Karin Schmidlin

Beyond the Classroom

Beyond the Classroom: Constructivist Approaches to Holistic Student Assessment in a Project-Based Online Design Course

This is the second of three papers for my comprehensive PhD exam, March 2024

Abstract

This paper argues for integrating constructivist learning theory into the assessment of students in collaborative, project-based learning (PjBL) environments, specifically in online settings. The paper demonstrates that traditional assessment methods primarily concentrating on individual accomplishments are inadequate for assessing the intricate and dynamic learning experiences promoted in collaborative PjBL. The paper explores how constructivist assessments might give more importance to the learning process, promote reflective practices, and individualize the educational experience to better equip students for the complexities of the modern world. By encouraging active student involvement in learning activities and the assessment process, constructivism is well-suited to the digital era's dynamic and interconnected nature of information. It emphasizes the need for assessments that not only gauge the acquisition of information but also the capacity to apply, synthesize, and innovate outside the confines of the classroom. Adopting such assessment methods has a significant impact on providing an avenue for more efficient and purposeful educational experiences that meet the needs of students in the 21st-century.

 

Keywords: Constructivist learning theory, holistic assessment, project-based learning (PjBL), collaborative learning, student-centred pedagogy, reflective practice, 21st-century skills

1. Introduction

2. Literature Review

3. Constructivist Learning Theory History

4. Holistic Assessment

5. Challenges & Benefits

6. Recommendations for Future Research

7. Conclusion

References

1. Introduction

The proliferation of various learning theories over the past century, especially after the digital revolution of the late 20th century, has significantly enhanced our understanding of learning interactions. This paper delves into the domain where project-based learning (PjBL) converges with the social dimensions of learning, focusing on holistic student assessment. This vantage point is essential for analyzing and understanding the complex and interconnected dynamics of student interactions and collaborative knowledge building within online, technologically rich learning environments. Holistic assessment aligns with the idea of transforming from an assessment of learning to an assessment for learning (Gardner, 2012). In this paper, I apply constructivist learning theory as the theoretical framework, with a spotlight on its pivotal role in shaping collaborative learning, which is defined as “students participate in small-group activities in which they share their knowledge and expertise” (Scager et al., 2016, p. 1; see also Kirschner, 2001). Constructivism is a theory of learning and meaning formation. It suggests that individuals develop new understandings by connecting what they already know and believe about the world with ideas and knowledge they encounter (Richardson, 2003). It is based on the concepts of student autonomy and experiential learning and holds that learners actively construct knowledge rather than passively receiving it (Agopian, 2022; Bada, 2015; K. R. Clark, 2018; Jonassen, 1992; Twomey Fosnot, 2005; von Glasersfeld, 2005). In a collaborative classroom, students autonomously engage in their learning journey and collaborate with peers to conduct research and develop projects demonstrating their comprehension of the material (Bell, 2010). Dym et al. (2005) support this notion. They observed that project-based courses promote the acquisition of new skills and competencies, such as teamwork and problem-solving. In this context, constructivism underscores the significance of holistic assessment practices that capture the diverse outcomes of collaborative team projects, recognizing that learning in a project-based context extends beyond individual achievement to include group dynamics, problem-solving, and critical thinking.

Peer assessment is frequently cited as a core constructivist assessment methodology in PjBL (Fu et al., 2019; Homayouni, 2022; Q. Wang et al., 2022; Wang et al., 2023; Yen et al., 2023; Yu, 2011). Having students assess their peers aligns with the constructivist philosophy of learners participating in the evaluation process critically and collaboratively, providing a greater awareness of their learning path and that of their peers. However, the effectiveness of peer assessment has raised some critiques. I will explore the challenges and benefits of this method in more detail in section 4.

Lastly, I aim to examine some of the criticisms of constructivism, primarily its Western-centric origins, influenced mainly by male thinkers. This critique is important because it highlights the potential limitations and prejudices within constructivist ideas and its inadvertent disregard of diverse cultural contexts. I argue that this limitation is especially relevant in the context of student assessment, which necessitates a more inclusive and culturally sensitive approach. In addressing these concerns, I imagine an assessment framework compatible with constructivist principles that is inclusive, culturally sensitive, and considerate of learners' different experiences and contexts. The following sections provide a more in-depth examination of how constructivist theories may develop to meet the demands of a globally diverse educational landscape, particularly in online PjBL assessment.

