Project-based Assessment

I am a huge believer in learning and assessing through projects rather than traditional quizzes and tests. Why? Because it’s fun. Because it’s meaningful. Because it’s WAY more interesting. And, best of all, because it works.

In his article “Why Teach With Project Learning?: Providing Students With a Well-Rounded Classroom Experience”, Mark Nichol writes:

Students develop confidence and self-direction as they move through both team-based and independent work. In the process of completing their projects, students also hone their organizational and research skills, develop better communication with their peers and adults, and often work within their community while seeing the positive effect of their work. Because students are evaluated on the basis of their projects, rather than on the comparitively narrow rubrics defined by exams, essays, and written reports, assessment of project-based work is often more meaningful to them. They quickly see how academic work can connect to real-life issues.

Think about it–once people are out in the professional world, how often do they have to prove their competency through a multiple choice test? (*Hint: Not that often*) Then: how often do they show their skills through something they create, organize, write, or design? (*Hint: all the time!*)  Thankfully, professional development training and teacher education programs are really starting to promote this view. And I’m happy about it.

There’s just one catch–it can be REALLY DIFFICULT to come up with a creative project idea that students will get into and that the teacher knows will accurately assess what’s been taught. I’m currently creating curriculum for a five week project-based summer session for English 7-9, and I’m suddenly, harshly remembering the brain-exhausting realities of coming up with “something good.”  While I work on that, here’s a sampling of major projects that worked very well for me this past semester…

1. Food Research (Grade 12)

Looking for an interesting twist on the overdone but required task of teaching research writing, I organized a research project around food. This is a subject that everyone can get into. Each student picked a feature food to research and was expected to find answers to all kinds of things about this food. [Like: How is it prepared? Where and when did it originate? What culture, religion, or history is it tied to? What influence does the harvest of this food have on the job market and economy? Are there traditional or emotional connotations to this food? And so on…] I used this, along with samples of actual culinary writing from cookbooks, reviews, newspapers, and magazines to ground the unit. At the end, we had a “Food Symposium,” where each researcher had a booth with an actual sample of his or her food and an information board about what they learned, as well as a standard MLA research paper. It was great, and we all learned way more than we expected from such a seemingly simple topic. Plus, we got to build community over our shared foods–it was like Thanksgiving in March.

2. Song Interpretation (Grade 9)

We were studying how music and lyrics of Bob Marley reflected and celebrated Jamaican culture. This was kind of a blend of culture study and poetic interpretation, which involved students looking and listening in depth to many reggae titles. Students selected a song by Marley to focus on and then, armed with their knowledge of the themes within the song, selected a contemporary song that they felt was similar in message. Students reported and gave audio examples of the similarities between two songs that, though different in era and regional origin, told similar stories. It was cool to see them get into the meaning behind music that was important to them, to look at it in a literary way.

3. Media Presentation (Grade 12)

After studying media forms and the harmful or helpful effects of media messages, my students were given the task of creating a meaningful message with a positive purpose–creating awareness about a social issue that was important to them individually. (These ran the gamut from human trafficking to poverty to nicotine use to endangered species.) The real great part about this project was its versatility. It had two segments. Part A, which every student did, was a powerpoint slideshow about their issue that displayed knowledge of the visual/textual balance of media presentation. Part B was a choice project on the same issue, which students got to select from a wide range of options. [Public service announcement, magazine advertisement, poster, poem, rap, webquest, comic, soundtrack, etc.] I had a rubric for each option, which was a lot of work on my part; but it was awesome to see what the students came up with. It is so inspiring to see students use their own best gifts to create something that makes the world a better place.

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