Vision of Projects

When teachers design a project, the goal is often to create an engaging way for students to demonstrate their learning.  Hopes of grandeur, pride, and high order thinking abound.  Every moment a student is working, they are considering the central concepts and re-imagining their potential.  Projects are meant to get students intrinsically motivated to create something unique.

Reality of Projects

A lot of our students dread projects – and for good reason.  They have been conditioned to see them as simply a homework assignment on steroids.  Projects are viewed as monolith time-suckers that rarely merit the effort required to complete. Projects all too often are simply self-serving artifacts of teacher “effectiveness.”  1-quote-about-what-gets-measured-gets-improved-peter-drucke-image-coloured-background

Students tend to focus on the product itself and not the learning.  They’ll spend countless hours formatting their slide shows while not fully understanding what is on the slide show.  Students work through the night decorating a poster or making a diorama.  They end up learning about the idiosyncrasies of hot glue and the value of fuzzy pipe cleaners without ever delving into the deeper questions of analysis, synthesis or evaluation of the content.  Why does this happen?  Because of how students are traditionally assessed.  Do a Google image search for “project rubrics” and you’ll get umpteen examples of how teachers are assessing projects.  Just a quick analysis of the first few results (I used 6 out of the first 7 results to prove my point here.  Here’s the one I didn’t use!) shows the following areas that are getting “assessed”:

  • 25% of the final grade:  Appeal (novice – lacks appeal;  expert – visually creative and artistic) linked here.
  • 37.5% of the final grade:  attractiveness, rehearsal of presentation, and originality (compare this to 12.5% of the final grade being content) linked here.
  • 40% of the final grade:  display (visual appeal) and presentation (enthusiasm, confidence) linked here
  • 60% of final grade: smoothness of delivery, attractiveness, and formatting (compare this with 20% of the grade for content and 20% for meeting whatever the requirements of this project were) linked here
  • 60% of final grade: eye contact, clarity of voice, and organization (compare this 20% of the final grade for content) linked here
  • 83% of the final grade: team work, confidence, poise, creativity, and how “interesting” linked here.rt5

When students realize that they are making an art project in a non-art classroom, it isn’t surprising that many fail to see the value.  Especially when, for the majority of projects, there is very little originality of thought required.  Many projects are simply asking kids to copy information from one source to another.  Even projects that do require students to evaluate the information have “production” components that are often meaningless beyond satisfying a teacher’s desire for aesthetics.


Projects need to be driven by student passion.  The additional work required to create something new becomes a burden to a student if they don’t find meaning.  Projects also need to include a high degree of reflection and identify clear parameters for what growth is expected and what it looks like.  I’ve created this Project Planning and Assessment Document that follows these steps: Project Planning and Assessment


  1. Start by presenting background knowledge.  Students need to know what they don’t yet know.  It is unfair to simply tell a student to “think of a project.” They need some guidance.
  2. Have students create guiding questions.  These questions will help focus their research as well as provide a way to measure their progress.  If there are answers to these questions at the end, learning has occurred!  The questions are critical – the role of the teacher is to give early feedback on the quality of the guiding questions.
  3. Establish value.  Once the questions are created, it is time for the student consider the personal value of the questions.  If none can be found, the questions need to be modified.
  4. Consider final assessment.  How will the student be assessed on their learning after the product is created?  Again, the product should not be assessment.  The process of creating the product should lead to authentic learning.  Measure this learning afterwards.  Because the learning process was individualized, so too should the assessment.
  5. Purposefully target other skills.  These are the additional skills a student needs in order to complete the product.  Provide formal feedback on the skills. Guide students to focus on identified areas of need.  Do not grade any skills that are not part of the identified standards or learning objectives.
  6. Monitor student progress.  Students should actively participate in creating their own deadlines to meet the target completion date.  Touching base with students keeps the teacher involved in the process, helps ensure the student is being set up for success, and provides an opportunity to modify the process/project to meet the end goal of learning.
  7. Have students self-assess.  Issue the assessment and have the student reflect on their level of knowledge acquisition.  Set the expectation that students will explain how they know they have reached the level they are at and if there is anything more that should/could be done.  They should also reflect on the product and their targeted skills in the same manner.
  8. Ensure fidelity of the score.  Once the student has submitted their final product, taken a separate assessment, and completed their self-reflection, the teacher’s role is give feedback on the self-reflection.  The teacher needs to use their professional judgement to determine the level of knowledge obtained.  If there is a disagreement, a clear path for what else needs to be accomplished should be laid out for an improvement.


The assessment needs to be on the learning objective.  Incorporating “aesthetics” or “presentation” into the final grade distorts the message about what a student knows.  Learning how to present information in a clear and professional manner is important.  Public speaking and having pride in one’s work are also important.  Give feedback on the presentation and production; grade the learning separately.

The assessment should be separate from the product.  Most projects are done with access to resources and therefore the amount of content knowledge retained is difficult to ascertain.  Help from family members or modification of publicly available information can also distort the learning obtained from doing a project.

A separate in-class assessment of an essay or a one-on-one conversation with the student is more likely to elicit valid and reliable data on the true acquisition of knowledge.  Consider using a proficiency scale instead of arbitrarily counting points.  Look at the evidence:  does it show that the student is still in the process of building a knowledge base?  does it show that the student has a solid knowledge base?  does the evidence show that the student is competent enough with the material to analyze? or does the evidence show that the student has mastered the material well enough to synthesize or evaluate?

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4 thoughts on “Projects: Stop Assessing the Product and Start Assessing the Learning

  1. I agree with much of your thoughtful post. Part of the problem with projects not anchored in the class and learning is that they privilege students who have families that can help. So, it makes no sense to grade them, especially not on aesthetics.
    I would like to know more about how that final assessment goes. I’d rather not have separate work at the end of the unit. In my practice, we simply draw from the portfolio and notebook of writing, revise, and grade. These are writing pieces tried to instruction.

    Here’s the longer version of that:


    1. Hello! Thanks for interacting!

      I teach Spanish – it is a language acquisition class. Students can almost literally do anything in the target language and be on task. It is one of the things I love about being a language teacher – it is very freeing.

      I think this is a nuanced conversation. In my upper levels, it is more about feedback and guidance than it is about the “skills.” In my lower levels, we use a lot of common assessments because we don’t have the base skills needed for high degrees of freedom.

      In your example of needing students to express themselves in a poem format because learning to write a poem is a skill they must learn, the requirement seems to me to be appropriate. As students become more sophisticated in their language skills, I’d imagine it is possible to allow for student choice of expression when the focus is on specific content and not skill. I categorize these (and assign different descriptors for assessing proficiency levels) as content and performance. Poem writing is a skill and would assessed as a “performance” – common assessment seems pretty straightforward here. Whereas, evaluating a poem is predominantly content and would be able to be assessed differently.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree wholeheartedly that projects need to be driven by students passion! In my experience students are more engaged and as a result learn more when they are passionate about what they are learning.


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