2. Literature Review

With this literature review, my main objective was to examine current holistic assessment trends from a constructivist perspective, particularly in PjBL. I focused on traditional assessment methods' benefits and limitations in measuring team and individual learning performance. The goal was to identify gaps in existing knowledge and determine how my research could contribute to or challenge current understandings of assessment in project-based learning. To frame this literature review, I first created a Venn diagram with my study's most relevant search keywords (Luker, 2009). I started with the keywords project-based learning, constructivist learning theory, and assessment, then expanded my focus by exploring the intersections between these keywords, allowing me to conduct a more detailed search and identify new search terms. Luker calls this method of identifying relevant literature “the bedraggled daisy” (p.81) and offers a comprehensive and actionable process for conducting a literature review. I identified a few highly cited articles in the UBC library database and JStor [1] to narrow my focus further. Then, I utilized ConnectedPapers [2] to create a visual graph of how these papers are connected and applied the snowballing method to find additional, relevant works.

Constructivist Learning Theory

Constructivism marks a paradigm shift from behaviourism, which emphasizes observable behaviours, reinforcement, and the instructor as the topic expert (Cooper, 1993). Some constructivist researchers challenge the idea of learning through the passive reception of information and rote memorization and favour the constructivist notion of hands-on, collaborative learning experiences (Clark, 2018; Wang et al., 2023). Von Glasersfeld (1998) goes a step further to state that "knowledge cannot be transmitted" (pp. 23–28). With its learner-centred focus, constructivism prioritizes the students' involvement in creating their understanding of the world (Nurrenbern, 2001) and sees learning as an active process. In this vein, students are active agents in constructing meaning and knowledge (Agopian, 2022; Bada, 2015; K. R. Clark, 2018; Jonassen, 1992; Twomey Fosnot, 2005; von Glasersfeld, 1998; Wang et al., 2023) via their experiences and reflecting on those experiences (Jonassen, 1992). The idea that learners actively create their knowledge is supported by evidence from neurobiology and cognitive science (Dehaene, 2021; Twomey Fosnot, 2005). During the learning process, there is a strong emphasis on social interactions and teamwork (Cortázar et al., 2022) and the instructor's role shifts from simply disseminating knowledge to that of a facilitator (Er et al., 2021; Frank et al., 2003). The goal of learning is to allow students to connect deeply with the content while developing valuable skills instead of memorizing facts. Therefore, constructivism assumes that learners construct knowledge through reasoning, critical thinking, self-regulation, and reflection. However, despite this need for a more student-centred focus, many university programs still rely predominantly on traditional lecture-based instruction, as outlined in the paper by Alt and Raichel (2022) and Assen et al. (2016). As Diana et al. (2021) point out, constructivism "changes the learning paradigm from teacher-centred to student-centred learning" (p. 1). This student-centredness is echoed by other researchers (Arkun Kocadere & Ozgen, 2012; Leow & Neo, 2023; Sioukas, 2023), making constructivism one of the most influential learning theories in the 21st-century.

Constructivism and PjBL

Constructivism aligns well with the tenets of PjBL, especially in design education. Arkun Kocadere and Ozgen's (2012) evaluation of an introductory design course through a constructivist lens underscores the theory’s profound influence on design education, specifically its support in fostering creativity and critical thinking in a student-centred environment. This approach aligns with Bruner's (1986) concept of the ‘spiral curriculum,’ which also champions the constructivist principle of building on students’ prior knowledge to foster new learning. In an example of feedback as effective scaffolding, where researchers assessed the prior knowledge of students and employed a variety of outcome measures (Goodman et al., 2004), the authors concluded that “increasing the specificity of feedback positively affected practice and performance” (p. 248). Furthermore, the study highlights that increasing the feedback may be more beneficial for students at the beginning of the course but discourages exploration and, in some cases, even undermines the learning needed for later, more independent performance (see also Clark, 2009).

When it comes to PjBL, Jonassen (1992), as well as Savery and Duffy (1995), encourage using constructivist frameworks in instructional technology, which involves using real-world problems to promote deep learning. This viewpoint is also shared by Blumenfeld et al. (1991) in their support for PjBL. The significance of feedback in this learning process is vital. Goodman et al. (2004) stress that targeted and exploratory feedback enhances learning.

Collaborative Learning

Research demonstrates that effective collaborative learning in a constructivist context depends on balancing student autonomy and providing them with challenging tasks. Scager et al. (2016) highlight the significance of student ownership and the thoughtful design of assignments in improving group collaboration. Similarly, Er et al. (2021) and Leow and Neo (2023) contribute to this idea by emphasizing the need to match collaborative tasks with students' future career paths. The findings from these studies suggest that a carefully designed collaborative learning environment can effectively prepare students to navigate the complexities of the contemporary professional landscape.

