Can depth of knowledge be measured by multiple choice tests alone? How can student communication and demonstration of what students can do with what they have learned best be measured?


Performance Based Assessment.

Project Based Learning (PBL) is performance based assessment. Think about it.


PBL lessons/units teach content. Proficiency level determination is based on the use of learned content in the creation of new and useful ideas, products or solutions communicated in tangible ways, then evaluated according to standard, or—assessed on level of performance.

As well, Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are performance based making PBL the perfect vehicle for alignment and instruction.

Institutions such as Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced have come up with assessment ideas aligned to CCSS that John Larmer details well in the first article of his series on “How PBL Prepares Students for CCSS Test Performance Tasks…“. Based on ideas in the criteria for assessment made by Smarter Balanced that Larmer discusses in his article, the tests might be like this:


Standardized tests with multiple choice sections, each section ending with a performance assessment.


The performance assessment part goes as follows:

  1. The teacher facilitates the test, which is structured much like a single lesson from a PBL unit of study.
  2. Students go through the learning process that culminates in a result, and yes, partner work, even group work is involved as part of the test.
  3. The test takes a couple of days to complete.
  4. Students are assessed on their performance after the lesson has been taught.
  5. The outcome or product of the test / lesson determines proficiency level.

Observations — Not Absolutes. 

  1. The performance assessment sections not only test student content knowledge, they also provide an immediate reflection of teacher and instructional strategy effectiveness.
  2. Scoring of performance based tests is costly and time consuming when done as state assessments.
  3. Data results of statewide performance assessments often arrive too late for comparative analysis.
  4. Scoring performance based written communication and product outcomes is subjective making results questionable.
  5. Statewide assessment of performance based outcomes is redundant when the assessment is done as a regular part of classroom instruction. Use money to pay for statewide teacher training in how to implement Project Based Learning instead.

Standardized Tests and Performance Based Assessments

Regardless of test type, the results show that at least since 1996, PBL has made a substantial difference in student learning. Indiana University of Indianapolis, Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning published in 2009 a Summary on Student Research and Project-based LearningIn this study they found the following:

  • …students working on a geometry project linked to architecture and design utilized measurement skills as they developed their blueprints, of which 84% met architectural building standards (Barron, et al., 1998).
  • …one study of PBL showed a positive effect on low-ability students, who increased their use of critical-thinking skills including synthesizing, evaluating, predicting, and reflecting by 446% while high-ability students improved by 76% (Horan, et al., 1996).

How does this happen? Relevance.


PBL teaches students how to apply information learned to real world situations and to retain the knowledge that is learned. They remember what they learn because they see meaning in what they do.

Pay Attention to What is Being Tested.

Standardized tests happen, and Andrew K. Miller, Educator, Writer, and Certified Literacy Design Collaborative Trainer has a few tips to keep in mind when designing PBL units to fit the criteria of various standardized tests.

  1. Work within the structures of the test. Sometimes test criteria limits the amount of time spent on each standard, but it doesn’t limit creative ways to adapt PBL content to cover the required standards.
  2. Use PBL as a process to learning, not as a culminating project after test prep activities. As Andrew says, “Dessert projects are bad, but PBL leverages the project as the entire learning of the unit, not just the end.”
  3. Make sure PBL units hit frequently targeted standards of learning covered in these tests.
  4. Use sample test questions as formative assessments in the units of study.

Don’t have time to write PBL units? 


This week’s Think-and-Take lesson is to examine PBL units of study from GoTeachGo as found on Teacher’s-Pay-Teachers. They are truly Buy Today-Teach Tomorrow PBL Units with engaging titles including “Headbanger Nation: Youth Concussion Awareness Initiative“. Customize these units easily to fit the CCSS standards and/or other skills testing criteria.


Each unit incorporates the following PBL steps to learning:

  1. Driving or Essential Question
  2. Critical Thinking and Research
  3. Collaboration
  4. Communication
  5. Sharing
  6. Revision and Reflection
  7. Technology Integration
  8. 21st Century Skills

Each unit includes appendices that include the following:

  • extension activities and suggestions for customization
  • graphics and data for reference and use in lessons
  • black-line masters
  • list after list of research sources
  • rubrics for peer and teacher assessment
  • units available in three grade level sets: 4-5; 6-8; 9-12


Teachers LOVE these units because they SAVE them so much TIME, and because they provide RELEVANT TOPICS that keep students ENGAGED in their learning—and this means ACADEMIC SUCCESS!


Be sure to visit TeachersPayTeachers to examine lots of great PBL units of study from GoTeachGo.



Go Beyond Hands-on to Hands-in with Project Based Learning

Critical thinking, Habits of Mind, metacognition, and thinking about thinking 

—pick your term or phrase.


