Assessing Student-led Projects

Published: 18 July, 2017

Over the last few years of my teaching practice I have used student-led project-based learning as a basis of my Technology courses. This has allowed students to base their learning on a context they are interested in and encouraged them to explore and learn skills as required for the project. This is in contrast to the more “traditional” classroom where the teacher provides instruction followed by a common task that is then assessed.

The benefits of handing control of the projects to students has had a number of benefits around self-management and increasing engagement (and subsequently both academic and personal success) but raised some issues around assessment of evidence and when and how that occurred. The following is a process that decentralises the responsibility of assessment and evidence creation and management to the student and allows the teacher to focus on formative assessment and feedback, individualised instruction based on student need, and summative assessment when requested by and as appropriate to the student.

The Approach

Each Achievement Standard is broken down into a set of criteria for the different levels of the standard (AME) and made available to the students at the beginning of the year as "Evidence Checklists" (This is an example of a Level 2 Generic Technology Achievement Standard based around conceptual thinking and would normally be an editable Google Document). The checklist provides all details for the standard and links to the New Zealand Qualification Authority's web site and the original Achievement Standard document. The students are free to choose which standards they are assessed against and make copies of the relevant “Evidence Checklists” for each standard.

The students then work to develop projects and as they work through the Design process for that project they produce evidence for the criteria of the standards. As evidence is created the student can add it to one or more checklists as appropriate for the standard and are free to do this as and when they see fit. They are also free to document the evidence in any form as long as it appears in the relevant evidence area for the each of the criteria. They are free to seek feedback on the criteria at any point, can request formative assessment at any stage and when they are ready they can submit the checklist for summative assessment. The teacher needs to balance this so students do not end up “grinding” through the standard incrementally improving the achievement level without actually really learning at that level.

The teacher assesses the evidence provided (i.e. does not hunt for evidence) and provides the student with a final assessment, feedback or guidance as required. The student continues to develop evidence via the project and can focus on other standards.

The Student is expected to:

  1. understand the criteria of the standard and seek advice if there is any confusion
  2. produce evidence and align that evidence with the standard
  3. understand that their project may not align with all standards
  4. take ownership of not only their project(s) but their assessment as well

The Teacher needs to:

  1. Work with students to define a suitable project (i.e. one that allows the student to meet the criteria of the standards and is in line with their interests). This can be time consuming for students that have not had to identify a project before.
  2. Ensure the students understand how to manage their projects, assessment and evidence and have the technical skills and knowledge to do so.
  3. Provide suitable pathways for students to develop technical skills required by their project work
  4. Assess evidence on request and provide suitable feedback and guidance
  5. Encourage regular feedback and assessment with students
  6. Ensure authenticity is maintained while assessing by not leading the students’ projects and evidence. The teacher needs to focus on improving the student to the point they can produce suitable evidence within their chosen context.

Intended Benefits:

Different Learning Needs

Students do not all learn at the same speed or level so offering an environment that allows them the time and space to explore an area of interest provides a much better scope for meeting the learning needs of more students. Students who become highly engaged can work through a wider or deeper set of technical skills and students who are new to the area or technical skills can focus on building up fundamental skills within a suitable project structure. An unexpected benefit noted this year was that the highly engaged students moved to supporting other students as they became confident in their own projects and achievement. This began to occur towards the end of Term 2.

Workload

Students are constantly under pressure to produce evidence for assessment whether it is part of a teacher-led or self-directed course and secondary schools are heavily focused on this summative assessment. Deadlines that result in whole class submission of evidence create sporadic bursts of teacher workload and usually result in poor outcomes from the less engaged students. Equalising evidence submission and assessment opportunities allow the teacher to balance instruction, project feedback and assessment across the entire year creating a more balanced workload and more opportunity to give meaningful instruction and feedback to individual students.

Transparency

Allowing students to align evidence directly to the Achievement standards requires that they understand the criteria of the standard they are trying to meet. While this seems obvious many students are set tasks where the outcome is assessed by the teacher and the criteria are not explicitly noted. The students are often unable to explain the criteria of a standard and are often unsure what the standard was about. Interestingly they always know how many credits the standard was worth.

Granular feedback

Students can be formatively assessed against specific criteria in the standard rather than completing a full body of work before getting any feedback. The opportunity to gain support and feedback from the teacher on an individual basis helps the student develop self-management skills as well as the confidence to actually ask for support. As a teacher it provides a more meaningful interaction with individual students, their projects and subsequently their interests and as it is balanced over the course of the year students tend to get a better deal overall. Specific feedback is often required when aligning evidence with criteria in the standards and around specific technical issues a student is facing so being able to tackle this quickly and effectively helps the student move on.

Self Management

The ability to take responsibility for their own education and to understand that learning occurs over time and is something they will be doing for their entire life usually without the support of a teacher or other adult is important enough that it appears as a specific key competency in the NZ Curriculum. The ability to confidently identify, structure and manage a project is, in my experience and opinion, also very useful in life as a way to produce an income, approach and manage specific issues and contribute to the wider community. For me this is a core competency and one I have built into all of my courses.

Moderation

The nature of an individualised project lends itself well to authentic learning as it is very difficult to copy a body of work that specifically meets all of the requirements of a student's project. Students are actively encouraged to support each other with learning technical skills and then apply them to their own context. As students are ready for assessment they are submitting evidence in an environment that tracks ownership (Google Drive in this case) and the process they went through to produce that evidence. Students and Teachers can at any stage request assessment from a second source if required to verify and validate a judgement. All evidence submitted for assessment is linked to from the “Evidence Checklist” and has been assessed and, ideally, discussed by both the student and the teacher so by the time summative assessment occurs both parties should be fairly confident with the level the student has been operating at and what learning needs to occur to increase that level. This assessment approach has also recently been successfully reviewed and moderated by other teachers and NZQA (which has been a relief).

Tools

The tools I have been using to deliver project-based courses within secondary schools also lend themselves fairly naturally to this assessment model. Most of the work has been in developing better ways of creating and storing evidence along with the assessment checklists so that assessment and moderation time is reduced. The primary tools used are digital, online and include: 

  1. Project based course: this structure allows flexibility around the context the students use to develop skills. The projects are individual and defined by the student.
  2. Online portfolio: Google Drive in this case but any online storage that allows students to upload work, track ownership, store and share evidence and assessment checklists. Teachers need to be able to comment on evidence and provide feedback without direct interference of the evidence. Doctopus has been used to quickly create a class of folders in Google Drive while giving the teacher ownership. This is important for future storage of assessment evidence for moderation and exemplar purposes.
  3. Resources: An online system for distributing and suggesting resources to support student learning specific to their project. We tend to use either Google Classroom or, more recently Schoology but as long as it can link to or store resources for a specific group of students it will work. I use a range of resources to introduce technical skills and explore contexts and these range from those I create myself to tutorials, videos and interviews I find online. Students are also welcome to use any resource they see fit to help  them work through their project.
  4. Evidence Checklists: These evidence sheets for the Achievement Standards are the communication point between student and teacher and are important for identifying areas of confusion or gaps in the student's knowledge or learning (as it relates to the standard at least). They are editable documents that the students copy, own and then share (via Google Drive) when they are ready for assessment.