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How to Use Project-Based Assessments (PBAs) in Education

Over the past several years, educators have increasingly adopted personalized, student-centered teaching practices to ensure they reach and engage a broad spectrum of learners. Yet, when evaluating students’ knowledge and grasp of new concepts, many schools still rely on traditional assessment methods like tests and quizzes.

While these assessments have their place, they’re not always the best indicator of how well students understand materials or whether they can apply their new knowledge in a real-world context. Instead, it can be more beneficial (and enjoyable) for students to participate in project-based assessments: activities that require them to demonstrate their grasp of new information and skills in ways that promote further development and deep learning.

What are Project-Based Assessments?

Project-based assessments (PBAs) are the means through which teachers measure student knowledge gained via project-based learning (PBL) — a student-centered teaching approach that uses engaging, real-world applications and hands-on learning to help students build knowledge while strengthening critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

In classrooms that use PBL, students often work together to answer curriculum-relevant questions and solve challenges, preparing them to become adept communicators and collaborators in their future lives and careers. Instead of end-of-unit tests, they are assessed through group or independent projects.

For example, in a unit about environmental pollution, students might be asked to prepare and present a strategy for reducing pollutants in their community. Or, to learn about the Supreme Court, you might hold a mock hearing where students research and argue for or against one side of a historic case.

One of the best benefits of using PBAs is that you can vary the format depending on the subject, unit, skills involved, and learning objective.

Examples of PBAs include:

  • Presentations
  • Labs and experiments
  • Physical crafts and creations
  • Written reports
  • Classroom debates or mock trials
  • Plays and performances
  • Journals, blogs, or photo logs
  • Videos or podcasts
  • Plans, strategies, or campaigns

How Do Project-Based Assessments Differ from Traditional Assessments?

In PBL, teachers act as guides, supporting students as they define problems and work to ideate and test solutions. Instead of lecturing, teachers ask probing questions that directly engage students, ignite their creativity and critical thinking, and frame challenges in the proper contexts. And instead of using traditional assessment methods like tests and quizzes, teachers assess student learning by evaluating their projects.

However, it’s important to recognize that PBAs are different from the projects teachers sometimes assign students after covering curriculum material in a traditional way. Unlike those lighter projects, a project-based assessment is the primary means for covering a unit.

In other words, students learn the material by completing a project, which may involve multiple phases and span several weeks. Assessments may include a combination of group collaboration and independent work and can even cover numerous subjects or curriculum areas. For projects with multiple steps, teachers might assess students at the end of each phase and on the final product.

PBAs differ from tests and quizzes, which can fall short in deciphering between actual knowledge and rote memorization. Instead, they (PBAs) help students build knowledge and challenge them to apply their new knowledge in meaningful ways. 

What Does the Research Say About Project-Based Assessments in Education?

While transitioning to PBL from traditional methods can take some getting used to, research shows it’s well worth the effort, boosting student engagement, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.

In a study of middle school students, 7th and 8th graders taught via PBL displayed higher academic achievement in math and reading than non-PBL peers. And a 2020 study found that PBL techniques improve student engagement by supporting knowledge and information sharing and discussion.

Additionally, a study of vocational high school students found that PBL increased problem-solving abilities and learning motivation, while a 2019 study published in the International Journal of Learning, Teaching and Educational Research found multidisciplinary integrated PBL improved critical thinking and collaboration skills.

PBL can also make learning more fun for students, potentially reducing stress — particularly for those with test anxiety — while helping them excel academically. In a 2023 study where students’ exams were replaced with PBAs, students not only received higher marks but also reported a better learning experience.

Excelling with PBAs in Your Classroom

We know what you’re probably thinking. “This sounds great in theory, but how do I successfully introduce PBAs into my classroom(s)?”

Here are a few recommendations:

  • Don’t change too much too soon
    PBAs — and project-based learning in general — isn’t something you swap to overnight. Instead, it’s better to introduce the approach slowly, experiment with it, and tweak it over time. You might start by trying PBL for a unit on the solar system, switching out your usual lectures and end-unit test with a multi-week classroom project that covers the same standards.

    For example, Propello includes an earth/space science project in which students demonstrate their comprehension of geologic time, Earth’s history, and the formation of the solar system. The project also challenges students to use data collection and analysis to predict its future and build a 3D model.

  • Set clear parameters
    Define your scope. For example, how many weeks will the project take? How many priority standards will the project cover? What criteria or rubric will you use to evaluate students’ projects?

    In Propello, each project lists how many class periods it will take and approximately how long each session will require so you can plan accordingly. For example, a Propello life science PBA on mapping inheritance should span 4 to 5 class periods of 45 minutes each.

    By setting clear expectations, you and your students can get accustomed to the new pace and way of learning.

  • Make it your own
    Remember that PBAs won’t look the same for every classroom (or even every student) and will likely vary from year to year as you become more familiar with what works best.

    Fortunately, the flexible nature of project-based assessments makes it easy to build in modifications, learning accommodations, and differentiation. Some teachers even present students with a “menu” of projects so they can select the assessment that best aligns with their interests, skills, and how they learn.

  • Leverage supportive tools
    One of the biggest challenges associated with project-based assessments in education is that it can be labor-intensive for teachers. Projects are often more complicated to evaluate than a multiple-choice test, and developing fresh ideas for assessments and ensuring projects include modifications for different learners requires a lot of time and mental bandwidth.

    This is where technology can help. Propello was designed by educators to provide teachers with customizable and flexible lesson planning for active learning approaches like PBL. With built-in assessment options and embedded scaffolding, you’ll have all the support you need to succeed while conserving your energy.

Interested in leveraging PBAs in your classroom but not sure where to start? Sign up for a free Propello account to access hundreds of customized activities and projects.