They all represent ways of helping students develop intelligent and effective thinking patterns, make meaning out of what they learn, and improve how well they learn.


Project based learning, experiential learning, and the constructivist approach

—pick your theory, pick your pedagogy.


They all incorporate methods and activities where students use critical thinking skills to learn by doing—the hands-on thing.  But it’s more than hands-on. Students don’t just produce a product for show, they perform the tasks hands-in, mind-in, all involved in examinations, analyses, inquiries, making comparisons and connections—

—and they are able to explain how they arrived at the conclusions they drew in the process of what they learned as well as how and why these conclusions led them to their final analysis, solution, or product. And they love it! They are completely engaged and often willing to give up break time to finish their work.

It’s not magic.

 It’s collaboration within an integrated curriculum structure,

and it’s called Project Based Learning.

Listen to what kids and teachers from School District 59, Peace River South in Dawson Creek, British Columbia have to say about Project Based Learning.

A Project Based Learning (PBL) Unit of Study

An excellent unit of study from GoTeachGo is BAM! Body and Mind. In this unit, as in PBL in general, students learn their accomplishments matter. The unit focus teaches students what it means to be healthy. The deeper understanding comes from research, comparison, and gathering data in a collaborative setting, and then creating something from findings that show what is learned. The lessons then move beyond show and into something sustaining and beneficial to others—as in this unit—students create a cafe they continues to manage, even after they have moved on to a new unit. What a great way for students to make money to support school activities.

At the end of each lesson in the unit, students reflect metacognitively on the critical thinking skills they used, how these skills helped them make sense of information as they learned, and what they learned about their own thinking habits.

It’s an integrated blend of thinking applied to content, and the product has meaning to students.

Think-and-Take Mini-Lesson #6

“Eat This, Not This”

Lesson from GoTeachGo 
PBL Unit – BAM! Body and Mind

Available on Teacher’s Pay Teachers

Eat this, Not This – A Game

This game comes later in the unit after students have done extensive study analyzing food labels on a variety of products. The food choices shown are not necessarily the healthiest choices to start with, but the idea is to know how to pick the lesser of the two bad choices, and to start thinking how to make unhealthy choices more healthy.

Students  have 7 pictures that ask students to compare the following food items and/or food from various restaurants. (Images of products and food choice are provided in the unit. At least two sets should be distributed to each group). These comparisons include the following:


  • Cheeses
  • Crackers
  • Cereals

Restaurant Foods:

  • Olive Garden pasta dishes
  • Burger King hamburger types
  • Subway Sandwich types
  • Kentucky Fried Chicken


1.  Break students into groups and have each group write down which the following are the healthier  choices, and why they think that way.

2.  Have students look over the food comparisons one at a time, discuss each one, and choose the one their group thinks is the healthiest of the two.

3.  Then have them discuss why the answer they think their answer is correct.

4.  After students have completed the activities for all comparisons, have each group share one of the answers to a comparison that they want to share.

5.  Then put the pictures that show the answers on the ELMO or some kind of overhead display so students can see how they did.

6.  The group(s) that get the most right win!


1. Ask students to write about at least one of the five critical thinking skills they used most to arrive at their conclusion. They might answer how the skill helped them and their group, and how using the skill helped them better decide on the choices they made. The idea is to get students thinking about thinking.

And that’s the objective!

Be sure to visit TeachersPayTeachers to examine lots of great PBL units of study from GoTeachGo.
Recommended Reading: “Why Is Project-Based Learning Important?”


Everyone loves recognition. It satisfies, and it motivates, but without a connection to something that matters, or something of significance, it doesn’t engage anyone.

My principal, during the times when she visited to observe or formally evaluate my teaching performance, left sticky-note messages thanking me for doing well and listing at least three specific points that stood out to her as well-done. It took the edge off the whole evaluation process and just plain felt good.

Why? Because it had significance. It meant something to me.

It satisfied my need to feel treated like a professional and kept me motivated to continue developing my skills, but more important—it made me feel like my contributions were helpful to the goals of the school and the needs of the students—

—and it kept me engaged for the betterment of the system.

Recognition becomes significant enough to be memorable and makes us want to do more when the feedback we get moves beyond praises for effort and into gratitude for accomplishments. It’s a great management strategy, and one that business developer Manohar Kamath discusses well in his article “Random Acts of Recognition-Motivating Your Team Regularly”.

This is also true for students. Recognition and experiences that matter mean everything. Recognize them for accomplishments, and get them involved in Project Based Learning activities where they learn to develop the critical thinking skills needed to accomplish something significant—significant enough for them to understand how their actions affect their lives and the lives of others, and how their contributions matter for the greater good—

—and they will be completely engaged.

