Wednesday, April 10, 2013

PBL and grading

For all of the hoopla over Project Based Learning (not the least of which is done on this blog), there are a number of technical and logistical questions that are raised by this approach to instruction.  One such issue is that of grading.

In a "traditional" classroom set-up, teachers assess students on a regular basis by some combination of homework, quizzes, tests, and perhaps projects.  Students receive feedback in the form of grades, which generally are presented on a numerical (1-10 or 1-100) or alphabetical (A, B, C, D, F) scale.  Every few months, those grades are averaged together to produce a cumulative grade to be placed onto a report card.  Of course, it is those report card grades which ultimately attain great importance as they are looked to to determine placement, awards, high school and college admissions, and who knows how many other important or seemingly important ways of sorting students.

Of course, the notion that a single letter or number can encapsulate months worth of student work and effort is a sad joke.  Yet, we have come to accept it quite broadly in our society, based presumably on the notion that all of the elements that went into that grade were valid and reflective of the many efforts that students put into their work and that the grade is indicating roughly where on a scale from putrid to awesome those efforts fell.

Whether or not you accept standard grades as a good idea, PBL makes a mockery out of them.  In my early forays into PBL, I admit that I was concerned about having "gradable assignments" for my students and thus I devised a number of questions sheets or other "mid-project" assessments to both keep tabs on their work and to make sure that I would be able to give them a valid grade when the project was all over.  Truth be told, many of the assignments were nothing more than old-school homework assignments, which really have no place in a PBL unit.  Furthermore, if one aspect of a PBL unit is that students have choice as to which sources and material they are going to use, then it does not make sense to insist that everyone hand in the same assignments, since they will not all be doing the same work.

And so I have moved to having each student group maintain a website where they store their notes and any other materials that are a part of their learning.  I am thus able to check in on their progress and make effective and meaningful comments - the true "assessment" - without looking to squeeze a meaningless number out of a banal assignment.  This approach proved to be very effective in my last unit and for the time being I am planning on keeping it as a feature of my PBL units.

However, I still have to give a grade and so what am I to do?  The most obvious answer is to create rubrics for either the final project alone or the project plus the process.  While rubrics can take some serious effort to create, once created they do not need to be re-created and, more importantly, they provide real feedback as to how well the student accomplished the task at hand.

That being said, I come to the question that emerges from all of this: If a class is being taught primarily via PBL, and students are assessed via rubrics and other more informative approaches to feedback, are standard report cards still the way to go?  Does a teacher who grades via rubric come up with some way to convert the rubric scores into a single letter or number for the purpose of report cards, thus sacrificing all of the rich detail that the rubric contained?  Obviously, it is much more difficult for a high school or college to consider such detailed reports about each student in lieu of a few simple grades, and obviously the concept of the "highest average" does not mean as much when we are not really dealing with averages.  Nevertheless, if what is most important is developing our students as learners and providing them with meaningful feedback that helps to guide them in their future learning, then isn't that more important than honors society?


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