Assessments that Improve STEM Success

By Anne Jolly

"Assessment should be deliberately designed to improve and educate student performance, not merely to audit as most school tests currently do."   

- Grant Wiggins


You’ve located and designed STEM lessons. You’ve guided your students through exploring problems, creating solutions, and working in teams to do that.  Now comes the big question: What did your kids learn? How are you going to assess your students’ progress during and following your STEM lessons? And what, exactly, do you need to assess?


Certainly, one short post can’t do justice to the topic of assessment; however, I’d like to share some STEM assessment ideas that worked for me.


To start with, I focused primarily on formative assessments – the kind of day-to-day “checks for learning” that you and your students can use to monitor and improve their learning.  The guiding question for my assessments is pretty basic: What are students learning, how are they thinking, and what understandings and skills are they gaining as a result of this STEM lesson?


I gathered information from the five areas below to help me answer that question.


  1. Success in meeting lesson criteria. Your lessons will have criteria that students’ methods and prototypes should meet. I created rubrics that students could use to determine how well they succeeded in meeting the criteria. They used that information to redesign their prototype so that it performed even better. I also used their rubrics to determine which teams might need more guidance, but I never used the rubrics to grade students. That’s important! STEM classes are safe zones.  Failure to meet criteria is normal in STEM lessons and provides an opportunity for real-time learning.


  1. Proficiency in thinking like an engineer. I looked for evidence that the engineering design process was becoming a normal part of the way students thought and planned. My rubric looked something like this: To what degree can STEM students . . .
  • Come up with several different possible solutions for a problem, including some that are innovative and daring.
  • Combine materials and ideas in clever and imaginative ways to create a solution.
  • Consider environmental, ethical, and safety issues when deciding on a solution.
  • Understand how to make trade-offs when necessary.
  • Design a prototype and test it to see if this device solves the problem.
  • Successfully evaluate their testing results; then analyze and interpret their data.
  • Use data to recognize things they can do to improve the design of their prototype.
  • Communicate ideas clearly in new and innovative ways.


  1. Understanding of the science and math needed to solve the problem. I learned that my students did not automatically recognize that the science they were learning actually applied to a STEM challenge we were solving. I became intentional about helping students make specific math and science connections during the lesson. I often gave them one or two entrance questions or exit questions to get a quick idea of whether they understood a particular part of the content. For example, if my teams were designing an eco-friendly, heat-resistant plastic for use as a beach toy (there are lots of plastic making recipes on the internet) I might ask questions such as these to check their understanding of the science content:
  • What might happen to your eco-plastic if the ratio of glycerin is higher?
  • How can you calculate the ratio of the glycerin?
  • What role does the starch play?
  • How is the plastic you are designing better for the environment than a regular plastic?

By asking the kind of questions that require kids to apply content knowledge, you'll get an idea of where you might need to shore up their understanding.


  1. Progress in working successfully in teams. Observing student behaviors as they work together on projects is an obvious way for a teacher to gauge this, but how can students assess their own progress? To keep good teamwork behaviors on students’ radar I often asked them to do a brief team assessment before the class began. This would require students to assess their previous teamwork (individually or as teams) and would bring desired behaviors to mind. Here from my website are links to some tools I used for formative assessments on teamwork. Feel free to use them if they suit.

I sometimes gave students a brief end-of-class assessment and let them rate their behaviors during the current class. The assessment was generally as simple as a couple of open-ended questions: What did our team do well today? What do we need to improve?


  1. Development of student attitudes and confidence that lead to success. One of the principle values of STEM is the focus on helping kids develop specific attitudes that will help them be more successful students, citizens, and members of the workforce. I looked for growth in these areas:


  • Students feel comfortable in expressing out-of-the-box, imaginative ideas.
  • They believe that it’s safe to fail and see failure as an opportunity to improve.
  • They suggest increasingly creative ideas for solving a problem.
  • Students show increased persistence in sticking with tasks.
  • They take ownership of their projects and learning.
  • They express increasing curiosity and ask more questions.
  • They transfer STEM practices to other subject areas.


The ideas I’ve shared with you are not the formal summative evaluations we normally connect with student assessment; however, these are possibly your most important assessments. They can give you the timely information you need to keep your STEM lessons on track and be sure students are learning, growing, and becoming more proficient at solving the problems they will face as adults.




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