Think-and-Take Mini-Lesson #5
“Consider The Significance”
Lesson from GoTeachGo
Critical Thinking – The Complete Starter Guide – All Grade Levels
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Each of these mini-lessons is preparing students for the critical thinking skills they will need to use in Project-Based Learning Units of study. They make great openers to read kids for class.

You teach students to find evidence to support their opinions or assertions all of the time. But when you teach them to analyze, examine, and question how others arrived at the conclusions they made, their understanding deepens and new insights are achieved.

Remind your students that each day that each day this week they practiced skills that smart thinkers use to make good decisions and solve problems. Use this mini-lesson as a bell-ringer (and the last one in the critical thinking series) and wake your class up to a deeper level of learning. Tell your students these skills are called critical thinking skills, and remind them smart thinkers use them every day.

The Mental Checklist of all five skills will be used each week as reference in each mini-lesson.
Looking for Evidence
Making Connections
Point of View
Considering and Imagining Alternatives
Considering Significance

1. Write on the board the objective: Yesterday you learned about the thinking skill “Considering Alternatives”. Today our learning outcomes are to begin developing the critical thinking skill of “Considering Significance” and participate in activities where you brainstorm things that are significant to you and analyze other situations to determine their significance. (You can word this your way).

2. Show students the Mental Checklist on the ELMO or SmartBoard. Review with students the five critical thinking skills, and remind them they will be practicing and learning 1 new skill each day.

3. Introduce the new thinking skill with an all class discussion.
Start with a whole class discussion. Ask these questions and encourage responses with specific examples.
–What does significance mean to you?
–What matters to you?
–Why does it matter to you?

4. Brainstorm a list of synonyms for significance – Make sure one of them
is value.
–Discuss the general meaning of significance in things, situations, actions and people that are significance.

5. Individual Work – Display this picture on the ELMO
–Have students write one thing that is valuable to them.
–Then have them write one thing that they think is valuable about themselves.
–Have students brainstorm individually
–things, situations, or places that have significance to them.
–choose as many students as want to share.

6. Ask students the following question and choose as many students as want to share.
–What did you learn about considering significance?
–How hard was it to come up with what you have done that is significance?
–What most did you learn about significance?

7. End the lesson by having students write a paragraph. Have them write about the questions discussed in class. Remind them they are to write about what they learned about the skill of “Considering Significance”. Perhaps they can describe an experience that was significant to them and how they felt about it. How did this significance affect the way you continued to work?

Be sure to walk around as students are writing, and observe their responses while prompting them for specific details where needed.

8. Collect paragraphs from students who want you to share what they have written, and put them in one stack. Put the others in a second stack. Assure students whose paragraphs you will read that you will not read aloud their names unless they have let you know it is okay to do so.

9. On Grading: You can collect them and count them as participation points for daily grades, and have students file them in their writing portfolios daily. Then they can revisit them each week to monitor their understanding. Or you can let students keep them as a reminder of what they are learning throughout the week, and have them turn the paragraphs in each week or file them weekly and turn them all in at the end of each quarter. No matter how you assess these paragraphs, you will have gotten the students thinking about their thinking.

And that’s the objective!

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Thinking Skills

The goal of this blog is to:

  1. Support the teacher in understanding the purpose behind the instructional practices that provide the opportunity for students to begin thinking about their thinking.
  1. Provide students the opportunity, through cognitive training, to develop real life skills needed in the 21st century. These include critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and communication.

Before this process begins, necessary language must be developed within the teacher and the students. Students need to get a preview of the language of critical thinking so it can be referred to and reinforced over the course of instruction, regardless of the subject matter.

These lessons are best utilized over a period of a few days, and when blended into other subject matter during the day, to encourage the cognitive training in all aspects of their lives. At the end of each day, allot 10 minutes or so for students to reflect in journal writing.

For more information and complete, buy today-teach tomorrow units, check out our webstore at .

Have a great day!



what a way to go. . . teaching project based learning to students is so rewarding.  It’s unbelievable to watch the critical thinking process take hold as students practice thinking about their thinking.  PBL units take an incredible amount of time to build to be both thorough and exciting for the students and teachers alike.  Teachers often start teaching the critical thinking skills, but by the time they are into the project they lose sight of the thinking skills and focus on the project, making it just another project.  The whole purpose of PBL is to teach student thinking skills, the project is just the vehicle used to practice those skills.

If you’d like to teach PBL in your classroom, and don’t want to take months and months to research and create, check out our fully designed, ready to go PBL Units at .

Looking forward to help inspire teachers out there and make their job easier and more rewarding. . .  make teaching fun and exciting again!