What ARE my students actually learning during this long term project (PBL)?


Why am I writing about assessment? These are comments I hear and see around the education community surrounding project based learning (PBL).


  • “PBLs aren’t for me - my students need to actually learn content.” (My response: As I’ve gotten better at facilitating these experiences, I’ve been amazed that some of the insights my students have made. I hope you find this too over time.)

  • “Students shouldn’t learn chemistry by just doing research on a topic.” (My response: I agree. This is not good pedagogy, this is googling.)

  • “My students are learning real chemistry - I don’t have time.” (My response: Yep. It’s difficult. Every context is different. I only do this two times a year because I don’t want to impede my students when they take AP chemistry.)

  • “Students need to perfectly mastery the content before they can do something for the public…  and I do not think they will ever be ready.” (My response: Does this attitude align with the real world? Were you really ready to start teaching when you did?)

  • “Is my little Susie doing all of the work in the project and little Joanie riding her coattails to get a good grade? That’s not fair for my little Susie.” (My response: Yep. That is a valid point.)

In an earlier post, I discuss some of my unit planning that (I hope!) further breaks down a few of these misconceptions - my students are not teaching themselves on google. They are weaving back and forth between learning content and the larger reason for learning the content.

However, every single one of these comments above are valid. It is really difficult work to ultimately balance individual accountability and group accountability. Every student needs to master basic stoichiometry before they leave my general chemistry course.

So, here goes nothing. I actually started this post a few months ago and it turned into a monster. As you gain a small glimpse into my classroom, I’ve bolded each item so that you, the busy reader, may skim.

Individual Accountability Throughout a Month of a PBL Project
  1. Mastery Checks

    1. What is it? These are basically exit tickets. Note the name - it’s a check for mastery (I wish I came up with this - this is a term from the first school I worked at. However, unlike the exit ticket that is maybe just thrown away, I attempt to use these intentionally. The purpose is dual: for ME to get formal feedback on student thinking, AND for students to get concrete data on their thinking. Often times, I know if a student gets it or not, but they do not know if they get it or not. Just as I am likely overestimating my ability to assess student understanding via my observations, students do the same.

    2. How do I do it? After a formal lesson, students complete the mastery check on paper. Yes, I print the questions - most of my materials are hard copy, and for my students, I find that they are more likely to refer to their work in the future if much of it is in the same format. Logistically, they tape the half/quarter sheet of paper in a composition notebook so it is adjacent to any relevant notes. Anyway, we then check it immediately or at the beginning of the next class. That’s it. You may already do this, or do a better job of this. I’m a big fan of using Page Keeley’s formative assessment probes, assessment resources from POGIL  activities I use, and questions I develop based on misconceptions I notice my students bring up during classroom activities (e.g. misconception: students have discussed one isotope of carbon-12 turning into carbon-13 - now, in addition to tweaking learning activities to combat this misconception, I also assess it).

  2. Quizzes/Tests

    1. What is it? Do I need to say anything here?

    2. How do I do it? Once again, self explanatory.

    3. Extra thoughts:

      1. However, I do try to have students self grade bits and pieces of it so they get feedback sooner (130 in gen chem + multiple short answer questions on avg for me to grade = a million years of grading time). I grade the 1-2 short answer questions that have more nuance. I attempt to get them to grade the cut and dry questions. Basically, I budget a quiz to take about 40 minutes, and then we have about 10 minutes to grade at the end of class with 5 minutes of buffer time (I have 55 minute class periods).

      2. For the test, a giant portion of the short answer is a mini version of the project. In a small scale scenario, can every individual use the chemistry AND the logic skills INDEPENDENTLY (without help from the group)? I come up with a new scenario no student has seen and students have to work it out independently with the given data. It is quite telling.

      3. Oh, and don’t be like me and do the test AFTER their project presentations. I did that the first year. Have you already realized the folly in my ways? That this test might be more powerful if students get that feedback that is parallel to project work BEFORE their presentations? Yeah, that was my thought in hindsight. I now try to do the test before the final presentations to panelists to give students another chance to work out kinks.

  3. Lab write ups -

    1. For the project at hand, sometimes I require giant lab write ups. Each student does one of the four write ups. Why? Am I losing something if they don’t do a write up for all the lab work they have done throughout a project? One - I’m assessing them on the other lab work in other ways (see above). Also, it is my VERY feeble attempt to reduce plagiarism or the “little Susie wrote four lab reports and little Joanie wrote zero yet earned the same grade.” I have loved reading posts from others at ChemEdX on the types of feedback technology allows us to now give (Video! Digital comments! Handwriting!). Check out previous posts from Dan Meyers or this from Lowell Thomson if you’d like more food for thought.

  4. On-the-fly questions during the presentation

    1. If you were a graduate student, you experienced the incessant on-the-fly questions in group meetings. Scientists in academia and industry are ALWAYS asked on-the-fly questions in their work. It can be scary (I took an upper level polymer chemistry class that my WHOLE GRADE was based on random oral questions during class and a presentation. SCARY!). It takes practice to get good at this. So, while there is a group grade for part of the presentation, an individual grade for the presentation is based on an “on-the-fly” question. See the rubrics below for how I prep my students. (Thanks V. Chen for the structure to help me do this formally with my students.)

