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Use formative assessment to put students on a winning streak

By Suzie Boss
February 20, 2015
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I recently took part in a design workshop at a school that is shifting from traditional instruction to project-based learning (PBL). To kick off the day, teachers interviewed students about how they learn best and what they wish were different about school. Then teams of educators and students worked together to brainstorm ideas that could be game changing.

One of the most provocative suggestions came from a high school student. She asked: “Why don’t we rethink assessment so that we aren’t punished for mistakes? What if we could learn from our failures?” Every adult at the table nodded in agreement.

For the next hour, her team explored strategies to shine a light on “good” mistakes. These are the ones that encourage risk taking but also reveal student misunderstandings. By knowing early if students are confused or need additional support, teachers can make on-the-fly adjustments in instruction and get students on the path to deeper learning.

When PBL is done well, opportunities to take creative risks, make improvements and address misunderstandings are built into the project cycle. There is dedicated time for critique, revision and reflection. That means students can improve and refine their work before they share it with audiences. They can wrestle with concepts or content that may be confusing at first. They aren’t graded down for making revisions or edits. Instead, they’re encouraged to see that their effort yields better results.

Rick Stiggins, author of Revolutionize Assessment: Empower Students, Inspire Learning, advocates for assessment that puts students on “winning streaks.” Instead of reinforcing negative messages like, “I just can’t do this,” more effective assessment helps students feel hopeful about themselves as learners. They don’t see every quiz or assignment as a “gotcha” moment that will reveal their failings. Instead, students are motivated to put their best efforts forward, knowing they will get help if they are struggling. They have some necessary breathing room while they’re in the process of learning.

To encourage high-quality work in PBL, look for opportunities to get all students on winning streaks. At the start of a project, help them understanding the learning goals ahead. A rubric that’s carefully worded in student-friendly language gives them a vision of excellence. Encourage them to use the rubric throughout the project to assess their progress and identify areas where they may need help. For example, during a check-in a teacher might say, “Your technical writing is proficient now, but it could be exemplary if you use more precise vocabulary. Does this give you some ideas for your next draft?”

In Reinventing Project-Based Learning, we list a variety of additional assessment options all along the project timeline. Some methods, like being a good observer, are useful all the time. Others are better suited to specific phases of PBL. Be aware that too much assessment of the same type yields diminishing returns. Rather than asking students for an exit slip every day, mix it up by incorporating a backchannel on TodaysMeet or Twitter, or have students interview each other or comment on each other’s blogs. 

It’s worth pointing out that the teacher isn’t the only one doing the assessing. Students can provide each other with valuable peer critique. They benefit, too, from feedback that comes from expert sources — not just at the end of the project, but also in the messy middle, when there’s time for revision. Self-assessment and reflection also help encourage individual growth.

By the end of the project, students should be able to look back at where they started and see their progression as learners. Were there missteps along the way? Perhaps. But if students can see how they overcame challenges and made breakthroughs in understanding, they’re on a winning streak that’s worth celebrating.

Suzie Boss is co-author of Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age.Check out the new expanded second edition of this best-selling PBL guide.