Assessment in Constructivist Learning Environments

In the realm of assessment, constructivism calls for re-evaluating traditional methods that primarily focus on summative assessment, such as end-of-term exams. McNamara (2001) points out that these traditional methods do not sufficiently focus on students' agency.

Peer and Self-Assessment. There is a growing trend towards formative assessment in PjBL, including ongoing peer assessment and multiple iterations of self-reflection, all essential components of constructivist learning theory, enabling students to actively participate in the evaluation process. Alt and Raichel (2022) examine the significance of peer assessment in project-based learning, highlighting its contribution to developing lifelong learning skills, a premise that aligns with constructivist theory. While some researchers emphasize the benefits of peer assessment and its strong correlation with enhanced cognitive capabilities (Homayouni, 2022; Yen et al., 2023), others express reservations about the effectiveness of peer assessment in fostering collaborative learning. They also question the assumption that students possess the requisite skills to critically evaluate their peers’ work (Cevik, 2015; Gurbanov, 2016). Additionally, some point out that peer assessment can have a detrimental effect on students’ well-being (Wang et al., 2023). Furthermore, student motivation to engage in peer assessments may be impacted, especially in large classes when there is a significant gap in peers' prior knowledge (Huisman et al., 2018; Patchan & Schunn, 2015; see also Wang et al., 2023). Chen and Klahr (1999) delve deeper into peer assessment by highlighting the significance of variable control strategies in assessment, mainly teaching students to design their experiments, and encouraging critical thinking over memorization, a fundamental principle of constructivist learning theory. Dym et al. (2005) emphasize the need for assessment approaches that are in line with constructivist ideas and support the student's overall learning journey. In a study on online learning, in their research, Wang et al. (2023) present a practical peer evaluation approach that is specifically tailored for online project-based learning (PjBL) while also adhering to the principles of constructivism.

Constructivism in Online Learning Environments

The work by Awuor et al. (2022) on teamwork competencies in an engineering course examines how careful planning is required when shifting PjBL to an online environment, suggesting that the same quality of collaboration, reflection, and scaffolding are needed in remote settings to provide a successful learning experience beyond “a mere scripted process of reading text, watching videos, completing virtual worksheets” (p. 4). In Agopian's (2022) study, the author explores the application of social constructivism in the context of online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is consistent with Vygotsky's (1978) focus on the social components of learning, indicating that knowledge is formed via interactions within a community. The study demonstrates how digital platforms may facilitate the development of a community of learners by encouraging discussion. However, the well-established practice of compulsory participation in online discussion forums can be challenging in a course based on constructivist principles (Gulati, 2008), as forcing students to participate and share their thoughts publicly might be “removing the choice of learning in silence” (p. 189). Overall, the adaptability of constructivist principles to various learning contexts, including online platforms, underscores the theory's continuing relevance.

Criticism of Constructivism

The constructivist approach has also been scrutinized and critiqued, particularly for its Western centricity, disregarding other ways of knowing, as Bowers (2005) examined. The work by (von Glasersfeld, 1998) challenges the constructivist notion regarding knowledge creation and proposes an innovative way of thinking known as radical constructivism. From this perspective, knowledge isn't about accurately reflecting the real world; instead, it functions as a practical tool for adjusting to the difficulties encountered in life. He asserts that multiple perspectives can coexist, thereby fostering a learning environment that is more inclusive and values diversity. Garrison (1998), building on John Dewey’s work, highlights the need for education to extend beyond simply cognitive aspects. He is promoting a pragmatic social constructivism that integrates the body, its actions, and emotions into the learning process.

Feminist Views of Constructivism

Berg and Lie (1995) stress the significance of including gender in constructivist discussions, while Locher and Prügl (2001) explore how feminism and constructivism connect. Boghossian (2006) suggests a more nuanced perspective on how knowledge creation influences power dynamics within the constructivist context.

This literature review provides the groundwork for exploring how these principles may be more widely integrated into current assessment methods in PjBL to promote self-regulated, lifelong learning in students. In the subsequent sections, I will explore these concepts in further detail.

[1] https://www.jstor.org/)

[2] https://www.connectedpapers.com/)

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3. Constructivist Learning Theory: A Short History

