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by Jim Bentley
National Faculty

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Topic tags: Project Based Teaching Practice: Build the Culture, assessment


July 14, 2016
How can we flip assessment to build a PBL culture?

by Jim Bentley
National Faculty

It’s been said a parent is a child’s first teacher. When a toddler attempts to talk or walk or feed himself or herself, the parent applauds the success or provides feedback on how to succeed. This transaction – rooted in language – fosters a child’s social cognition, which develops metamemory, the precursor to metacognitive thinking.

If we want to foster academic self-sufficiency, we must inculcate the notion within our students that they are their own first assessor.

That means educators must establish a classroom culture and offer tools to foster metacognition and student self-assessment. As the Dewey quote below suggests, we must reshape “educative growth” as more than students generating correct answers.  


“Were all instructors to realize that the quality of mental process, not the production of correct answers, is the measure of educative growth something hardly less than a revolution in teaching would be worked.”
― John Dewey, Democracy and Education


Build the Culture: Promote reflection

“I’m done. Is it good?”

This is a common phrase uttered by students eager to please a teacher, or at the very least to complete a task in which they may not be highly invested.

Unpacking that statement signals an age-old transaction: student completes work, student transfers title of work to teacher who holds it in escrow to assess, teacher re-transfers work back to student to observe the results. This kind of assessment is teacher centered and unilateral. The learning process is disjointed at best and likely to yield an ineffective experience for both student and teacher.

How to elevate the transaction?

Provide students with frequent opportunities to individually reflect on tasks within Project Based Learning units prior to discussing their work. I use a Google Form with a series of reflective questions to scaffold student reflections. By slowing a student down and getting them to reflect on their work instead of satisfying their desire to know if they got it right or wrong, I’ve found students’ capacity to be self-critical grows.


Build the Culture: Use Rubrics

A tip to promote student autonomy: teach students to use rubrics.

I’ve started using to teach students how to create infographics as formative benchmarks during PBL units. Students blend writing with imagery they’ve responsibly obtained from the internet or created themselves, cite sources, and consider visual design to make their learning appealing as well as informative. Infographics are also a great way to fold digital citizenship concepts such as intellectual property, copyright, or Creative Commons Licensing into any PBL unit.

I made an infographic rubric for my students using a generic self-evaluation rubric found on Alice Keeler’s Teacher Tech website. Now my students can simultaneously work and assess their progress vis-a-vis the rubric.

Another tip: require students to peer review each other’s work using a rubric prior to meeting with you to assess their work. Take a look at ELD students Diego and Christelle’s infographics. The feedback I provided was minimal, since they’d already found most of the areas that needed revising.

To foster PBL teamwork train students to use rubrics to assess their individual and team’s progress toward success skills. The Buck Institute for Education website offers rubrics for critical thinking, collaboration, and presentation skills as well as guidance on how to use these rubrics. There’s even a “rubric for rubrics” to guide teachers in rubric creation. I would add that involving students in creating rubrics is an equally powerful experience.


Build the Culture: Student Disorientation Rituals

For too many students school has been an exercise in completing tasks accurately the first time for the purpose of demonstrating to a teacher they understand what the teacher has presented. Instead of reinforcing the teacher-centered-culture of “getting it right,” we must reorient students to the fact that authentic learning necessitates reflection and is both recursive and iterative.

Instead of saying, “I’m done. Is it good?” teach students to say, “I finished my first draft. Time to revise my thinking.” To help with this, show your students the Austin’s Butterfly video (a still from it is shown above). It features Ron Berger of EL Education teaching students the power of descriptive feedback. The takeaway: feedback should be kind, specific, and helpful.

Empower students to give and receive constructive criticism. The Charrette Protocol is a low-stakes, structured way to get students sharing ideas and offering feedback early in the project/product cycle. When students evaluate the work of their peers they sharpen their self-assessment skills, too. My students have used the charrette to test drive thesis statements or get feedback on preliminary sketches for “dream homes” they’ve designed for a math PBL unit.

The Tuning Protocol is a more in-depth revision tool developed by the National School Reform Faculty students can use to get feedback midway through the project/product cycle. You can view a tutorial of the protocol on the Buck Institute’s YouTube Channel. I’ve used this with my students and attribute its success to the highly structured nature of the protocol and clear expectations for each step.


Build the Culture: Prepare for the Future

Tom Vander Ark, blogging for Education Week, shared in How Project-Based Learning Prepares Youth for Freelance Nation that a third of American workers are now engaged in freelance work. In the post Dennis Yang, the President of Udemy a “just-in-time” online learning marketplace, suggests graduates are facing increasing “pressure to differentiate themselves and their skills.” That means “educational pedigree” is becoming less important as employers develop their own “skills-based assessments” to measure prospective employees.

"Listing degrees on a resume is out," Yang states. "Successfully completing projects that demonstrate competencies is in."

Vander Ark adds the most lucrative freelance job category involves long-term projects where employees provide “non-routine deliverables” and possess project management and leadership skills as well as content knowledge.

What does this mean for students in our classrooms today? Educators must empower students to reflect upon and assess their own thinking and work. We must prepare students to take ownership of complex projects and foster within them the capacity to independently identify shortcomings or areas in need of revision.

Flipping assessment and putting students in charge now means students will have the keys to unlock a future that might look very different very soon.


Do you have questions or comments about PBL culture? Please enter them below.


  • Thanks a lot for this post!
    I did’nt know about Austin’s Butterfly experiment : I would try to “translate” it to university students. The questionnaire seems to be useable even for postgrade students, maybe I can just translate it into French and use it with the students here, in France grin

    Auferon on July 21, 2016 
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  • Awesome article, Jim. You touch on many of my favorite points related to PBL, as well as resources I also regard highly. I have loved Austin’s Butterfly for years, and the Tuning Protocol is a wonderful tool. Thank you!

    CharleneDoland on September 12, 2016 
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  • I have used the Tuning Protocol on projects that I am just not sure have hit the mark for PBL.  It is an excellent tool for teachers to use to re-work and re-think their lessons and assessments.  It helps so much to be able to step back and see how a plan looks from someone else’s eyes.  Thanks for the great article!

    PBLintheFifth on January 7, 2017 
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