I still remember the moment. I was in my second year of doing project-based learning when a student sighed and asked, “Why do we need to stop?”
“What do mean?” I asked.
“The learning. The project. Everything. Why do we need stop and take a test?”
I didn’t have an answer. I think I told him something vague about the need to assess the learning and make sure that the project he was working on led to mastery of the standards. But that question nagged at me. “Why do we need to stop?”
I had been using a short 15-minute multiple choice test every Friday as a way to gather data to ensure that students were still learning the content during their projects. But these quizzes were for me and not for the students. My students weren’t engaged in any kind of self-reflection.
The truth is I had assumed that assessments were things you “give” and “take” not an action that you do. However, 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 assessment in a meaningful way.
This was a wake-up call for me to rethink the role of assessment in PBL. So, I scrapped the weekly quiz and instead used shorter, ongoing, self-reflections. I shifted toward a view of assessment as a verb and not a noun.
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. Projects provide an authentic context for students to own the assessment process.
This student-centered approach to assessment leads includes ongoing self-reflection. It’s no surprise that PBL works includes critique and revision as well as self-reflection in their Gold Standard PBL model. The reflection is often where the real learning occurs. It’s where students ask, “What did I learn?” and “What do I still need to learn?” Whether it’s a skill, a set of background knowledge, or a challenging concept, reflection is a vital part of this learning process.
Self-Assessment Is Critical for Metacognition
I believe that peer feedback is critical for students. Part of this is the nature of peer interactions. Peers are often able to share their thoughts in a more relatable way than teachers. Another part is simply the time limits that teachers have. Even with student conferencing, teachers can only offer so much immediate feedback. With quality peer feedback, students can get an extra pair of eyes to figure out what they need to do next. However, it’s also important that students own this process individually through self-assessment. This can help students develop metacognition.
Metacognition is a vital soft skill for students. If we want students to develop into critical thinking, lifelong learners, we need them to develop metacognitive skills. Metacognition is vital for helping students become self-directed learners (both self-managers and self-starters). It will help them navigate the complexities of a changing world and it will help them as they engage in creative work.
The authors of How Learning Works describe metacognition as a cycle. Check it out in the video below.
When students engage in meaningful self-assessment, they improve in their metacognition. They’re able to determine what they know, what they don’t know, and what steps they need to take next.
Short and Frequent Self-Reflections
When I first began implementing project-based learning with students, I made the mistake of incorporating student reflection at the end of the project but never really integrating it into the daily lessons. Students would do a long, multi-paragraph reflection as a way to process what they learned. Most students hated it for a few reasons. First, it was too long and skewed heavily into open-ended writing. Also, they couldn’t really do anything with their reflections. After all, the project was finished.
I started thinking about my own projects. I’m reflecting all the time during the process. Sometimes these reflections are written. Sometimes I reflect by sketching out ideas on a sketchnote. Sometimes I journal. But other times, I merely think and reflect and then move on. So, I changed my approach to include frequent, shorter, self-reflections with students. Here are some examples of the methods:
- Silent reflections: Sometimes all students need is a quick silent reflection. You can pause the class for two minutes and ask students to think about a particular prompt.
- Open-ended writing: Students can write out their reflections in an open-ended way. Think of it as a stream of consciousness where the focus is on the thinking and not the quality of writing.
- Lists: While we tend to view written reflections as paragraphs, sometimes students might write out their reflections as a list. An example would be something like, “Write out three things you have learned about yourself so far in this project?” or “What are two takeaways from today and one question you have?”
- Surveys: Sometimes students struggle with open-ended prompts. With surveys, students can select from checkboxes (i.e. how are you feeling about this), give short numerical answers, or select categories that allow them to rate how they are doing. It’s a more structured, quantified way of doing self-reflection.
- Sketch out your thinking: This is a silent form of reflection, where students sketch out what they are thinking. One of my favorite options is a handout of a mind and the prompt, “Sketch what’s going on in your mind right now as you think about this project.”
- Rubrics: We tend to use rubrics at the end of a project but they can serve as a great way to guide students in reflecting on their work as they compare their current work to the rubric criteria and then diagnose potential issues and plan new strategies.
- Checklists: We don’t tend to think of checklists as a form of reflection but they allow you to reflect on how you’re doing, which can then help you set new goals or determine next steps.
- Progress bars: Students fill out progress bars, where they shade a bar or a set of circles that represent their progress on a project. This might be their progress toward mastery in learning or it might be their progress toward completing tasks. We use progress bars all the time in life. If you’ve ever seen the movement circles on an Apple Watch or the progress bars in online forms, you’ll notice just how prevalent they are in reflecting on your sense of progression.
By having students reflect more frequently with shorter reflections, they begin to internalize self-reflection as a natural, integrated part of doing creative work.
Types of Self-Reflections
There are so many different areas where students can self-reflect and each time they engage in this self-reflection, they are growing more self-aware and self-directed in their learning. Here are a few of the areas where you might guide students in self-reflection:
- Reflecting on learning: Students reflect on their mastery toward the standards, their growth in the learning, and what skills they have learned. They might also reflect on what key concepts or content they have learned through the project.