The conceptual roots of constructivism trace back to ancient times, with the Socratic methods of inquiry and dialogue laying an early foundation for what would eventually evolve into constructivist thought (Bowers, 2005). However, the more formal development of constructivist learning theory, based on the works of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when educators and researchers called for a more student-centred approach (Nurrenbern, 2001). Constructivism states that learners construct knowledge through experiences and reflect on them (Jonassen, 1992; Sioukas, 2023). In contrast to the dominant behavioristic views, modern theories of learning and motivation propose that students are cognitively engaged and do not passively absorb knowledge provided through lectures (Nurrenbern, 2001; Piaget et al., 1929; Schunk, 1998; Schwartz et al., 2009; Vygotsky, 1978; Wolters et al., 1996). Constructivism has been extensively applied and examined in several educational settings, particularly concerning the evolving nature of education in the 21st-century. The theory consists of two primary branches, as Njai (2021) stated. The first branch is cognitive constructivism, which originates from Piaget's theory of cognitive development (Piaget, 1977; Piaget et al., 1980). He emphasized that students are active and motivated learners, and knowledge creation arises from their actions and reflections. According to von Glasersfeld (2005), Piaget understood knowledge not as a copy of reality but rather “arising from actions and the learner’s reflection on them” (p.4). The second branch of constructivism is social constructivism, based on sociocultural theory, which brought the critical role of social interactions and collaborative learning to the forefront of constructivist thought (Vygotsky, 1978; see also Ormrod, 2011).

Constructivist Scholars            

Jean Piaget, a renowned Swiss scientist, is often regarded as one of the key figures in the development of contemporary constructivist philosophy. His academic work spanned over half a century and produced numerous books and hundreds of articles. It was during his earlier writings on children’s conceptions of the world that he started using the term ‘constructivism’ (Piaget et al., 1929). This extensive research on cognitive development processes—the nature of intelligence and how it develops emphasizes the crucial role of interaction between the learner's prior experience and their understanding of the world in forming new knowledge. Piaget is as much an epistemological philosopher as a psychologist and biologist. Indeed, he perceived that by examining the development of cognitive processes during childhood, one can unlock the very foundation of human knowledge (Kolb, 2015). Stated most simply, Piaget’s theory describes how one's experience shapes intelligence. Intelligence is not an inherent internal trait but arises because of the interaction between the person and their surroundings.

Piaget's theory underscored the significance of cognitive development stages, positing that learners actively build their cognitive realities. Piaget was not an educator and, in fact, wrote very little about teaching and pedagogy (Sjøberg, 2010). He had a PhD in biology, and his research focused primarily on how organisms adapted to their environment. He used mathematical logic to express these ideas. Hence, it is unsurprising that his theory has a strong appeal to educators from well-structured domains such as mathematics and science fields (Tobias & Duffy, 2009).

Jerome Bruner. Throughout the twentieth century, these foundational concepts underwent further refinement and expansion. Piaget's work was recognized in America due in no small part to the parallel work of the cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner (Kolb, 2015). Bruner saw in the growing knowledge of cognitive developmental processes the scientific foundations for a theory of instruction, and this idea became a guiding objective and a great challenge to educators. He enhanced the concept of constructivism with his work on discovery learning, highlighting the significance of students independently discovering facts and connections (Bruner, 1986; Ratner & Bruner, 1977). Bruner's work reinforced the notion that learning is an active process whereby students generate new ideas by building upon their existing knowledge.

Lev Vygotsky. Simultaneously, constructivism gained a crucial social aspect because of the contributions made by Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist and philosopher. His work was virtually unknown in the West (Sjøberg, 2010) until the translation of Thought and Language in the 1960s (Vygotsky et al., 1962). He contended that knowledge acquisition inherently relies on social interactions, emphasizing the significance of language and culture in developing cognitive abilities (Vygotsky, 1978). Vygotsky viewed tests and other forms of traditional assessment that only focus on the learner’s individual problem-solving abilities as inadequate and argued that progress in knowledge acquisition is achieved through social interaction when the learner collaborates with a more skilled peer or adult. He called this “the Zone of Proximal Development” (p. 86). Piaget and Vygotsky are often seen as being on opposite sides of constructivism. However, as Sjøberg (2010) notes, some of the differences in their work were due to very different research agendas. And "while Piaget was interested in epistemology and knowledge per se, Vygotsky was more interested in understanding the social and cultural conditions for human learning," therefore making his work more relevant for educators (p.489).

The concepts of distributed cognition and collective intelligence, which recognize knowledge and understanding as being dispersed across humans, objects, technologies, and the surrounding environment, have significantly contributed to Vygotsky’s social branch of constructivism. In this context, learning is influenced by an individual's internal cognitive processes, external resources, and social interactions that support learning (Hollan et al., 2000).

John Dewey. Parallel to these advancements, the American philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey emphasized the importance of experience in learning. He advocated for a more experiential and student-centered approach in classrooms (Dewey, 1916). Dewey's work established the structure for learning through projects and hands-on experiences, which closely matched the core principles of constructivism.

