Measuring the Results of Project-Based Learning

Source: Mindshift, Jul 2013

As education continues the march toward a student-driven, project-oriented approach that values intelligent solutions to open-ended problems, it won’t be sufficient to focus on the wonderful discoveries and authentic work that result from an inquiry-based system. Instead, a far more difficult issue will come to the fore: How will we know if inquiry-based learning is successful, and what non-standardized measures of achievement, like better attitude, apply?

Tests reward the right answer, and even brief essays are expected to abide by the perimeters of known knowledge and standardized terms. But open-ended problems result in idiosyncratic solutions, derived from a process of exploration in which students practice evidence-finding, thoughtful exchange, and creative design. During that process, they change and grow as people, not just as test-takers. It will take thoughtful development of new metrics, some strange to education, to develop an assessment system that captures the richness of inquiry-based education.

Assessing Collaborative Learning

The iconic model of the individual scholar has been replaced by team-based inquiry. In industry, team members are assessed for individual accountability and performance, as well as overall team productivity. Teachers will need to learn to easily navigate between teams and team member performance, engage high end students accustomed to book work, use effective coaching for reluctant students, and take greater care to assess individual mastery during presentations.

Making Depth of Thinking Evident

Thinking is very difficult to evaluate, but key signs include use of appropriate vocabulary, the ability to exchange ideas in a protocol-based format, and the ultimate skill of delivering a cogent solution supported by explanation, insight, and evidence. In inquiry-based education, all of these become assessable items. But each requires well thought out criteria that education has only begun to identify.

Turning Engagement from Metaphor to Metric

The traditional model of information management stresses knowledge, skills, and attitude as the qualities required to perform in a job.

A relationship-driven, information-based world turns the formula around: Performance begins with attitude and manifests as skills and achievement, a lesson evident in the behavior of the 12th graders in the Michigan high school, whose year began with two weeks of teamwork and ‘attitude adjustment’ exercises. Over the year, their attitude shift resulted in noticeable engagement and deeper learning. Education will need to develop consistent methods for assessing engagement, using qualitative tools such as reflection tools, problem logs, Socratic discussion, and regular school climate surveys.

Figuring Out Knowledge

This is the elephant in the room. Both brain research and common sense tells us that powerful inquiry requires a foundation of facts, concepts, and a knowledge base. This means that the standardized curriculum and conventional teaching methods will not disappear, nor should they. But the already heated arguments over the Common Core State Standards point to intense discussion over the next few years about the scope and nature of standards. How much do we teach young people, and what do we leave to inquiry?

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