learning (PBL) educator for the past decade, I’ve learned to embrace the beautiful mess that the ideals of PBL create in challenging contexts — also known as “reality.”The vast majority of teachers exist in schools that are facing barriers that feel unsurmountable to move PBL theories into practice. However, through my own classroom experiences and my work supporting teachers across the country, I’m here to tell you that those dirty words DO have a place in progressive teaching and learning methods, and those words can be empowering rather than paralyzing, for both teachers and students. To learn more about PBL, check out this video.

The Building Blocks of Project-Based Learning

VIDEO: The Building Blocks of Project-Based Learning

Here are some tips to help you get started with integrating assessment best practices into your projects, while also helping you uphold rigor and student engagement:

Start With The End In Mind

A common best practice in teaching is to plan with the end in mind, also known as Backwards Design or Understanding by Design (McTighe, Wiggins). High-quality PBL is grounded in these same foundations:

  • Begin by deciding what the final product will be.
  • Ask what knowledge students will need to master.
  • Determine what skills students will need to develop in order to complete this final product.

This first step requires that you draw upon standards to help you get clear on what content students will need to learn in order to complete the project. This is also the step where you identify what, if any, district or school performance assessments will need to be incorporated into the project.

Take It From The Experts

Once you’ve identified the content and skills students will need to master throughout the project, you can begin to build your rubric, also known as your summative assessment tool. Building rubrics can be extremely time consuming and requires technical skill to ensure that a valid assessment tool is developed; for this reason, I recommend building your rubric based off of expert tools rather than coming up with your own from scratch. A few of my favorite Open Education (assessment) Resources for 21st-century skills (which are embedded in PBL) are:

I recommend that you review the rubrics listed on these websites and identify one row from two to three rubrics that highlight the nuanced, 21st-century skills and content knowledge that students will develop in your project.

Build Your Rubric Rows

Now comes the time to roll up your sleeves and get messy! Copy and paste the descriptors from the expert rubrics into your own document. At this point, you have 2-3 rows of your rubric already created. Next, you’ll visit your content standards, or perhaps your district assessment tools, and drop the language from these sources into the remaining rows of your rubric. Your summative assessment tool will end up being anywhere from 4-8 rows. To see an example, check out these PBL lessons done with Boeing, which all include rubrics in the teacher materials.

Using Engineering Design in the Classroom

VIDEO: Using Engineering Design in the Classroom

Benchmark Deliverables

In PBL, benchmarks are simply the digestible chunks that break down your project and allow students to provide you with deliverables that they reflect on and you formatively assess, using 1-2 rows from your rubric. Sample benchmarks for a Public Service Announcement are listed below.

Project Based Learning Deliverables written out on white paper


Calendar It Out

Once you’ve identified your benchmarks, you know the project milestones, which will allow you to develop a project calendar for planning logistics. But more importantly, it will allow you to cross-check that you are formatively assessing and providing formal feedback to students at multiple points throughout the project. This step is critical in high-quality PBL because it serves as a “safety net” to ensure that students are mastering content prior to moving forward. For more on formative assessment, check out Tch’s Formative Assessment Deep Dive.

This step also affords you the opportunity to re-teach if needed, and better differentiate teaching and learning throughout the project process. Assessing and receiving feedback multiple times in a project allows students to fully develop their content mastery and skills, therefore moving to the right columns on your rubric.

Every teacher has their own style for how they like to plan out this process. Here is just one example:

Project Based Learning Benchmark Calendar

Embracing dirty assessment words in PBL truly allows students to have ownership over their learning. When we’re upfront with students about what we expect from them (through tools such as rubrics), learning doesn’t feel like a mystery. I hope you feel armed and empowered to roll up your sleeves and dive into this dirty, but important work. I look forward to hearing and seeing your success stories!


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