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Assessing Project-based Learning

"Student projects are culminating experiences, activities designed to bring together a number of strands in a unit. As culminating activities, projects often consist of higher-order objectives, which are integrative in nature."

Ashton D. Trice, A Handbook of Classroom Assessment pp.202

Project-based learning provides students with the opportunity to tackle real world situations that by their nature have no easy solution, or have no solution at the present time. Project-based learning helps students to understand that sometimes one needs to be satisfied with asking the right questions rather that focusing on the "right" answers. Students learn to manage their time, interpret data sets, resolve value conflicts between group members and prepare and communicate the results of their investigation. In other words, they will use their experiences to learn to manage real life situations. The Yellowstone Fires problem-based learning module Yellowstone Fires ( This site may be offline. ) engages students in defining a situation, gathering information on what is known and not known about the situation, developing an Earth Systems analysis and reporting on their recommendations. Because the tasks involved in Project-based learning are so varied there are several methods that may be used together to assess student learning. See the following section to see a specific example of using oral reports to assess student learning, or see the resources section below for additional assessment ideas.

Assessing Oral Reports

We all have a sense of what constitutes a good presentation and what constitutes one that is less than satisfactory. Assessing an oral presentation can be a very subjective endeavor, but with a bit of forethought, instructors can ease student anxiety surrounding oral reports and make the process of preparing for an oral report a valuable learning experience for the student. Organizing what elements need to be in the oral report also makes the task of assessing and substantiating student work easier.

Organization- Although oral reports will vary in length and depth of detail they generally follow a set structure. The advice regarding oral reports that I once recieved from a seasoned faculty member was, "Tell them what you are going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you told them". Very good advice, but let's see if we can make it a little more specific. Good oral reports usually begin with the equivalent of a topic paragraph, a statement that will draw the listener into the substance of the talk. Then data is presented to support the assertions made in the opening stage of the report. Finally the report draws to a conclusion with a summary and closing statement.

Content- Oral reports usually have accompanying overhead transparencies or powerpoint presentation that provides the audience with visuals of data, supporting evidence and conclusions. The ability of students to make appropriate choices in what data they show varies with their experience in developing oral reports. This process involves several higher-order process skills. They must evaluate the data or information they have collected, make choices about what findings are and are not essential to the presentation and then organize their thoughts.

Presentation- Are students presenting oral reports that are highly organized and well researched? Are their presentations "stream of conciousness" reports that move from point to point without structure, or are they reading from a written page or from the powerpoint slides? Students presenting an oral report for the first time may be guided by a rubric passed out to students before they begin preparing their oral presentation. A sample rubric (Acrobat (PDF) 47kB Apr12 05) is available here.


  • A Capstone Course in Environmental Geosciences. This article in the Journal of Geoscience Education describes a capstone course specifically designed for Environmental Geoscience majors. It is a project-based course that stresses small-group identification, analysis, and solution of real-world geo-environmental problems on a local scale. The purpose of the article is to prepare students for post-college employment as well as developing lifelong learning skills to respond to evolving future needs. (citation and description)
  • Assessments as Teaching and Research Tools in an Environmental Problem-Solving Program for In-Service Teachers. [Cooper et al., 2002] This article in the Journal of Geoscience Education describes a scenario-based assessment tool in which students are given a problem scenario that could occur in a real life situation. The students are asked to make decisions about this problem scenario by applying their understandings using information or data presented to them. For this study, the assessment tool was used in two programs for middle school and high school teachers held at Indiana University/Purdue University at Indianapolis and at Purdue University’s main campus. In each program, the participants were given pre-tests to determine their understandings of environmental problems related to a hypothetical watershed, and post-tests to determine how their understandings had changed after use of the scenario-based assessment tool. (Full Text Online)
  • Formal and Informal Collaborative Projects: Engaging in Industry with Environmental Awareness. [Dori and Tal, 2000] This article in Science Education discusses a study which used a model of a mixed formal and informal science/technology/society curriculum. The study developed, implemented and assessed collaborative projects using case studies, field trips, and formal class sessions. First, it established constructivist relationships between formal and informal learning activities. Secondly, it developed an innovative, collaborative, project-based approach in environmental education which involved the community at large. Lastly, the study examined the development, implementation, and validation of an integrated formal/informal assessment system that is tailored to the unique learning environment. (citation and description)
  • Design-based Science and Student Learning. [Fortus, 2004] This article from the Journal of Research in Science Teaching discusses Design-Based Science (DBS), a pedagogy in which the goal of designing it contextualizes all curricular activities. The goal of this article is twofold: to describe DBS, and to evaluate whether significant science knowledge was constructed during consecutive enactments of three DBS units. Ninety-two students participated in the consecutive enactments of three different DBS units and the development of their scientific knowledge was assessed through posters and models. Results support efforts being made to restructure school science around inquiry-based curricula in general and design-based curricula in particular. (citation and description)
  • The Relationship between Students' Epistemologies and Model-Based Reasoning. [Gobert and Discenna, 1997] This paper by Janice Gobert and Jennifer Discenna was presented at the 1997 Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association in Chicago, IL. The investigation considers the relationship between students’ epistemology of scientific models and their success at learning about the complex system of plate tectonics. To achieve this goal, ninth grade students were asked to draw three diagrams, a static model, a casual/dynamic model of the movement in the layers and an outcome on the world from such movement. Results show that there were no significant differences found between the naïve epistemology group and the sophisticated epistemology group on their understanding of the spatial/static or casual/dynamic aspects of the domain. There was a significant difference found between the naïve epistemology group and the sophisticated epistemology group on their knowledge acquired through inference on the basis of their models. (citation and description)
  • Active Learning in Secondary and College Science Classrooms: A Working Model for Helping the Learner to Learn. [Michael and Modell, 2003] This book by Joel Michael and Harold Modell is designed for professionals interested an active learning approach to teaching students. The main topics covered in this book are how to build the foundation for active learning, roles for the teacher in creating an active learning environment and creating active learning environments. (citation and description)
  • Assessment Essentials: Planning, Implementing, and Improving Assessment in Higher Education. [Palomba and Banta, 1999] This book by Catherine Palomba and Trudy Banta is a step-by-step guide that provides the most current practices for developing assessment programs on college and university campuses. Each chapter of the book addresses a specific aspect of assessment and is designed to walk users through various steps of the assessment process. The authors describe effective assessment programs and offer a thorough review of the most up-to-date practices in the field. (citation and description)
  • Performance of Students in Project-based Science Classrooms on a National Measure of Science Achievement. [Schneider et al., 2002] This article from the Journal of Research in Science Teaching discusses the use of project-based science (PBS) instruction to emphasize the importance of supporting students' construction of knowledge through inquiry. The study shows that students participating in a PBS curriculum were prepared for testing. The authors conclude that educators should be encouraged to use inquiry-based approaches such as PBS to implement science education reform in their schools. (citation and description)
  • Applying Argumentation Analysis to Assess the Quality of University Oceanography Students' Scientific Writing. [Takao, Prothero and Kelly, 2002] This article from the Journal of Geoscience Education describes a study which examined 24 student papers from an introductory oceanography class and analyzed the quality of their written arguments. The article discusses ways of using argumentation to help students understand how to tie data to theoretical assertions and to provide ways for students and teachers to assess the uses of evidence in scientific writing. Included is an argumentation analysis model that describes argument structure according to epistemic levels. (Full Text Online)