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Project work: Embracing complexity

Posted on: February 17, 2015

Today’s reflection is part one of two on project work.

I read with a combination of interest and concern a recent chat in #edsg about grading project work.

It started with a legitimate question:

Equally legitimate answers streamed in like:

All that was interesting. Here was what created dissonance for me. The task was scaled up (project work), but its “measurement” was not. This was like needing to solve a problem in quantum physics but only being armed with Newtonian physics. Or like needing to build a skyscraper and walking in with a sandcastle construction kit.

Good sense prevailed towards the end of the conversation:

But I doubt any book or sane assessment literate expert will recommend what I am about to. Focus less on objectivity and embrace subjectivity when measuring more complex social phenomena.

To understand why I make that recommendation, we need to consider the escalating complexity of various assessments.

Assuming a multiple choice quiz is designed well, its measures are as objective as you can make them and you can even automate the grading. But even in such a black and white situation, human errors and interpretation in phrasing a question and providing answer options leave room for whether an answer should be A or B.

Move on to a more complex marking situation like essays. In the assessment domain, this is the realm of the rubric. In a more subjective space (the essay), graders attempt to standardize their reactions on scales of, say, 1 to 5. They might also conduct standardized marking exercises where teachers grade a poor, average, and exemplary essay, and then compare results. Ideally, a grading pattern follows what teachers intuitively already know is poor, average, or excellent. In reality, the points and grades rarely, if ever, coincide.

Now consider group project work. It mirrors working life in that it typically involves cooperation and/or collaboration, multiple tasks of varied complexities, minimum standards to meet, and different expectations among group members. Unlike working life, teachers resort to guidelines and rubrics because it seems logical to be as objective and as fair as possible.

But should an escalated task be measured with a simplified yardstick?

I grant that teachers will attempt to create more detailed and complex rubrics and might even have auditors (assessors of assessors and assessments) of project work. The instinctive teacher part of me views this as trying to contain or simplify a complex and subjective task.The wiser educator part of me realizes this is not only an exercise in futility, it is also an unrealistic model to perpetuate.

The context of the original Twitter post on grading group project work was to test understanding and application of content. You can certainly design rubrics for that.

But here are what most rubrics do not address if they focus largely on content:

  • What if a group cheated by relying on a knowledgeable parent or by recycling a previous project?
  • Suppose one group did their project slow and steady and another waited till the eleventh hour, but both delivered as expected. What then?
  • What if one or more members in a project group ticked all the right boxes, but those members are extremely unpleasant?

Are teachers going to compartmentalize and focus on just the content or are they going to embrace the complexity that mirrors real work and life?

You do not rely on a rubric when deciding who to vote for in an election or the winners of a talent contest. The human factors are too varied and complex. The judges might have rubric-like tools, but they also have X factor vetoes. I have been in far too many interview and judging panels to see guiding forms abandoned because they are inadequate and ineffective for both assessment and evaluation. That is real life.

Project work is an opportunity to examine outcomes outside the box, not more of what is inside. Creativity, resilience, strategizing, problem-finding, problem-solving, and so much more. All these are traits and abilities that are important in life and work, but difficult to put in a test or rubric.

A complex task requires a complex evaluation. Teachers must know what they are getting into when they design and employ project work. If they do not, they should find some professional development to help them make informed decisions.

Rubrics are too inadequate a tool for project work. As @hsiao_yun mentioned, there are multiple strategies and tools to assess and evaluate the multiple facets of project work. Teachers need to be skilled in all of them if they are to embrace the complexity of processes and products of project work.

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