Jean Lave, an American anthropologist, is well-known for her research on situated learning, which highlights learning as a social phenomenon that takes place within a specific environment or community of practice (CoP) (Lave, 2019; Lave & Wenger, 1991; see also O’Meara, 2020). This concept proposes that learners construct knowledge by active participation in social and real-world activities rather than through lectures from an instructor, connecting it to the tenets of PjBL. Lave and her coauthor, Etienne Wenger, spoke of learning as a legitimate participation in socially structured activities (Lave & Wenger, 1991). By incorporating learning into meaningful contexts and fostering a community of practice with shared interests and objectives, students can gain practical skills, enhance their understanding, and successfully apply theoretical knowledge in real-life situations, thus rendering the learning process more relevant and meaningful.

Seymour Papert. Extending into the digital age, Papert, a protégé of Piaget, made significant contributions to constructivism, particularly his more profound understanding of how working with computers might contribute to learning based on some of Piaget’s key ideas (Beynon, 2017). Papert agreed with the constructivist notion that students construct their understanding and knowledge of the world through experiences. However, his unique contribution to constructivist thought was the concept of “tools-to-think” (Crook, 2017; Papert, 1980), like the Logo programming language for children, to aid in learning through tangible object construction. Born in South Africa in 1928, Papert later moved to the United States, where his work spanned several decades and influenced a broad range of disciplines, including artificial intelligence, computer science, and education. He championed accessible technology with his “low floors and high ceilings” notion (Papert, 1980), meaning technology should be easy to use for novice users while also allowing for advanced work as users' expertise increases.  Papert's work remains highly relevant in the 21st-century. In a world increasingly dominated by technology, he foresaw the significance of students becoming creators, not just consumers of technological artifacts. His educational vision, emphasizing student-centred, inquiry-based learning, has left a lasting impact on contemporary education.

Anna Sfard is a prominent scholar in mathematics education and is known for her contributions to constructivism. The author defines thinking as a mode of communication (Sfard, 2008), introducing the term "commognition" (p. 83) to describe the interconnection between communication and cognition. This concept suggests that thinking is fundamentally an internal discourse that challenges and broadens conventional perspectives on how knowledge and understanding develop during the learning process. Her work highlights the social and dynamic aspects of learning, the significance of communication and language in creating knowledge, and the influence of cultural and social environments on cognitive development.

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4. Constructivist Approaches to Holistic Assessment

Before delving into the specifics of holistic assessment in PjBL, it is essential to consider who stands to gain from existing assessment approaches. Traditional assessment methods have often been criticized for serving primarily as tools for instructors to assign marks and for administrators to rank students. However, in the context of constructivist learning, where students are responsible for regulating themselves and the learning process, it is imperative to reconsider the purpose of assessment. Adams (2006) argues that assessment is an active process of uncovering and acknowledging shared understanding rather than simply evaluating performance. In this and the following sections, I intend to further explain this reconceptualization by suggesting assessment methods that not only measure individual and collaborative contributions but do so in a way that reflects the holistic spirit of the constructivist framework.

Holistic Assessment

I define holistic assessment as a comprehensive evaluation of a student’s learning journey, including progress and overall performance, considering various factors and contextual dimensions. In contrast to traditional assessment, which may narrowly focus on academic achievement, holistic assessment, in my view, encompasses cognitive, emotional, and social aspects. In my design course, for example, holistic assessment focuses on evaluating the whole student. This includes formative and summative assessment but also acknowledges that learning is influenced by several contextual elements such as personal experience, cultural background, obstacles and challenges, attitudes, and overall well-being. In the context of my in-person project-based courses [3], I allow student teams to select from multiple options for their final project presentation, considering cultural and individual preferences. Three options are available: an in-person team presentation in front of the class, a pre-recorded Zoom session with all team members on camera, and a pre-recorded session with audio only.In practice, extensions are given generously to account for personal challenges the students may face during the course. Students are encouraged to resubmit assignments as often as they like to improve their grade by incorporating the feedback they receive. My primary objective is to provide a grade and motivate students to recognize their progression throughout the course. Subsequently, many students wrote in their final reflection paper that this ongoing feedback loop allowed them to take ownership of their learning.