- Reflecting on goals: Students set goals and reflect on their mastery toward their goals. The types of goals can skew more toward learning / mastery goals or they could be project goals (such as deadlines).
- Reflecting on project progress: Students determine where they are in their progression toward meeting key deadlines and finishing specific tasks in their project.
- Reflecting on the creative process: Students reflect on every aspect of the project process. Instead of focusing on the quality of their product, they focus on the journey and the process.
- Reflecting on the product: Students look at their work and reflect on the quality of their product. It could be the quality of resources in their research, the quality of ideas during ideation, or the quality of their prototype. Whatever it is, the focus here is on the product.
- Reflecting on group dynamics: This is a chance for students to reflect on the collaborative process and consider how the group is working together.
- Reflecting on their soft skill development: Students consider how they are changing as a result of the project and what soft skills they are gaining. It might be communication, creativity, critical thinking, or any other key soft skill. They might do an open-ended reflection or a survey.
- Reflecting on their social-emotional learning: Projects can be a great way to build SEL and reflections can help solidify these lessons as students think through what they are learning and how it applies to life outside of school.
Notice that these areas often overlap. For example, if a student does a survey on creative risk-taking, they might answer a question about group dynamics and groupthink avoidance but also reflect on their growth mindset (reflecting on social-emotional learning), their ideation process (reflecting on the creative progress) and on their divergent thinking (reflecting on soft skill development). The category isn’t important. What matters is that students are engaged in frequent self-reflection in every aspect of their learning.
Reflecting on a Finished Project
While ongoing self-reflection is important in PBL, we also need to create opportunities for students to reflect on their learning at the end of a project. This is why I love doing student portfolio projects. When students do multiple projects, you can take self-reflection to the next level with portfolio projects. Here’s a snapshot of what that looks like.
When we think of assessment, it’s easy to imagine a test or a rubric attached to a score and letter grade. However, in many industries, from art to engineering to marketing to programming, people demonstrate their proficiency with portfolios. Similarly, students can craft portfolios to showcase their work, reflect on their learning, and set goals for the future. Here are five ways to get the most out of student portfolios.
- Let students choose the platform. Some might prefer a blog. Others might prefer a website,
a podcast, or a series of videos.
- Encourage students to own the organizational structure. They might organize things topically or chronologically. Or both.
- Have students reflect on both the learning process and the final products.
- Choose a variety of work, including their best work, their favorite work, and the work that demonstrated the most growth.
- Don’t wait until the end of the year to start the portfolio process. Integrate the portfolio project into your unit plans. Take time out on certain days to have students select work and create reflections.
When portfolios are an everyday part of the learning process, students can showcase their best work, reflect on their growth, and set new goals for learning targets. Here, students improve their metacognition as they determine where they are in their mastery and what steps they need to take in the future. Ultimately, this leads to deeper thinking and better learning.
That sounds great but what happens when a student doesn’t finish a project? What happens when their work is less than stellar? What happens when the project turns out to be a failed experiment? In these moments, it can help to remember that the goal isn’t the product or even the process. The goal is the learning. Often, we learn as much from failed experiments as we do from amazing products. In other words, it’s okay if students don’t always finish a project.
I’ve seen this in my own life. I’m a maker. I’m often creating blog posts, books, and sketch videos. But I also like doing hands-on STEM-style projects at home as well. In fact, we just bought a new home and my wife and I have a list of projects we plan to do. But being a maker, I often have projects that don’t work out. I used to feel guilty about those projects (similar to feeling guilty about failing to finish books), like somehow I was a quitter or I lacked grit or I was taking the easy way out. But I’ve realized that these “failed projects” were often key moments when I learned new skills.
Over the last decade or so, I’ve had the chance to interview painters and engineers and filmmakers and architects and entrepreneurs. I’ve slowly discovered that this is a universal experience. To be productive, you have to be good at quitting. You need to know when a project isn’t working and cut it loose. I’ve come to realize that every maker has a cutting room floor with a ton of work that didn’t make the “final cut.” We iterate and revise and put things on hold. And that’s okay. It’s part of the creative journey.
Regardless of the industry or the discipline, there are a few ways we abandon projects. Note that these go on a spectrum from unfinished to finished.
- Scrap It: This is a permanent delete option, where you realize that the project was simply a really bad idea.
- File It Away: Here’s where you feel stuck, so you leave the project unfinished and then potentially pick it up months or even years later.
- Iterate: Here, you don’t shelve the project entirely, but instead, you choose to make massive revisions. You might even mash it up with a different project.
- Keep it private: With this option, you still finish your project but you ultimately choose not to share it with an audience. Here, you’re not abandoning the project so much as abandoning the launch.
Note that some of the most prolific creative types of all kinds of projects in all four of those categories. Creative work is inherently messy and that means our projects don’t always turn out perfectly. But even if the final product is a dud, that doesn’t mean the learning was a dud. Some of our deepest learning occurs when we reflect on failed experiments.