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Assessment is everywhere.

Visit a basketball court or a skate park or a rock climbing gym and you might just miss something happening all around. Assessment. The same is true of that group of kids huddled around their devices building a shared world in Minecraft or maneuvering around a kitchen experimenting with a new recipe or building an arcade game in a makerspace using Arduino.

Assessment is constantly happening. But it feels invisible because it’s less like a noun and more like a verb. In other words, assessment is often something we do, not something we give and take.

Nobody stops in the middle of an ollie to take a skateboarding test. The test is built into it. Did you crash or not? Did the trick work? And nobody masters an ollie only to find out that they’ve actually failed because there are ten ollie attempts that were each graded and the average is now at 10%.

It’s not a question about good or bad types of assessments. It’s a question of ownership. After all, a skater might use a scoring rubric in a competition. And there’s nothing wrong with using scores and metrics. That same group of Minecrafters building a world together will make a video and check to see the page views and likes. But it has to feel authentic and this begins with student ownership.

When kids engage in authentic projects outside of school, they are likely to own the assessment process. So, as we think about assessment in a PBL classroom, it should look more like a skate park or a makerspace or a kitchen. It should be a space where assessment is happening everywhere, all the time.

Assessment is all around us

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What Does Assessment Look Like in a PBL Unit?

In a PBL unit, you don’t need to stop the project to take an assessment.  Students don’t need to take a weekly quiz. Instead, they can engage in self-assessment, peer assessment, and teacher-directed assessment. This was a hard lesson for me. At first, I wanted to maintain control. I didn’t trust that students could engage in self-assessment and peer assessment. But I also viewed assessment as something I needed in order to plan better lessons. Sure, I let students know their grades but I never really saw the ongoing cycle of learning and assessmment.

Assessment is an opportunity for students to see their own progress, set goals for the future, and determine next steps. The assessment should be happening all over the place. Here, they are judging the quality of their product while also reflecting on the process and determining their mastery of the standards. So, here’s what it looks like.


Self-assessments have an empowering effect. Instead of attributing academic success to a teacher or to luck, they see it as a result of their hard work. They grow more self-directed and independent and it’s because they’re constantly looking at their own progress. The following are some self-assessment options:

  • Tracking Goals: Students create their own goals. These can be quantitative or qualitative. Then they keep track of the progress. It might mean a graph, a progress bar, or simply a description of progress.
  • Self-reflections: Here students answer reflective questions about what they are learning, where they are struggling, and what they need to do next. Some of the questions might be specific and concrete while others are broad and abstract.
  • Student Surveys: Sometimes students struggle with open-ended self-reflection questions. Surveys provide a blend of the objective and the subjective. So, they might use a Likert scale, selecting specific words from a bank, or ranking items. This added structure helps students make sense out of something that can feel abstract.
  • Self-Assessment Rubrics: Students are able to look at the progression from emerging to mastering with specific descriptions in various categories. They are able to gain an accurate view of how they are doing, while also having a clear picture of where they need to be.
  • Checklists: These can be a powerful diagnostic tool that students use before, during, and after a task. Pilots, doctors, and engineers all use checklists as a way to determine whether their work has fit specific criteria. When students use checklists, they are learning how to make sense out of systems. There’s actually a great book on checklists called The Checklist Manifesto that I highly recommend.

Peer Assessment

Sometimes you miss critical details in self-assessment. You can’t see your blind spots because . . . well . . . they’re your blind spots. In these moments, you need peer feedback to help you see a new perspective. The same is true of entire groups in the midst of a project. When you mix of students to engage in peer assessment, you get fresh ideas and help avoid tunnel vision.

This idea is built into some of the most innovative companies around. Take Pixar. They have a Brain Trust system where people pitch ideas, share their work, and ask for feedback. Everyone in the room has the freedom to criticize. And they do.


This can sound scary. However, it works at Pixar because they are a supportive community. You see, when trust and transparency are present, critical feedback can fuel creative thinking. As Catmull puts it in Creativity Inc., “We believe that ideas—and thus, films—only become great when they are challenged and tested.”

So, here are some structured, shorter ways to provide peer feedback:

  • The 10-Minute Peer Feedback System: This critical friends approach begins with one student sharing their work or pitching an idea while the other student actively listens. It then moves into a chance to ask clarifying questions, get feedback, respond to feedback, and chart out next steps. Each of these stages lasts two-three minutes apiece. While that sounds fast, it can actually feel leisurely. Note that this can be used to assess both the process and the product.
  • Structured Feedback with Sentence Stems: Here, you as a teacher provide specific sentence stems that your students can use to provide diagnostic, clarifying, or critical feedback.
  • 3-2-1 Structure: This is simple. Students provide three strengths, two areas of improvement and one question that they have.
  • See-Think-Wonder: Students give peer feedback by pointing out what they see in another product, what they think about it, and, finally, what questions they have.
  • Feedback Carousel: Each group gets a stack of sticky notes and offers anonymous feedback as they move from group to group. Unlike the other feedback methods, students here are offering feedback without the original group member present. It also focuses almost entirely on the product.
  • Peer Coaching: Students interview each other about the process, using the coaching questions from the student-teacher conferences to guide them if they struggle to come up with reflection questions.

Teacher Assessment

Although student ownership is critical to assessment, teachers still play a vital role in the assessment process. One of my favorite methods is through student-teacher conferences. The concept is simple. Plan out three to four mini-conferences per class period each class period. Each conference lasts about five minutes. This generally allows you to meet with each student individually once every two weeks. In a PBL unit, you are spending less time in direct instruction and guided practice, which frees you up to have richer feedback conversations with students.

The following are the three types of conferences I have used with students:

  • Advice Conference: This empowers students to ask for advice. This conference is all about learning specific skills that students are missing. Each student must ask the teacher a series of questions based on an area where he or she is struggling. This is a chance for targeted one-on-one attention and explicit help with a strategy. Students guide the process, tapping into the teacher’s expertise. This has the added bonus of encouraging students to embrace the idea that mistakes as a part of the learning process.
  • Reflection Conferences: This empowers students to reflect on their learning. Instead of telling students what to do, the goal is to draw out student reflection. The teacher uses a series of reflective questions to lead students through the process of metacognition and into the setting and monitoring of goals. As the year progresses, the teacher asks fewer follow-up questions and the students begin sharing how they are doing without the aid of pre-chosen questions.
  • Mastery Conference: Unlike the reflection conference, the focus here is less about reflecting on the process and more about students judging their own mastery of the content. We use the Standards-Based Assessment Grid.

Student-Centered Assessment Boosts Metacognition

When students own the assessment process, they are able to figure out:

  • What they have already know (prior knowledge)
  • What they don’t know (areas of improvement)
  • What they want to master (their goals)
  • What they will do to improve (action plan)

Notice how well this fits into the idea of the metacognition cycle:

Metacognition Cycle, John Spencer, Educator

When students own the assessment process, they grow into self-directed learners. And when this happens, they become the independent, critical thinking, life-long learners we know they can be.

Looking for More?

If you’re interested in getting started with project-based learning, check out my Getting Started with PBL page, complete with articles, videos, and resources. You might also want to check out my PBL toolkit, which includes a set of projects and mini-projects, along with a Getting Started with PBL guide and a set of assessment resources you can use within the project-based learning framework. I will also send you a weekly email with free, members-only access to my latest blog posts, videos, podcasts and resources to help you boost creativity and spark innovation in your classroom. Just sign up below!

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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