Beyond Assessing Outcomes

Constructivism within PjBL requires a nuanced approach to assessment. It is critical to move beyond assessing the actual outcome of an activity to encompass team dynamics and the individual student's contributions throughout the learning journey. The focus on the end product and the complex collaborative process aligns with constructivist philosophy, which perceives learning as interactive and ongoing. If we conceptualize teaching as "attending to someone else's knowledge" (Dehaene, 2021, p.), within a constructivist paradigm, assessments should support learners in building their understanding of the material, necessitating carefully crafted assessment methods beyond the traditional measurable outcomes. According to van Gennip et al. (2010), assessment can provide students valuable information about their abilities and weaknesses. It can also guide them in determining the necessary actions to improve their performance on subsequent tasks. This is particularly helpful in project-based learning within ill-structured domains (ISD) like the humanities, arts, and design, where subjective interpretation and creative exploration are paramount, as discussed by Spiro and DeSchryver (2009). ISDs are characterized by ambiguous and unpredictable attributes. Within these fields, such as the design courses I teach, traditional methods of direct instructional guidance and forms of assessment are inadequate because they depend on the availability of clearly defined outcomes, which are not present in ISDs.

Self-Reflection

Central to PjBL is an authentic inquiry or complex challenge, frequently resulting in the creation of an artifact or product (Blumenfeld et al., 1991). PjBL keeps students motivated and underscores the importance of reflection on the learning journey. As a result, reflection emerges as an essential assessment component, including reflective essays, weekly journals, and final course reflections.

Assessing teamwork

Peer Assessment. Topping (1998) defines peer assessment as a type of collaborative evaluation in which students assign grades and offer feedback on their fellow students' work. Building on this understanding of assessment, peer- and self-assessment emerge as critical tools within the constructivist framework (Cevik, 2015; Gurbanov, 2016;Wang et al., 2023). These methods foster academic and essential life skills such as self-regulation and critical thinking (Alt & Raichel, 2022). Peer assessment involves students evaluating their peers' work and offering constructive feedback based on the rubrics provided by the instructor (Fu et al., 2019). As Falchikov and Goldfinch (2000) demonstrated, peer assessment can be as successful as instructor-provided assessment. Investigations by Planas-Lladó et al. (2021) provide helpful insights into the value of peer assessment, highlighting the complicated interaction between group dynamics, individual contributions, and the perceived fairness and effectiveness of the assessment process. The authors noted a favourable relationship between effective collaboration and higher performance marks, implying that a well-functioning team typically leads to better project outcomes. However, they also observed that the greater the weight of teamwork in the final grade, the stricter students become in their assessments, indicating a perceived higher stake in teamwork performance.

An example that highlights the benefits of peer assessment is the recent study by Wang et al. (2023). The authors discuss the benefits of employing online peer assessment in project-based courses rooted in a constructivist approach. They developed a framework called Online Progressive Peer Assessment (OPPA), intending to enhance students' problem-solving abilities and creativity. These are vital competencies for navigating the complexities of the 21st-century. OPPA facilitates continuous and cooperative peer review, enabling students to assess and refine their work based on the feedback they receive from their peers. While constructivist theory aligns well with peer assessment techniques and its focus on critical engagement, leading to a greater understanding of a student's learning journey and that of their peers, there are a few drawbacks that I would like to examine in the next section.

Limitations of peer assessment. One practical difficulty with peer assessment is that both students and instructors may be reluctant to rely on assessments created by students as the primary basis for grading (Cho et al., 2006; Cho & MacArthur, 2011; Rushton, 1993; Sluijsmans et al., 2001; Stefani, 1994). This can be particularly problematic for international students accustomed to viewing the instructor as the sole authority responsible for giving feedback and assigning grades (Bowers, 2005). Additionally, the reliance on peer assessment assumes that students have the necessary skills to critically evaluate their peers' work, which may not always be the case, as Cevik (2015) and Gurbanov (2016) investigate in their work. Furthermore, the use of peer- and self-assessment requires students to cultivate the ability to critically evaluate their own and their peers' work, a skill that many students lack and typically takes longer to develop than is available in a standard course structure (Cevik, 2015; Gurbanov, 2016). Furthermore, student motivation to engage in peer assessments may be impacted, especially in large classes when there is a significant gap in peers' prior knowledge (Huisman et al., 2018; Patchan & Schunn, 2015; see also Wang et al., 2023). This leads to a dilemma where the constructivist ideal of peer-led learning and assessment clashes with the practical challenges of ensuring high-quality and meaningful feedback that fosters learning.

Moreover, peer assessment is a social activity that is influenced by interpersonal factors, such as peer pressure and the fear of criticism when assigning low marks (Barron, 2003; Cartney, 2010; Harris & Brown, 2013; Panadero et al., 2013; Smit & Birri, 2014). Through my experience teaching project-based courses, I have observed how the social pressures of assessing peers can impact the dynamics within a team. One instance was a group of students who mutually awarded each other the highest marks to maintain amicable relations while collaborating on their group project.

