Last week, Erin Murphy and I facilitated a two-day project based learning (PBL) workshop for an inspiring group of educators from Madison City Schools, Alabama. As part of the workshop, we spent some time focusing on what assessment (and possibly, grading) can look like within the context of PBL.
When discussing this topic, it’s first and foremost important to keep in mind there is a difference between assessment and grading. Whereas the goal of assessment is to improve student learning, grading (or a grade) is generally used to evaluate current level of performance.
Should Projects Be Graded?
In short, the answer is a resounding “No!”
Project based learning experiences should call for a great deal of student critical thinking and creativity. And, research tells us that “carroting and sticking” these types of skills isn’t just ineffective, but detrimental.
Pause for a second and watch this Daniel Pink TED Talk, The Puzzle of Motivation, which is based on his book, Drive. Or, if you are in a rush, just watch from 1 minute 30 seconds to about the 7-minute mark. And, if you really don’t want to watch the video, here is the take-home point for this segment:
If-then rewards work really well for those sorts of tasks, where there is a simple set of rules and a clear destination to go to. Rewards, by their very nature, narrow our focus, concentrate the mind; that's why they work in so many cases…But for the real candle problem [a problem that requires creative problem solving], you don't want to be looking like this [tunnel vision]. The solution is on the periphery. You want to be looking around. That reward actually narrows our focus and restricts our possibility.
Pink also makes it clear this experiment is not the exception to the rule: “What's interesting about this experiment is that it's not an aberration. This has been replicated over and over again for nearly 40 years.”
Looking back on my work as a fourth grade teacher, I can draw a straight line from Pink’s work to my use (or misuse) of grades as the carrot and the stick. The more I engaged my students in project based learning, the more I realized that grading the actual project was not only unnecessary, but potentially harmful.
If Not Grades, Then What?