  5. End of project reflection. Here is a sample of an end of project reflection and peer review.

    1. Students complete this while watching other student presentations.

    2. This is another formal way for students to tell me how things went, what big ideas they took away from their project and how it went with their peers. As I said, I value honest communication from my students and typically know who did what work. While I’m sure not all students speak up, I do get some students tell me honestly who did what with this lovely numerical scale (thanks J. Andrew for this system). And I do lower grades if little Joanie slacked (confirmed by student midpoint peer reviews and my observations).

In reading this portion on individual accountability, I realize how boring I look. In some ways, I really am that boring. However, students will have to take tests the rest of their lives in a variety of academic scenarios. I like to think of myself as a moderate in the PBL world - yeah, my students do cool things, but they also have to navigate and find success in a traditional academic institution as well.

Yes, during the stoichiometry project, students will participate in the mole-ympics to garner much needed stoichiometry practice. Yes, we will do poll everywhere when I want students to see data. Yes, students use whiteboards sometimes (I love my giant whiteboards! They’re great for socratic seminars). Yes, my students have done animation projects.

Group Accountability Throughout a Month of a PBL Project
  1. Knows, need to knows, next steps- discussed in this previous post.

  2. Group status update - midpoint

    1. Halfway through the project, the groups fills out a mid point review, which has questions related to resources used (or not used) from the class website (our school uses Canvas, so I have screenshots from a module within Canvas), and content questions (while not on the form, you’ll see in the checkboxes on the bottom of page two I refer to the proposals - that’s where all the content is). Then, I have a "check in" with each group as they get to work for the day on project tasks. Group not on track? They have to come up with a formal plan to get back on track with consequences for not doing so. Additionally, there is a reminder to have a personal conversation with me if needed (Little Joanie not doing her work? Well, let’s talk about that). I am not afraid to adjust final project grades as needed if this is occurring and documented at the midpoint OR on the group contract (discussed in this post about group contracts).

  3. Peer review of presentations

    1. My format has changed over time. What used to be a yes, no, or maybe checklist has morphed into this monster based on the content rubric. All groups must participate in a presentation peer review 1-2 days before the real presentation. Here are the roles I used in the most recent iteration:

      1. One to two students use this monster checklist for peer review. I might toy with breaking up the monster checklist among a few students, and having one student focus on transitions. We’ll see.

      2. One student only gives feedback on transitions - aka, does the story make sense from slide to slide? Novice presenters often leave the audience to assume a lot of the storyline.

      3. One student gives feedback on aesthetics - slide to text ratio, etc.

  4. The presentation itself. I post the rubrics for students about a week before the presentation when they’re in serious project work time mode and have the content background to actually make sense of the rubric.

    1. Community panelist rubric (Based on American Association of Colleges and Universities Values Rubrics). Yep, those lovely community members you got to come in are put to work. You might choose to have your panelists input their scores and comments on a summary sheet you make or with a google form to save a few trees.

    2. My content rubric (Thanks V. Chen for the ideas for formatting!)

What a laundry list this turned out to be. However, when push comes to shove, I am confident on what each student knows, understands, and can do 95% of the time during a long term inquiry project via a variety of means...that maybe looks like what you do in your classroom?

Anyways, I should get back to my day to day task of being a teacher and should probably grade some tests and plan. This post is really a bare-bones summary of my own journey minus all the context that got me to where I am now, so I run the risk of looking quite formulaic here. In chemistry terms, I have reached a personal equilibrium in terms of my assessment. I don’t want to remain stagnant. I suppose writing this is my public accountability to continue improving my craft - so thanks for reading if you made it this far.

My question for you readers: How do you hold students accountable for their learning? How do you try to make it transparent? What might I add to my personal toolbox that you have found valuable in your context?

Join the conversation.

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Comments 2

MeiPing Yang's picture
MeiPing Yang | Sun, 10/29/2017 - 13:50

Thank you for sharing the rubrics on how the students are being graded and assessed.  With my minimum experience with PBL, how to hold each individual students accountable has been difficult.  I am trying one, not as extensive as yours, with a 4 x4 box rubric.  4 categories with max points of 4 for each category.  Since I am also teaching students to do the CER method (Claim, Evidences, and Reasoning), while doing peer grading, I ask them to circle on the box what the presenter deserves.  That will be the "Claim".  They then need to provide Evidences and Reasoning for each claim they circle.  \That and a few questions will be their individual grade.  Not the presenter's grade. Your peer review and self-assessment is a wonderful component to add to the individual grade part of the project. I will definitely be using it.


Tracy Schloemer's picture
Tracy Schloemer | Sun, 10/29/2017 - 19:55

Hey MeiPing-

What great practice on creating evidence-based arguments! Hope the other tools help too!