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How to Grade Project-Based Experiential Learning Collaborations

Jordan Levy

A question that often comes up when faculty are considering incorporating experiential learning with real host companies into their curriculum is, “How do you grade the students?” This is a great question and it’s essential that faculty work this out before the semester begins in order to adequately set student (and company) expectations for their engagement together.

While it may be tempting to rely solely on the final product or presentation to determine students’ grades, both the student and the host company will greatly benefit by having ongoing student assessments that are designed to help them understand how they are doing and suggest specific areas for improvements if necessary.

CapSource teamed up with Dr. Ann Lambros, former Assistant Dean of Education at Wake Forest School of Medicine and a project-based learning expert, to share some of the best advice and resources to use when grading project-based learning experiences with real third-party clients.

Our top six tips for grading experiential learning projects: 

1. Establish expectations and milestones with flexible timelines before the project begins

At the beginning of the project, the students and the host company should be clear on the parameters that are guiding the project and the tasks that the students are meant to accomplish. It’s important that the project set-up documents define the business challenge the students are being tasked to solve, the deliverables the students supposed to create, and the obligations of the students and companies to meet and collaborate. CapSource uses project charters to outline project expectations so faculty can monitor student performance compared to the original plan.

It’s particularly helpful to pre-define deliverables in the form of milestones from the get-go of the project. The more granular you can get with students, the easier it is to measure if they completed each milestone effectively. An example of this for competitive research might be, “Identify and profile 8 competing organizations, compare each of these companies with your host across at least 5 key metrics that relate to the overall industry and business model.” In this case, it should be abundantly clear to the students what you’re looking for and how you’re measuring success. If students are not on track or their performance does not meet expectations, faculty can intervene early and redirect students as needed.

2. Utilize peer evaluations within the student team

A benefit of group-based projects is that students can help assess their own performance and the performance of their team members. Dr. Lambros uses an Individual Student Assessment to evaluate and grade students as part of a team over the course of the semester. This type of assessment measures each student’s contributions, while also helping to measure productivity, progress, and equity within the group. These types of assessments are crucial for proactively resolving internal conflicts or misunderstandings before they impact the overall engagement. Peer evaluations can also be helpful in allowing faculty to easily differentiate between free riders and top performers so that everyone isn’t inevitably getting the same grade based on overall project performance. These evaluations can also be helpful in providing faculty with context to coach students through their own managerial techniques like being more inclusive of alternative ideas, facilitating discussions with less engaged/outgoing students, and improving overall communication within the group.

3. Administer regular performance reviews with students

Most large, established organizations administer performance reviews with individual team members regularly to help measure performance over time and ensure there’s clarity over performance quality. As with full-time jobs, performance reviews can be a concrete way for faculty to evaluate their students’ performance in areas that are critical to the success of the engagement. If designed correctly, 2-3 individual performance reviews throughout the engagement should allow students to reflect on their personal performance, understand how they’re improving over time, and hone in on specific areas that require improvement. In order to be most effective, performance reviews should include stop / start analyses as well as categorical feedback such as teamwork, leadership, quality/operational excellence, and aptitude/engagement. We recommend using a scale of 1-5, with 3 being “meets expectations.” We often recommend concretely defining the whole scale for each category so that students understand how they are specifically performing in different categories along with what they can do to achieve higher performance levels in the future. Additionally, these types of performance reviews tend to be a great way to prepare students for the professional work environment since it’s a typical process that’s utilized by HR and management in the real world.

4. Solicit feedback from host companies

Since students are working with real business professionals at host companies, it should be expected that they meaningfully contribute to the student evaluation process. In most cases, companies are really only able to shed light on the performance of the overall group and not the performance of specific team members. For that reason, feedback from the companies should really be used to assess the overall progress with the engagement and health of the team dynamics. In most cases it’s easiest to solicit feedback from companies with a quick online form, short survey, or email, which should touch on areas like professionalism, timeliness, and overall quality. Other things to measure might include confidence in the team’s ability to deliver per the engagement goals and overall team effectiveness. We always suggest using a mix of quantitative and qualitative measures with the companies because that tends to be more robust and useful feedback for the students. We also recommend having faculty mentors check-in with companies at least 2-3 times throughout the engagement to solicit additional qualitative feedback and ensure everything is going smoothly. We would like to point out that although company feedback should contribute meaningfully to the student grades, it’s really the responsibility of the faculty to assess individual student performance.

5. Administer regular check-ins with the student group

We highly recommend administering bi-weekly check-ins with the full team present in order to review feedback, gauge how the project is progressing, discuss upcoming deliverables, assuage concerns, resolve disputes, and overcome challenges. If the faculty is regularly soliciting feedback from both the company and the students, it should be relatively easy to have a fruitful discussion over a period of one hour or less. Company feedback may ultimately inspire new ideas and help the students better organize themselves so that they’re able to meet client expectations.

Peer evaluations are also helpful for uncovering particular challenges and hardships that the team is encountering, which should be resolved as quickly as possible without impacting the company or the project. If your peer evaluations focus on descriptive feedback over judgmental, it will often lead to more productive team check-ins since students will be more collaborative and less defensive.

6. Assess the quality of the ultimate deliverable

In all cases with project-based learning, students should deliver a final presentation with an accompanied report with more details on their findings. These two deliverable formats are crucial. Presentations are a great way for students to develop critical soft skills like presenting professionally and synthesizing research and data into well organized, digestible insights. Written reports are crucial so that the student project and insights can persist beyond the final presentation. It’s also important for students to understand how to organize their insights into a comprehensive report that can be broken down and utilized in the future.

As with most deliverables, students should be graded on the quality of their materials, including its timeliness, relevance, usefulness, and the degree to which they met project goals. Dr. Lambros uses a Final Presentation Assessment, with criteria such as research, originality, and inclusion of multiple perspectives, to grade this part of the project-based learning process. She also recommends that her students include a defense in their argument of why their proposed solution is desirable compared to alternatives to ensure that students have fully synthesized the content and context. Of course, in all cases, it’s helpful to solicit company feedback on final deliverables as well to see if host company personnel as stakeholder believe students were able to perform up to expectations.

Conclusion

Incorporating feedback and assessment at various stages in the project-based learning process can help students get the most out of their experience, while also delivering a fair and balanced final grade at the end of the term. For more information about how to launch a student project or to find more resources on assessment, visit our blog or contact [email protected].