Practical PBL Strategies: 3 Ways to Improve PBL Assessments

In this 6-part series, I'll be sharing best practices and advice from educators that I interview in my fifteen-minute online Bam! Radio Podcast; Practical PBL Strategies


My first guest, Ross Cooper, is a K-12 administrator and a nationally recognized leader in project-based learning who coauthored the book Hacking Project-Based Learning. In our discussion, we focused on getting started with project-based learning and understanding PBL assessments. I dove right into some of the questions that I have been asked many times in my own presentations. As someone who was new to PBL a few years ago, assessment was an area that I struggled with in my own classroom.


Assessing Project-Based Learning

Cooper says, “First it is important to recognize that there is a difference between grading and assessment. Grading says “I want to judge you” and assessments say “I want to help you.” Generally, we don't perform well whenever we are being judged. A lot of research shows the negative impact that it has on students and even on teachers, in particular when it comes to grading work. When we grade creativity, we can squash the creativity of students. If we want to assess, that can take a few different forms. Teacher-to-student, student self-assessment, student-student assessment. An increased emphasis should be placed on the feedback that we get from these experiences, with a decreased emphasis on grading as much as possible. The goal is to promote growth rather than judge the work. When we give feedback, we want to make sure that it is goal-oriented in relation to the learning targets that students are aiming toward as they work through their PBL units. The targets should be student-friendly so that students know where they need to get to and have a plan of action to help them to get there. 


Types and Frequency of Assessments

When we look at assessing during project-based learning (PBL),  how frequently should we assess? Are there specific types of assessments that we should use? Cooper says we should be assessing students “all day every day.” We need to gauge where the students are and help them to be able to gauge their own work. Based on what we're observing, we can adjust our instruction or we can help students assess themselves. 

There are different ways we can do this. It can be done in simple conversations, observations, and conferences between teacher and student, making sure to use the learning targets as the basis for the conversation. There are other options to use such as an informal or formal quiz during a PBL experience, in particular when there is a shift in the project focus. We also use formative assessment, which wouldn't have a grade attached, but simply be a means to see where students are and help you to adjust the structure of the instruction. 

When it comes to creative experiences, Cooper doesn't like using grades but because of the constraints of our educational system, he says that students need to have a grade to show their learning. He recommends just being mindful of the different forms that these assessments can take.

When it comes to learning, there could be a hesitancy to share or explore, and some students need support as to what to create. Also important to help students learn about the process rather than the end product of learning. In my experience, I had initially struggled with this but found that having conversations with students and having students exchange peer feedback helped us all. The end result is working with them on the assessments with us and also from student to student. It leads them into self-awareness which helps to promote the development of essential skills that students need.


Recommendations for How Teachers Can Promote Student Self-Assessment

To help students, Cooper recommends “gradual release” if we want students to be able to give themselves an assessment based on learning targets. To do this, we model feedback for students and help them understand how to give feedback. We have them involved with giving student-to-student feedback, with the ultimate goal of them being able to understand how to assess themselves.


There are four components of student self-assessment: 

  1. Learning targets like I can statements
  2. Success criteria: What does success look like for students when they are successful with the learning targets? Statements such as “I can do this and I know I'm successful with this when my work has these characteristics.”  It is a detailed version of a learning target.
  3. Feedback: Being able to review work, provide feedback, and act on the feedback received.
  4. Self-assessment or peer assessment protocols. An example would be saying to students, “For the past couple of weeks you’ve been working really hard and today we're going to do some self-assessment. Here is a guideline for what I want you to look at and work through.” We can model for students what this looks like to get started, especially if they're not used to it. Some students need support, but the key is that we help students become comfortable with self-assessment without any of the pressures. It gives them time to stop where they are and work on the project. They have a protocol to self-assess and re-evaluate as they set new goals to move forward.


We also need to consider how we are giving ownership to students. Perhaps start with the protocols and have students select the protocols and then give them a chance to come up with their own protocols. We need to gradually hand over agency to students. 

