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How to Assess Individual Students in PBL

"Project-based learning is all about group work, right? How do we assess individual students when a team is turning in a product?"

One of the main deterrents for teachers consistently implementing a learner-centered pedagogy such as project-based learning is balancing the individual within a team, especially regarding assessment. Then you also add needing to put individual grades in a grade book to that mix. It is no wonder why even experienced PBL teachers jump ship or stick to only one or two project-based experiences a year to manage it all.

In one of our previous blog posts, What is Assessment Really, Anyways?, my colleague Alicia shared that "the word assessment comes from the Latin word assidere, meaning 'to sit beside.'" That can seem challenging when everyone is working in a long-term team. While not all projects are team-based, many projects have teams that collaborate toward a final product. Since this is a common feature of High-Quality Project-based Learning, I'd like to offer suggestions for assessing individuals within PBL to help alleviate that stress and help you sit beside each of your students and also get some grades in a grade book.

Assessment in the design

As a quick reminder, we use the High Quality Project Based Learning framework at Applied Coaching for Projects, which defines the student experience through six criteria. As we consider assessment, I will focus our attention on one of the criteria: Intellectual Challenge and Accomplishment. In fact, I'll narrow our focus further with one of the descriptions:

"[In a project...] Students focus on concepts, knowledge, and skills central to subject areas and intellectual disciplines". (HQPBL, 2018)

For this to happen, it is essential to define clear learning goals for the team and individual students. These goals should be aligned with the curriculum and should be measurable.

For example, consider this middle school science project:

Teacher Project Plan - Cup Design Challenge. Project Information. Grade Level: 6th. Subject Area: Science. Duration: 6 weeks. Overall Project Summary: Students will be learning about thermal energy by designing the perfect cup for a hot day. Teams will present their designs to a group of potential users: a mom at a soccer tournament, a construction worker, a ranch hand, and a teenager going surfing. Their presentations will include a prototype of their design, an explanation of how it works, and a description of their design process. Intellectual Challenge or Problem: What is the best cup design for activities on a hot day? Learning Goals: Thermal energy, particle motion, transfer of energy, testing models

(This project is adapted from one of the OpenSciEd units)

Notice that this project has four primary learning goals. This is key. Project-based learning lends itself to rich and deep learning across many content areas. Sometimes teachers are tempted to add all the possible learning goals they can think of by listing up to 15 standards they may end up "covering" during a project. Resist this temptation and focus on specific standards and skills you want to teach and assess intentionally. Let the other things happen naturally!

Without careful planning on the part of the teacher for this project, students could resort to trial and error, stumble across a solid design, and miss out on developing an understanding of the science of particle motion or energy transfer. How do we ensure our students are developing knowledge of the content? This is where individual assessment becomes critical. The teacher in this class laid the foundation for the path of assessment by ensuring that the major products her students will design in the project are products that will incorporate the learning goals in the design process.

Are you wondering how you might grade individuals in that final product? Here are some approaches that we've seen teachers take over the years with grading individuals within a team product:

  • Separate products - Have a separate final product for individuals versus the team. This is the approach that the teacher used in the example above. Each student turned in an Engineer's Report while the team presented the cup design.

  • Checkpoint products - Make the final individual product a checkpoint to the team product - If this teacher were to have used this approach, each student would have turned in their own sketch of the design to be graded by the teacher. Teams would combine what they like best about each member's sketch for a team prototype.

  • One product and different assessments - Some teachers choose to conduct all of their individual assessments throughout the project, and the team product is only graded on skills (collaboration, presentation, project management, etc.) In the example above, this teacher could have taken this approach by assessing all content via individual assessments during the project process while grading the team cup design presentations for communication and collaboration skills.

Now that we've thought about the learning goals and the major products of learning that students will create as individuals and/or teams, let's consider assessment throughout the project.

Assessment as a practice

We've noticed some trends as we've coached teachers in PBL over the years. One trend is that projects typically have the learning goals/outcomes listed on the front page of the planner, but those same goals aren't always carried through the project. We will want to use individual assessments to ensure those learning goals are being developed.

Once you are clear on the content and skills you are trying to teach and assess purposefully within your project, you can start identifying what you will use to drive teaching and learning. Think of assessment as a chance to collect evidence to determine whether y'all are on the right track. Every student should be assessed, and every student should be part of the assessment. Assessment should be ongoing, varied, and the right fit for the learning target.

Assessment is ongoing

The practice of assessment should be like breathing - there should be assessment constantly happening in your classroom and during your project. In fact, every class period should have assessments. Let's look at this in terms of the overall path of the HQPBL experience. The image below is one that we use to describe how learning flows during a project:

The HQPBL Learning Experience in the form of a road journey. The journey begins with Launch Project and Inquiry. Then, it follows this path: Learning and investigation (lab, research, field trip, etc.), Revisit Inquiry and Reflect, Prototype and Develop Products, Feedback and Revision, Revisit Inquiry and Reflect, Learning and Investigation, Prototype and Develop, Revisit Inquiry and Reflect, Learning and Investigation, Prototype and Develop Products, Feedback and Revision, Revisit Inquiry and Reflect, Prototype and Develop Products, Present Products and Explain Learning

Next, I annotated this same image with yellow circles and checkmarks to identify all of the places where assessments should take place:

This is the same HQPBL learning experience as above, but it has assessment opportunities highlighted: A checkpoint after every Learning and Investigation phase. The phases of Revisit Inquiry and Reflect and Feedback and Revision are also highlighted. Finally Present Products and Explain Learning is highlighted.