Spiro and DeSchryver (2009) call for a more nuanced, student-guided assessment form. The emphasis is on the process by which students engage with learning materials, develop ideas, collaborate with others, and demonstrate creativity and critical thinking in their work. In my design field, challenges arise because establishing consistent assessment benchmarks in this ill-defined domain can lead to bias and potential grading inconsistencies. The emphasis on process over outcome requires a more time-consuming and personalized method of assessment, which can be challenging to implement in large classes. Although a process-oriented assessment is the preferable method, its implementation might pose challenges in courses with high enrollment.

Self-Regulation. Fostering students' self-regulated learning (SRL) can be challenging in PjBL. Self-regulation refers to an individual's deliberate and conscious activities to guide their thoughts, emotions, and behaviours to achieve specific objectives (Zimmerman, 1989, 1994). In contrast to the dominant behavioristic views, modern theories of learning and motivation propose that students are cognitively engaged and do not passively absorb knowledge as it is provided by teachers (Schunk, 1998; Wolters et al., 1996). Frank et al. (2003) point out that in a constructivist learning environment, “lecturing to passive students is replaced by encouraging motivation, tutoring, providing resources, and helping learners to construct their own knowledge” (p. 280), therefore supporting a student’s self-regulation practices. Theory and research on self-regulation highlight the fact that students frequently develop their methods for learning and have control over their motivations, achievements, and social and environmental resources (Zimmerman, 1994). Students must navigate goal setting, monitoring, reflection, and motivation throughout a project. Therefore, instructors must design the teaching practices and learning environment with the intention of supporting these processes (English & Kitsantas, 2013).

In summary, the benefits of constructivist assessment in ill-defined domains such as design education are significant. This approach promotes deeper engagement with the subject matter, encouraging students to take ownership of their learning and to view assessment as a part of their learning process rather than a final judgment of their abilities. It fosters critical thinking, creativity, and the ability to self-assess and reflect—invaluable skills in the design field.

[3] INFO 300: Information and Data Design, University of British Columbia, class size: 36, fall 2024. CUXD 105: User Interface Design, Emily Carr University of Art + Design, class size: 17, winter 2024.

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5. Challenges & Benefits

Integrating constructivist principles with holistic assessment in collaborative PjBL can significantly improve educational outcomes, but it is not without challenges. Several researchers have been critical of constructivism in education (Bowers, 2005; R. E. Clark, 2009; Richardson, 2003), arguing that the theory is too open-ended (Mayer, 2009), lacks structure and makes it difficult to effectively measure learning because the theory is based on the individual learner’s experience and overemphasizes student-led discovery and interpretations. This lack of structure in a constructivist classroom may result in subjective assessments that could challenge the objective standards traditionally upheld in education.

Implementing holistic assessment within collaborative project-based environments faces the challenge of maintaining a balance between individual accountability and recognizing the accomplishments of the group. The subjective interpretations and student-led discovery that constructivism encourages can sometimes collide with the need for consistent benchmarks and grading standards, particularly in fields like design, which are inherently ill-defined and open to interpretation.

One of the objections directed specifically against Piaget's work is his failure to consider culturally particular impacts on a learner's cognitive development (Sutherland, 1992). Piaget's subjects grew up in the homogeneous society of Switzerland, a Western culture with its specific ways of thinking. He generally overlooked cultural influences, and only subsequent research revealed that Piaget's research results substantially focused on conventional Western teachings.

Others, particularly in well-defined domains, have criticized the theory’s subjective nature and attack on the rationality of science, where the idea of an individual creating their own knowledge can be problematic (Bentley et al., 2007; Boghossian, 2006). An example from a classroom-based research project by Naylor and Keogh (1999) illustrates this point. In this study, a science teacher participant noted in the exit survey that constructivism states that instruction should begin where the children are and build on their existing knowledge. This, however, could be challenging to achieve, noting that “how can you plan and teach 36 different lessons at the same time?” (p. 99).

Feminist Perspectives on Constructivism

Feminist perspectives on constructivist learning theory (Berg & Lie, 1995; Locher & Prügl, 2001) offer a critical view that emphasizes inclusivity, diversity, gender, and the importance of social context in the learning process. This inclusive viewpoint is particularly relevant in design education, where a human-centred lens provides the overarching learning method. Two feminist researchers who have significantly contributed to the discussion on feminist pedagogy are bell hooks (2014) and Elizabeth Ellsworth (2010). In her influential book "Teaching to Transgress” (Hooks, 2014), she promotes an education that is both transformational and liberating. Hooks emphasizes the need to create an educational environment that empowers both students and instructors. The author's method in her work aligns with constructivist principles as it encourages active engagement and analytical reasoning while emphasizing examining power dynamics and cultural contexts. Elizabeth Ellsworth's examination of constructivist learning theory, namely in her influential article "Why Doesn't This Feel Empowering?" (2010), questions the assumptions of the universally shared student experience. She advocates for the recognition of the many ways through which individuals construct knowledge, shaped by their distinct cultural and social contexts. Ellsworth's critique underlines the need to recognize and accommodate students’ diverse learning needs and experiences.

