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NYC Helpline: How To: Implement Standards, Curriculum, and Assessment

Developing and Assessing a Project  Lisa Peterson

Last week, I found myself sitting in the lunchroom with a first year teacher confronted by a mountain of projects that she had no idea how to grade. Projects can seem overwhelming, especially for new teachers. However, if you break your project into manageable parts, you will find that the planning, teaching, and assessment all fall into place.

The key to a successful project is to decide what you want beforehand, figure out what the students need to do to be successful, and tackle each component separately. For example, if you want your students to perform a fictional newscast from the Boston Tea Party, they will need to do historical research, write a script, create costumes and props, and practice performing. I find it works best to teach and grade each component of a project separately. You can be sure that students have the necessary information before they go on to create their final product, and it cuts down on last-minute rushing. (It also helps you: if the entire project isn't finished by the end of the marking period, you can still include the grades of some components.)

At the beginning of a project, I try to get the students excited about the final product, whether it is a play, a presentation, or an artistic display. (Seeing examples of past projects is a great motivator, so remember to photograph, videotape, or save samples for next year. If this is your first year, you can create your own samples.) I also give the students an overview of the different steps involved, so they have some idea of what to expect.

As we enter each step of the project, I try to communicate my expectations clearly. For key components, such as note-taking, this may mean teaching a series of lessons on the topic and giving the students several chances to practice. For other components, such as creating props, I may simply help the students brainstorm a list of ideas. I have a separate rubric or grading checklist for each part of the project (although I may combine two related parts), and I find it helpful to share this grading sheet with students before they begin. This way, they know what is expected, and they learn how to monitor their own work.

Many projects require students to work in groups, and teachers differ on whether it is better to assign group or individual grades. I tend to assign group grades for some aspects of a project and require students to complete other parts individually. Even for group grades, I will occasionally lower or raise an individual's grade if it is glaringly apparent that he or she has done a different amount of work than the rest of the group.

Depending on the importance of different components of the project, I may assign them different weights. For example, a student's notes might be worth 25% of the final grade, while his or her written paper might be worth 50%. Here are the general components I include in most projects and a few ideas you might consider in assessing them.

To me, notes are the most crucial part of any project because students simply can't produce a good project without good information. Before they can take notes, however, students need sources of information. Depending on the needs of your class and the amount of time you have, you might want to have the sources available in class, take students to the library to find appropriate sources, or have the students locate sources on their own. All of these experiences are important, but don't feel that every project needs a major library trip and tons of sources, or you may get too bogged down to start. Students can do very effective projects using only one or two sources that you provide in class, and you will find it easier to manage if you start small.

I tend to have students work in groups to take notes because they can get more information in less time. In addition, they need to work hard to make their notes understandable if they are sharing them with others. I like to review their notes a few times during the process and assign preliminary grades with feedback about how to improve. Then I give them a chance to add to their notes and raise their grades. This is usually effective in getting students to go back and get more adequate information and in getting students to start writing in their own words.

Although different classes will need to work on different skills, I tend to consider the following areas when evaluating note-taking:

  • Is there enough information?

  • Are the notes in the student's own words? I make a really big deal over this because if the notes are in the student's own words, then you don't have to worry about plagiarism in the final project.

  • Are the notes understandable? Sometimes students write down information without knowing what it means. If they understand their notes, it also cuts down on plagiarism.

  • Are the notes brief and concise? Avoiding complete sentences saves time and helps avoid plagiarism.

  • Are there enough sources, and have the students documented their sources correctly? Before you begin, decide on the types and number of sources your students must use. If your students will be creating a bibliography, they should record the information as they are taking notes. Here is a sample of a sheet I created for recording information about sources.

I usually grade notes using a checklist. Sometimes I organize the checklist by subtopics; during a project on Native Americans, for example, I gave a certain amount of credit for notes on required subtopics such as food, clothing, and shelter. For other projects, students are researching different subtopics, so I organize the checklist by my criteria for the notes. However I organize my checklist, I leave plenty of space for comments so I give feedback.

Creative Display/Presentation:
This is the heart of any project, and there are any number of formats you and your students can choose. You are limited only by time and your creativity. Here are some formats I've used in my own classroom or seen other teachers use successfully:

  • Presentations using display boards or poster boards

  • "Museums" in which students create and display models of scientific or historical objects

  • Science fairs

  • Student teachers, in which groups of students teach or review concepts for the class

  • Plays and skits

  • Murals

  • Comic books

  • Performances of poems and raps

  • Talk shows with different historical or literary characters

  • Newscasts or newspapers describing different events from history or literature

  • Students assuming the character of a historical person and telling his or her life story

The whole class can work in one format, or you can allow students to choose their own format. I like the shared experience of working in one format because you can focus on the specifics of what makes a high-quality project. Towards the end of the year, after we've explored different formats together, I like to allow the students to choose their own. Whatever format your class uses, it can be both interesting and valuable for students to present to each other. Sometimes, I have each group or student present to the whole class. However, I also like to have small groups of students present to other small groups, which saves time and reduces the pressure on the students.

Although students have the most fun with the creative part of a project, they often need help to incorporate their academic knowledge into a different format. It is important for students to focus and plan their work before they start. For example, you could ask them to list the details they must show in their model of an Egyptian home, or to list the different historical figures they must interview in their Boston Tea Party newscast. Ideally, your grading criteria will help students focus and plan their work. Click here to see my grading checklist for the presentation and display segments of a project that required students to create their own "artifact" representing life in colonial times.

Written Piece:
No matter what type of project your students have created, it is important for them to be able to share their knowledge in writing. The format of this writing will depend upon the subject and the nature of the project itself. Many of the projects in my social studies class culminated in a written report, but others utilized poems, fictional diaries or autobiographies, and other types of writing.

Whether your students are writing a script or a lab report, you will want to create a rubric or checklist to let them know what you expect. Click here for a sample checklist for a written report. I always include standard items, like information and grammar, but I give particular weight to areas we have worked on in class. For example, if we have worked on introductions and conclusions, I will include them as separate items in my grading criteria. I like to have students fill out the rubric or checklist themselves or with a peer, giving both grades and comments to their own work, before they hand in their final drafts. Then if they see areas they need to improve, they can do so.

For most projects, I require all students to do their own written piece, and I assess them individually.


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