Look at the learning targets, and protocols, and see where we can shift the ownership to the students. Perhaps students can even help teachers co-create the success criteria, especially for students who have been doing PBL for some period of time. Whenever they are fully involved and have input into the learning activity, it definitely has an impact on them and offers many benefits. Once the system has been developed, it becomes part of the culture of the learning space. 

There are many benefits to this as students are able to drive their learning, have input into what they're choosing to explore, and develop their skills of self-assessment which ties into self-awareness and SEL. 


Advice for Teachers who are Thinking About Getting Started with PBL

Look at PBL as something on a continuum. We want to build the skills and help students become comfortable by adding opportunities for inquiry, flexible learning spaces, and reflection, all of which are components of PBL.  For example, if the teacher has desks in rows and uses direct instruction and is hoping to move away from that, they may decide to dive into flexible learning spaces and student publishing. It may not be PBL but the teacher is moving in that direction and has the willingness to move forward.  If we really want to create a student-centered culture and one that promotes student agency, we have to think about how all of these aspects of PBL that lend themselves to student ownership can be woven into our instruction.


It Improves the Learning Experience

For teachers, just a few months into the school year who may just be starting to learn about PBL but are a bit hesitant because it seems like it's a lot to do, how do we convince them that PBL improves the learning experience for students and for teachers?

What advice can we offer to help teachers realize that this is something that they can do and don't need to worry about so many other variables?

  1. Talk with the students, share ideas, and familiarize yourself with what their experiences are and what they're bringing to the classroom. 
  2. Start digging in to see what they need from us. 
  3. Make time for conversations and then if you want to engage in PBL, learn their stories, and find ways to move forward together in new learning experiences that challenge us and spark curiosity and creativity in learning.
  4. Focus on collaboration. When we collaborate and move forward together rather than as the teacher deciding how we can do things for them, we build trust, relationships, a positive class culture, and overall are more likely to be successful in a culture of learning. 
  5. Try not to think about it as one more thing, approach it together as “and” not as one more thing that has to be done. 


In the end remember, “It's not just one extra being added on, it's something that can be weaved into what we are doing.” We are working on this together. 

About Ross Cooper

Ross Cooper is currently an administrator in the Chappaqua Central School District. Previously, he was an Elementary School Principal, K-12 curriculum supervisor, Elementary Assistant Principal, and fourth-grade teacher. He is an Apple Distinguished Educator and a Google Certified Innovator. As a nationally recognized leader in project-based learning, he has worked with thousands of educators across the country to implement PBL, and in 2016 he coauthored Hacking Project Based Learning: 10 Easy Steps to PBL and Inquiry in the Classroom. While his day job is his first professional priority, he finds time to conduct workshops and speak on project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, student-centered learning, instructional leadership, his professional experiences, and more.  He blogs at, and you can connect with him via email,


About Rachelle Dené Poth

Rachelle Dené Poth is an edtech consultant, presenter, attorney, author, and teacher. Rachelle teaches Spanish and STEAM: What’s nExT in Emerging Technology at Riverview Junior Senior High School in Oakmont, PA. Rachelle has a Juris Doctor degree from Duquesne University School of Law and a Master’s in Instructional Technology. She is a Consultant and Speaker, owner of ThriveinEDU LLC Consulting. She is an ISTE Certified Educator and currently serves as the past -president of the ISTE Teacher Education Network and on the Leadership team of the Mobile Learning Network. At ISTE19, she received the Making IT Happen Award and a Presidential Gold Award for volunteer service to education. She is also a Buncee Ambassador, Nearpod PioNear, and Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert. Rachelle is the author of seven books and is a blogger for Getting  Smart, Defined Learning, and NEO LMS. Follow Rachelle on Twitter at @Rdene915 and Instagram at @Rdene915. Listen to Rachelle's podcast, ThriveinEDU, here:


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