Project-based learning (PBL) is a concept many schools aim to implement, but few successfully execute. Some teachers believe that creating project-based performance tasks requires hours of planning, leading to a chaotic classroom environment with unclear assessment guidelines. In reality, performance tasks are more engaging than traditional lessons because they ask students to solve problems using cross-curricular knowledge, and inspire them to collaborate and demonstrate what they know through real-world application.

Performance tasks are designed as ways for students to apply specific skills. For example, dribbling a basketball is a specific skill and playing the game of basketball is the performance task. Performance tasks ask students to apply their skills, not just recall them for an exam. They are open-ended, do not have a single correct answer, and involve multiple steps. In most occurrences, performance tasks integrate two or more subjects, 21st century skills, and are evaluated with established criteria and rubrics.

Here are six easy steps to help teachers make performance tasks work in their classrooms.

1) Align PBL with New Standards

The widespread use of formative assessments at the classroom level can undermine teaching of the 21st-century skills called for by the next generation academic standards. New standards focus on the performances expected of students who are prepared for higher education and careers. Widespread use of multiple-choice tests as predominant measures of learning must give way to an expanded use of performance assessments tasks that engage students in applying their learning in genuine contexts.

2) Create a Hybrid of Performance Tasks and Formative Assessments

Current tests are not designed to gauge how well students apply what they know to new situations or evaluate how students might use technologies to solve problems or communicate ideas. The most natural home for the increased use of performance assessments is in the classroom. Since teachers do not face the same constraints as large-scale testing groups (such as standardized implementation, limited time, scoring costs, etc.), they can more readily use performance tasks such as writing an essay, solving a multi-step problem, debating an issue, or conducting research to create an informative website.

3) Design Performance Tasks Backwards

The most effective teaching is planned “backwards” from the desired learning outcomes and assessments that will show evidence of their attainment. Backwards design of instruction is the norm in performance-based disciplines like visual and performing arts or career and technology education. With this performance orientation, teachers are less likely to simply march through lists of content objectives or pages in a textbook, or to have their students complete worksheets on discrete skills. When genuine performance is the goal, we can emulate the practices of effective coaches and sponsors of extra-curricular activities by following a general instructional process.

4) Offer Students Choices

While some students excel at creating visual representations, others are adept at writing, designing, or oral presentations. Offering a “cool” menu of product and performance possibilities allows students a choice within open-ended performance tasks. This provides a practical way to personalize learning while letting them work to their strengths and interests. A standardized, one-size-fits-all approach to instruction and assessment may be efficient, but it is rarely optimal for all learners. To get more ideas on how to differentiate learning, read my blog post here.

5) Incorporate Technology

Today’s students are truly digital natives, so it makes sense to let them play in the digital sandbox. An increasing number of schools provide students with technology and/or allow their learners to bring their own devices to the classroom. In addition to the increasing availability of digital devices, a growing number of apps, including Defined STEM, can transform a mundane task or assignment. Most of these apps are built for Web 2.0, and many can be used on a variety of digital devices, including cell phones and tablets. Authentic performance tasks offer many opportunities for involving students in the purposeful and productive use of technology for finding and processing information, interacting with others, and communicating.

6) Create a Solid Rubric

Since performance tasks are typically open-ended, teachers must use their judgment when evaluating products and performances. By using a set of established criteria aligned with targeted standards and outcomes, it is possible to fairly, consistently, and defensibly make a judgment-based evaluation of students’ products and performances. Four general categories of criteria that can be used to evaluate student work are content, process, quality, and impact.

Jay McTighe has co-authored 14 books, including the award-winning and best-selling Understanding by Design book series. He served as director of the Maryland Assessment Consortium, a state collaboration of school districts working together to develop and share formative performance assessments. McTighe has also been involved with school improvement projects at the Maryland State Department of Education, where he helped lead Maryland’s standards-based reforms, including the development of performance-based statewide assessments.

To hear more of Jay McTighe’s ideas on PBL and performance tasks, click here to listen to a recorded webinar.

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