Pursuing Authenticity: Assessment Strategies for PBL

For me, setting expectations for grading students’ work product in authentic PBL activities presents a set of difficult challenges Below are a few thoughts I’ve “warmed up to” over the last few years as my teaching practice has evolved:

1. De-emphasize the Rubric – Focus on Creativity instead. Students expect us to define minimum standards; however, a rubric with point-by-point guidelines that have too many details may actually stifle students’ creativity. How can we set minimums and also encourage students to reach further and pursue their passions? For me, the answer is to keep the rubric general. I learned this from Christian Long, a fellow PLPer. I try to define standards in general terms: just as we all know obscenity when we see it, students and I all know “half-an-effort” when we read it in an essay or watch it in a presentation. For a recent project where the work product are blog posts, I shared these general thoughts about grading with students: 1) write thoughtfully and respectfully; 2) Individual students’ submissions will be evaluated based on overal thesis/ideas/style; 3) write in a way that is meaningful and compelling – period. 4)  be “remarkable” – so that visitors will choose to “remark” about your post and engage in conversation. I offered a minimum number words that I thought could accomplish these tasks; however, I also noted that I was NOT going to count words – instead, I emphasized that it’s tough to write a ‘complete thought’ in fewer words than the minimum.

When teachers define the minimum standards; rather than setting “maximum standards” with specific rubrics, we allow students to “reach for the stars” and pursue their interests in more authentic ways.

2. Avoid the recipe. I’m leary of rubrics that become “recipes” –  for me, if a student can merely follow a step-by-step recipe to produce a finished work product, then we’ve done too much of the lifting as teachers. We may also stifle students’ creativity and eliminate opportunites for students to apply critical thinking skills as problem-solvers.

 3. Offer examples. For an example of a thoughtful blog post, I like to share this one from Dan Pink with my students. Sometimes we’ll look at work from past years in the course together, and I’ll choose points of emphasis to clarify expecations for students. Our increasing connectedness as educators also means that I can draw on published student projects from colleagues – known and unknown – around the world, too.

 4. Implement Soft Deadlines If it’s a 40-minute activity in class, I’ll check-in and provide feedback about students’ progress at/around the half-way mark. For longer projects, I tell students that we’ll have a soft deadline after the first week and again at the half-way mark – I’ll want to hear about their process and view their work product for two reasons: 1) we can offer feedback to redirect students toward meeting expectations; and 2) it’s helpful for students to know where they are in terms of pacing. Soft deadlines are all about feedback; I don’t actually grade students’ work at this point.

 5. Separate Facts from Opinions. I tell my students early-on that my job is to teach students “how to think” not “what to think” about history, government, and economics: we are always working to separate facts from opinion. For example, students and I are engaged in a study of current affairs as they relate to economics. I have encouraged students to choose stories from current affairs that fit their passions and interests. The stories they choose don’t much matter. For me, an essential question for grading is “can students use economics vocabulary and the ways of thinking in economics to explain and analyze the story?” A crucial task, then, is to focus my grading rubric on reading for economics vocabulary used in a proper context that demonstates student understanding of the term beyond textbook definition. (Done well, this would, I hope, suggest students are thinking analytically.) As long as students have explained and applied concepts in ways that are factually correct, they are free to draw their own original conclusions. At this point in the process, I’m looking to grade students’ command of the facts.

 5a. Emphasize students’ analytical processes; de-emphasize students’ conclusions. This is a follow-up to #5 above – US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once famously asserted, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” For me, students must have command of factual details to form a foundation for analysis; therefore, grading for nuanced details has to be part of the process… but… it doesn’t go far enough. We also want to emphasize students’ ability to construct a logical argument that uses analytical links to connect factual detail to students opinions. Here again, the topics they choose don’t much matter, and neither, ultimately, do students’ points-of-view. What really matters is how they answer the “WHY” question with a clear, analytical process.

 Which items in my list would you prioritize? Which items would you discard? What else would you add?


About Dr. Ostroff

Head of Upper School at The Emery/Weiner School in Houston, TX
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