Grading PBL is Easy

Image by Mediamodifier from Pixabay


In tabletop role playing games, a one-shot is a short adventure that can be played in a few hours or one game session. The one-shot adventure has a specific plot point, may be combat-intensive, and often requires the use of pre-generated characters due to the high fatality rate of the characters (not the players!). It’s like watching a movie with no prequel or follow-up sequel. The movie stands alone in its point in time.

School projects live in this same context. Regardless of subject, a project is a one-shot event. Although the teacher may give a week to complete it, the project simply reviews key points of a lecture or area of study, is structured in a way where the parameters are limited and provides no additional research or reading to create. The information for building and displaying the project’s product comes directly from the study material.


“Flip the classroom just a  little.”

In contrast to projects, project-based learning activities stretch across blocks of time, typically weeks or months. The activity is research-based and requires students to design both the research process and the final product. Further, the PBL philosophy is an academic endeavor to help students adjust to adult-level thinking. Meaning, in the real world, problems need to be solved. However, many problems do not have immediate or readily available solutions. Adults need to be able to investigate the issue, address key ideas, collaborate with other professionals, deduct information, and present a solution. Without proper training, stepping into a real-world problem without adequate preparation could be overwhelming. In essence, project-based learning is designed to foster, build, and reinforce critical thinking skills.

Image by White77 from Pixabay
Image by John Hain from Pixabay

Critical Thinking.

“students age 6 to 16 see the world through the computer…”

Critical thinking is the goal of learning. Knowledge about facts is important. However, if we cannot apply knowledge to a situation, then what good is it? Unfortunately, critical thinking is not easily defined. The term implies different things depending on context and purpose. Nonetheless, people with critical thinking skills should be able to:

  1. Reflect on their own thoughts and emotions.
  2. Connect ideas to other ideas.
  3. Connect thoughts to emotions.
  4. Connect thoughts to actions.
  5. Ask insightful questions versus assume all facts are true.
  6. Develop processes for solving problems.

To build student confidence and competence in critical thinking, educators must be able to provide appropriate and timely feedback. This feedback is called grading and assessment. Although thoughts leaders in project-based learning continue to debate which is more valuable to student learning – grading or assessment – I always lean toward a balance in everything. That balance depends on you, your students, your students’ parents, your school, and your comfort level with the project-based learning philosophy. Meaning – there is an increasing push to include more qualitative assessment and less quantitative grading. Still, I think grades are a fair feedback tool and should be included as part of the overall PBL structured model embraced by you and your school.


“..Being allowed to express ourselves is the first step…”

I will talk about grading first. You can still use tests, quizzes, and homework assignments to quantify a student’s understanding of the material. This is the traditional grading framework, and it offers a valid look at how well a student can recall certain pieces of data. However, graded assignments should not be limited to multiple-choice, true-false, and fill-in-the-blank questions. Short and long answer essays can also be used as graded assignments. These graded activities will be interjected throughout the PBL activity, which we have already indicated spans the course of several weeks. However, the graded component for providing feedback on knowledge learned is only one side of the coin.

Image by Pexels from Pixabay
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay


“students age 6 to 16 see the world through the computer…”

On the flip side, students need to be assessed. More importantly, we should be guiding our students to become better at assessing themselves. Informal assessment, through a variety of formats, can provide enrichment and feedback where graded activities might not be able.

What are we assessing? We are assessing students’ abilities in the following areas (at minimum).

  1. Investigate.
  2. Problem-solve.
  3. Think.
  4. Create processes.
  5. Generate ideas and solutions.
  6. Collaborate.
  7. Reflect.

Students should be able to answer, then ask, the following questions:


  • Who will benefit from the research?
  • Who (students) are involved in the research?
  • Who (professionals) is/are providing support?
  • Who is providing information?


  • What problem are you trying to solve?
  • What type of information needs to be gathered?
  • What professional agencies need to be contacted?
  • What are some of the obstacles to solving the problem?
  • What are some possible solutions to the problem?
  • What are some of the benefits to solving the problem?


  • Where is the problem (geographically)?
  • Where did the problem originate?
  • Where can we find help?


  • When did the problem start?
  • When was information gathered?
  • When should the problem be fixed?


  • Why is it important to solve the problem?
  • Why is it important to solve the problem a certain way?


  • How can the problem be solved?
  • How can you develop a process that enhances the problem-solving process?

These are guiding questions, and the list can be as long or as short as you need it to be. These are reflecting questions that help students focus their mental and physical energies on the overall PBL process.

Assessment in Practice.

“..Being allowed to express ourselves is the first step…”

During the research process, students should be talking with subject matter experts. Who better to learn from? During any of the assessment periods, students could be asked to reflect and give insight into the following questions.

  • Identify a professional that you spoke with regarding your research.
    Who does this person work for?
  • What does this person do for a living? Provide some details.
  • What type of education does this person have? Provide degrees and areas of study.
  • Did this person’s education prepare the individual for the job they currently do? How?
  • What information did the individual share with you that helped with the research?
  • How will you use this information to solve the problem?


The answers to these questions should not be graded – this is a short assessment. This is also a time for students to reflect on who they talked to and think about the information they acquired. Answering the questions should also help students organize their work. Further, assessment periods should be a time to help students craft and improve their writing skills.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Additionally, these questions should help students think more critically about the topic. Critical thinking brings forth solutions to the identified problem or focus of research. Removing the grading component of this activity removes the stress of wanting to get correct answers and allows students to focus on the information at hand.

Next, we will look at the final product.

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