This is part 1 of 3 blog posts exploring the assessment of Project-Based Learning in the college classroom. 

Project-Based Learning (PBL) has surged in popularity in primary and high schools in recent years. Teachers are using it more and more, and school districts are promoting it as a way to develop “21st Century Skills” in students – the skills they’ll need to face an uncertain future in the workforce as adults. Schools such as High Tech High in California have been built around PBL, with extraordinary results.

While it’s exciting to see the students engaged in projects, as teachers we need to ensure adequate assessment. Assessment has an effect on learning – just as a well-designed assessment can positively affect learning outcomes, so can an incongruent assessment have a negative impact on learning (Van den Berg, Mortelmans, & Spooren, 2006). It is important, therefore, that we pay considerable attention to the assessment modes we choose to use, and how and when we use them.

Why do we need a different assessment model for college classrooms?

While many of the tools for structuring and assessing PBL are applicable to college learning, they need to be adapted to reflect the unique reality of this population.

Age: College students are generally between 17-23 years old and as such have different needs and abilities than high school-aged students. They are becoming adult learners.

Curriculum: The curriculum in the CEGEP system is not based on provincially imposed content indicators but on competencies[1]. As such, the content for any particular course is outlined in a local framework plan based on a standard competency, and is not dictated by the ministry of education. Any one competency and its elements are standard across different colleges, but the framework plan, developed by the individual college, outlines the content indicators for a particular course. Content and learning outcomes for any project-based course at CEGEP, then, must adhere not to a provincial curriculum but to the local framework plan for the course. This allows teachers somewhat more latitude when it comes to learning objectives and content indicators. However, the teacher is responsible for ensuring that the competency is being met.

Parental involvement: Since the students are adults, there is no parental involvement. The teacher’s accountability is to the student and to the college. Assessments should be built so as to ensure students receive appropriate and growth-inducing feedback, while ensuring that they are meeting the standards for that particular competency.

Pre-University or Technical (vocational) focus: Students in CEGEP may be going on to university or may be learning the tools of the trade to enter the workforce directly. Both groups need assessments for deep learning that will help them grow both academically and practically.

What is being assessed in PBL?

It can be tempting to focus solely on the finished product or what, on the surface, seems to be the goal of the project. However, most of the important learning in PBL comes during the process. A rich learning process can still lead to a failed product and it is, in my opinion, more important that the student learns from the process. A project is only a failure if no learning happened along the way. As Don Wettrick writes in his book Pure Genius,

“Creating a culture that accepts and even encourages failure as part of the learning process helps diminish this fear. When students know they can trust that the teacher will not punish them for trial-and-error learning, they really start to push the limits of meaningful projects….Failure is a natural part of daring to learn by trial and error. After all, if a lesson is learned perfectly the first time, was it really worth learning?”(Wettrick, 2014).

Projects, therefore, must be assessed along the way for components such as goal setting, timeline creation, teamwork, content knowledge, presentation skills, problem solving, critical thinking, and work ethic. As such we are helping students to develop 21st century skills such as collaboration, creativity, communication, perseverance, leadership, entrepreneurship, and more (Abbott, 2015).

21st century skills
World Economic Forum, 2015

The project content, final product, and individual learnings should also be assessed, according to criteria built by the students and teacher together.

From a deep learning perspective, we want to be assessing more than content. According to Michael Fullan and Maria Langworthy in their report, A Rich Seam (Fullan & Langworthy, 2014), we should be measuring the following to ensure deep learning is occurring (p. 40):

  1. Students’ mastery of the learning process including mastering new content;
  2. Students’ key future skills, including the ability to create new knowledge using collaboration and communication skills;
  3. Students’ proactive dispositions and ability to persevere;
  4. The effect of students’ work products on intended audiences or problems.

We will see how, through the use of different types of assessments, we can evaluate these elements.

To tie in all the elements to be assessed, the following diagram might be helpful:

PBL diagram

Through all of our assessments, we must make explicit links among the 3 elements pictured here: Driving Question, content outcomes, and product. We can achieve this with thorough planning of the project and via ongoing assessment.


In the next post, I’ll be discussing formative assessments and how they can be designed and used to support deep learning through PBL. I’ll include some examples and outlines of assessments that can be modified for use in your own classrooms.

Holly McIntyre teaches Adventure Tourism at the CEGEP de la Gaspésie et des Îles in Gaspé, Québec. She can be found on Twitter @HollyMcBaz.


[1] competency is defined as the integration of knowledge, cognitive skills and attitudes required to solve problems or act appropriately in a given situation (Tremblay, 2004). See also for a description of the difference between learning objectives and competencies

Abbott, S. (Ed.). (2015, 08 20). 21st Century Skills. Retrieved 06 14, 2016, from The Glossary of Education Reform:

Fullan, M., & Langworthy, M. (2014). A Rich Seam: How New Pedagogies Find Deep Learning. London: Pearson.

Tremblay, R. R. (2004, 12 04). AQPC. Retrieved 06 14, 2016, from

Van den Berg, V., Mortelmans, D., & Spooren, P. (2006). New Assessment Modes Within Project-Based Education: The Stakeholders. Studies in Educational Evaluation , 32 (4), 345-368.

Wettrick, D. (2014). Pure Genius: Building a culture of innovation and taking 20% time to the next level. San Diego, CA: Dave Burgess Consulting.


2 thoughts on “Assessing Project-Based Learning in the College Classroom: Part 1 of 3

  1. Great posts! I listed this in today’s “Weekly PBL News Roundup” blog post at, the Buck Institute for Education. I’d love to talk more about PBL in higher ed – maybe you could write a guest post for us?


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