As you can see, that image has a lotta yellow! Four types of opportunities are highlighted: assessment after learning and investigation, revisiting inquiry, through feedback and revision, and finally, presenting products and explaining learning. The following four tables are some ways she assessed individuals for these phases in this project and what she decided actually to grade and put in the grade book.

Decorative image - binoculars

Project Phase - Learning and Investigation

Individual Assessment


What They Graded

In the middle of the project, students create collisions with marbles to simulate and investigate how particles move. After small groups conduct these investigations, she asks each student to complete a quick write in response to the question, "What did you figure out today about particle collisions that could help explain these temperature changes?"

She can review these responses to identify what gaps might exist in understanding particle motion.

While this was a formative assessment, this teacher added a grade to the grade book for the quick write that wouldn't make or break a grade but would inform caregivers of each student's progress.

Decorative image - road sign

Project Phase - Revisiting Inquiry

Individual Assessment


What They Graded

​After a key investigation in a project, the teacher directs students to consider the list of questions they generated at the start of the project. Teams of students discuss some of the questions they asked and whether they have answers. As they discuss, the teacher moves about the room to ask probing questions to check for understanding. The exit ticket for class that day is for each student to share which question from their initial list has been answered and which one they think should be answered next.

​By listening to individuals within team conversations and reviewing their exit tickets, the teacher will understand how individual students see the learning unfold.

The teacher didn't assign any grades on this day for this phase. Instead, she made notes for herself to follow up with some individuals regarding their understanding.

Decorative image - gas pump

Project Phase - Feedback and Revision

Individual Assessment


What They Graded

Each student has created an outline for the presentation that describes the features of the cup and how those features employ their team's understanding of thermal energy and particle motion to be effective. The students swap their outlines with a partner from a different group and provide one another feedback using the rubric. The students then revise their outlines based on the feedback, and their teacher collects them for review.

When students use a critique protocol and standards-based rubric to provide feedback to a partner, they deepen their own understanding of the content and have an opportunity to improve their own work. The teacher will check the revised outlines for the science content and skills.

The teacher used the revised outlines to grade individual students in their understanding of the science content and development of skills.

Decorative image - Jeep

Project Phase - Present Products and Explain Learning

Individual Assessment


What They Graded

​In addition to their team presentation, each student completes an Engineer's Report that recounts the team's design process, their contributions, and possible suggestions for improvement.

The teacher will use this separate product to assess individual understanding of the engineering process of modeling and design.

​In addition to the team presentation grade, they assigned a separate grade to each individual student for their Engineer's Report.

All of the examples above are focused on specific learning goals, and they lend themselves to the process of collecting evidence that can be used to capture student progress in learning. You'll note that there is a mix of a few types of assessments:

  • Formal vs. informal - formal assessments can be graded, while informal assessments direct teaching and learning.

  • Self/Peer vs. teacher - students should also be part of the assessment process.

  • Product checkpoint assessments vs. content assessments - drafts, outlines, and practice presentations are all a natural part of developing student products. Tying these to the learning goals with a standards-based rubric can help give a clear picture of student progress.

More ideas for individual assessment in PBL

Still feeling stuck? I'd like to offer a list of individual assessment ideas that you might be able to use in your next project. This list is not exhaustive, but it can demonstrate how and where many of your assessment strategies can still be utilized within project-based learning. Remember to select the ones that feel like a good fit for your content and the overall flow of your project.

Project Phase

Possible Ideas for Individual Assessments

Learning and investigation

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  • Notebooks/Journal Check

  • Exit Tickets

  • Quizzes

  • Fishbowl discussions

  • Modeling

  • Gallery Walk

  • Quick-write

Revisiting Inquiry

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  • ​1:1 Conferences

  • Notebooks/Journal Check

  • Exit Tickets

  • Class discussions

Feedback and Revision

Decorative image - gas pump

  • ​Outlines

  • Drafts

  • Practice presentations

  • Checklists

  • Self-assessment with a rubric

  • Teacher observations

  • Feedback protocol

  • Gallery Walk

Present Products and Explain Learning

Decorative image - Jeep

  • Self-assessment with a rubric

  • Teacher observations

  • Presentation protocol

In PBL, ongoing feedback is essential to help students improve their work and meet learning goals. As a teacher, you should provide ongoing opportunities for individuals and teams to demonstrate their expertise in the learning goals. We want our students to be wildly successful at the end of the project, and regular and focused individual assessment is one of the best ways to ensure they get there.

Concluding Thoughts

I'm hoping that these ideas can help you get started in determining how you might assess individual students within team projects. You probably already have a whole toolbox full of assessment strategies that you use on a regular basis. In order to decide which ones to use for PBL, revisit your learning goals and pick the strategy that feels like the right fit for the content/skill and the phase of the project. The main goal of Project-based learning is growth, and assessment is one way to help students realize how they're growing. As Albert Einstein said, "Any fool can know. The point is to understand."


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