Formative Assessment in PBL

The school year will soon be underway, and you’re probably already planning for your next round of PBL projects. One of the main questions you will need to answer as you implement these projects is this: How’s it going?

That’s the question that formative assessments are designed to answer. These assessments mirror what happens during class and uncover what students know and can do while they’re still in the process of learning.

In 2019 the National Academies of Science and Engineering published Science and Engineering for Grades 6-12. (Download for free at this site). In this study, researchers looked at strategies for assessing student learning and concluded that certain practices are common to successful assessment:

  • Various kinds of assessments are embedded in learning experiences during the lesson.
  • Teachers continually observe students as they work and monitor students’ progress.
  • Students have multiple opportunities during each lesson to reveal their thinking, feelings, and understanding.
  • Students get feedback during each lesson on what they do well and how they can improve.
  • Teachers use information from these assessments to modify their instruction on the spot to better assist student learning (rather than for grading).

That’s a good roadmap to follow as you plan for including formative assessment in your PBL curriculum.  (Note: If you are teaching STEM-based PBL, check out this article.)

Formative assessments play an especially valuable in PBL classrooms because PBL environments are “safe.” Students’ ideas are accepted and valued without put-downs or ridicule. Failure is accepted and valued for its learning power, and kids don’t worry about getting a bad grade if their initial project solutions fail. That’s important! Remember that failing to meet criteria is normal in a PBL project and provides students with opportunities to analyze, redesign, and persist in problem-solving.

What do you need to assess?

When planning formative assessments, look for answers to these questions: (1) What are students learning? (2) How are they thinking? (3) What understandings and competencies are they gaining during this lesson?

To answer those questions, you can gather information from several areas.

  • Assess whether your projects meet the PBL criteria that drive student learning.

Think about the PBL projects you’ve already led. What did those projects, taken collectively, accomplish for your students? Are your students improving in their abilities to do the core PBL tasks listed here? Work on strengthening areas that you discover need upgrading.

  1. Focus on solving real problems.
  2. Integrate and apply specific grade-level content during their project.
  3. Use the design process to guide their thinking and problem-solving.
  4. Create and test products or devices for solving the problem.
  5. Use appropriate and up-to-date digital technology in reaching solutions.


  • Examine how students are improving their collaboration skills.

Now consider your students’ progress in working with others and collaborating as team members. If you notice a problem area in a team, speak with team members and offer guidance as necessary. You can find some teamwork self-assessment tools to help with this task in this teaming tips guide (pp 8-10). These tools are “works in progress” but have been field-tested.

As you monitor progress, ask team members to take a moment to brainstorm together and answer questions such as these: What behaviors did we do well today? What behaviors do we need to improve? Also, note whether these things are happening:

  1. Each team has norms for productive behaviors that members value in one another.
  2. Teams conduct regular self-assessments of their behaviors and progress.
  3. Teams respond positively and successfully to guidance as needed.


  • Keep an eye on how well students are mastering social-emotional competencies.

PBL projects should help kids develop specific attitudes and abilities that will help them to be more successful as students, citizens and members of the workforce. Notice how your students react during and following their projects. Do students show any of the following indicators of social-emotional growth? (Be sure to jot down examples for the traits you notice.) Do they . . .

  1. Show increased empathy: demonstrate understanding and caring about others and about societal issues that affect the quality of life.
  2. Make increasingly responsible decisions and work persistently to solve problems.
  3. Take increased ownership of their own learning.
  4. Display improved attitudes and participation in class.
  5. Show increased enjoyment and interest in their learning.


For a more in-depth look at social-emotional skills, check out Casel’s framework.


Today’s fast-moving culture calls for citizens and workers who understand how to tackle emerging problems as well as longstanding issues. PBL projects help students build these skills. During their project work look for evidence that your students are growing in their abilities to do these things:

  1. Come up with multiple possible solutions for a given problem.
  2. Combine materials and ideas in clever and imaginative ways to create solutions.
  3. Express creative and innovative ideas coupled with increased curiosity and interest.
  4. Communicate information articulately and clearly, using a variety of communication approaches.
  5. Think critically, analytically, and thoughtfully as they plan, design, and evaluate solutions.

If your students are building these skills, you’re doing a good job getting them ready for their lives in and beyond the classroom.

How can you assess these areas?

The specific strategies you use during formative assessments will vary with your subject and students’ age. A number of Internet sites offer ideas, but first check this article from Edutopia. In addition, this free CTE publication describes 60 formative assessment strategies you can use.  Some online PBL tools like Defined Learning incorporate these ideas throughout their projects through Teach Check-ins and Student Reflections.

You may want to read some other sources for tips for assessing social-emotional skills.  Casel has some information here that, upon closer examination, reveals a wide range of resources.  Clicking on the links in this EdSurge article will likewise reveal useful materials.

In summary, formative assessments can tell you to what degree your PBL classes contain the necessary ingredients for student learning and instructional success and enable you to make mid-course adjustments. Design a variety of formative assessments to use during your PBL projects this school year so you can adjust teaching and learning procedures on the spot. These can play a major role in boosting your students’ accomplishments.


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