With constructivism's focus on active learning, where students generate their own understanding and knowledge, it is tempting to see the cognitive processes that occur as students participate in hands-on activities as a universal solution for good learning. Yet, in my teaching practice, students often absorb content during my lectures, particularly when I tell a good story, appearing passive but actively integrating concepts with their own experiences, a process not evident until verbalized in the following discussion and applied to their project. This point of thinking that active learning, i.e., engaging in appropriate cognitive processes during learning, requires active instructional teaching methods is what Mayer (2009) refers to as "the constructivist teaching fallacy" p.185.  

Despite these challenges, a constructivist approach to assessment has numerous benefits in project-based learning. It encourages meaningful inquiry and tackles intricate problems that demand students to fully interact with educational resources, promote collaboration, and demonstrate creativity and critical thinking. Spiro and DeSchryver's (2009) research advocates for a nuanced, student-guided assessment process emphasizing the learning journey over the final product. This approach cultivates a reflective component within assessment, encouraging students to take ownership of their learning and see assessment as part of their educational development rather than a final evaluation of their skills.

Although implementing constructivist assessment might be challenging, its benefits in promoting meaningful engagement, critical thinking, and a deeper understanding of the subject matter are significant. It prepares students not just for the completion of an academic program but also equips them with lifelong learning skills and adaptability in their chosen fields.

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6. Recommendations for Future Research

Future research opportunities could investigate the impact of constructivist holistic assessment on educational practices and learning environments. This research should focus on the long-term advantages it offers in preparing students to meet the collaborative requirements of the modern workplace and beyond. The purpose of research is to provide practical guidelines to help educators design and implement holistic assessments based on constructivism in team projects, integrating insights from the studies (Wang et al., 2023; Yen et al., 2023; Yu, 2011) that emphasize the positive impact of student involvement in assessment procedures. The work by Falchikov and Goldfinch (2000) provides valuable guidelines for implementing peer assessment. For example, the authors suggest that instead of a complex rubric with too many dimensions, successful peer assessment might utilize “an overall global mark with well-understood criteria” (p. 317) and involve students in developing these criteria.

Exploring the limitations, biases, and gender in peer assessment might be worth exploring. The research on gender effects, in particular, has been mixed (Tucker, 2014), with some research showing women to rate higher on teamwork skills overall than men (Alfonseca et al., 2006; Amason & Sapienza, 1997) and male students having a more positive attitude toward peer assessment (Topping, 2010).

Research may also consider the lack of institutional support and other obstacles to implementation, as Spiro and DeSchryver (2009) outlined. The authors emphasize the necessity of student-centred methods of assessment. Furthermore, future research needs to examine the impact of group dynamics on learning outcomes and develop assessment methods that accurately reflect the varied outcomes of collaborative team projects.

Lastly, it is vital to investigate the potential expansion and standardization of constructivist assessments to establish a level of dependability equivalent to existing assessment methods. In this regard, the work of Schwartz et al. (2009) on Preparation for Future Learning (PFL) assessments can offer valuable insights into creating assessments that evaluate a student’s ability to apply knowledge in new and unexpected contexts and support lifelong learning.

The objective of any future research topic is to provide a complete understanding of constructivist holistic assessment that supports students' continuous development and adaptability in a rapidly changing and complex world.

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7. Conclusion

Integrating constructivist learning theory with holistic assessments in collaborative project-based learning marks a significant shift in educational assessment methodologies. By embracing a constructivist perspective, instructors and students transition to a framework emphasizing active participation in the learning process, which holds great promise if done carefully. Constructivism challenges traditional assessment frameworks and advocates for a student-centred pedagogy that recognizes the complex and dynamic nature of knowledge acquisition. In collaborative project-based courses, assessments must prioritize both the process of creating an artifact and each student's continuous and reflective experience. A re-evaluation of assessment is particularly relevant in the digital age when the capacity to navigate, synthesize, and generate new information is essential. Constructivist approaches to assessment provide a solid basis for creating compelling, meaningful educational experiences that align with the needs and demands of living fully in the 21st-century.

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Karin B. Schmidlin, PhD student

Department of Language and Literacy Education (LLED), Faculty of Education, University of British Columbia. Supervisors: Dr. Leah Macfadyen & Dr. Heather O'Brien Committee Members: Dr. Jillianne Code Dr. Patrick Parra Pennefather