karin schmidlin


Let me introduce you to one of the courses that I am currently teaching and highlight some of the challenges that I experience while attempting to assess each student in an objective and holistic manner. I will argue, further on in this whitepaper, that we might wish to do away with grades entirely so that we can place more of an emphasis on learning rather than ranking our students.

Picture an online, project-based undergraduate design course with 100 students ranging from first to fourth years from any faculty and program in the university. This is BET 350: Customer Experience Design, a course I developed for the University of Waterloo in 2017 and have been teaching ever since. Currently, the course is offered in the fall, winter, and spring semesters with enrollments consistently at 100%. The main goal of the course is to provide students with an opportunity to develop their design skills by working in interdisciplinary teams tackling a real-world problem.I frequently collaborate with various industry partners to present the students in my class with an authentic challenge. The projects for this course range from enhancing the experience of patients at a medical facility in Ontario to developing a mobile solution to a problem faced by a banking institution to developing a white-space solution for businesses that are having difficulty operating because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

One hundred students are enrolled each semester, and for the first half of the course, they move at their own pace through the weekly asynchronous modules and activities to get a feel for the skills they will need for the major project, which is a team project involving students from a variety of disciplines working together.

The course is developed with a constructivist learning theory frame of mind, and it places a high importance on collaborative learning, individual discovery, and creating the connection between the learning materials and the real world setting in which the students will be applying their knowledge.
Constructivist Learning Theory

Constructivism is a school of thought that stresses the necessity of students creating their own knowledge and understanding. This learning method is extensively used in schools throughout the world because it fosters student engagement and critical thinking. Constructivist learning theories offer several essential characteristics and features that made them appealing as a foundation when I designed my course.

First, constructivist theories stress a hands-on approach to education where students are actively involved in developing their own meaning from what they learn rather than passively receiving information from instructors or textbooks. Allowing students toexplore topics via experiential activities allows them to build a better comprehension of subject than traditional lecture-style instruction alone could. Furthermore, this sort of active engagement encourages additional investigation into relevant issues outside of the classroom environment, which can enhance academic performance over time.

Second, constructivism promotes student collaboration by stressing group work on projects or assignments rather than individual activities accomplished independently by each student. Students develop vital skills such as communication, problem solving, and teamwork while also strengthening their understanding of course subjects through peer participation. Furthermore, by working together on projects, students can benefit from multiple viewpoints, which may lead them to fresh discoveries that they would not have considered if they worked alone.

Finally, constructivist approaches frequently incorporate real-world applications so that students may relate the learning materials to their daily lives. This gives actual proof for why particular concepts are vital, while also creating intrinsic motivation owing to their significance beyond merely obtaining excellent marks in school settings, but also having practical worth later in life.

Constructivism as a whole has many benefits, both within and outside of the classroom, which makes it an appealing option for educators who are wanting to engage today's modern student. It served as an invaluable tool in the process of designing this curriculum.

Project-Based Learning

Before I detail some evaluation strategies, I'd want to expand on the advantages of constructivist learning theory and talk about the numerous advantages of project-based courses, particularly those that emphasise teamwork. In general, such courses allow students to improve their communication, collaboration, problem-solving, and critical thinking abilities. Students acquire significant experience working under pressure and meeting deadlines; these abilities will be useful not only throughout their academic careers, but also later in life when entering professional fields such as the digital media industry, where collaboration is vital for success.

Interdisciplinary teamwork, such as the type I described in the introduction, is also beneficial for academic success because it allows individuals from various backgrounds, academic programs, and experiences to contribute unique perspectives, which can lead to innovative outcomes that would not have been possible otherwise.

By working together on a final project, students learn how to effectively communicate ideas and come up with creative solutions to a given complex problem that I outline at the beginning of the semester. Furthermore, by giving each student ownership over the outcome of their team's work, these sorts of learning experiences inspire higher student involvement. The concept of autonomy in a student's learning experience is central to constructivist learning theory. Many of my students utilise the final project as part of their portfolio when applying for their next coop position or employment after graduation.


In my course, there are no tests, midterms, or final exams; instead, I arranged the assessment so that a final digital project and presentation serve as the major evaluation artefacts. Using tests and examinations to evaluate each individual student's contributions, on the other hand, would be a profoundly flawed evaluation technique. In general, I've struggled with determining how to evaluate each student's learning experience and team efforts. I previously used peer-reviews, reflection papers, E-portfolios, and other evaluation methods with varying degrees of effectiveness. They are all time-consuming in such a large course and lack instructional rigour.

However, because of the wide range of student abilities in my course, it can be challenging to provide an appropriate assessment strategy that is tailored specifically for each student's needs and takes effort and hard work into account.

The first step in assessing individual student performance in a team collaboration, is to evaluate each team member’s role within the project. It is important for teachers to understand what tasks were assigned and if these tasks were completed independently or with help from other members of the group. This could provide insight into which individuals took initiative when it came time for completing assignments as well as who was responsible for leading certain aspects of a project's development process. Additionally, by monitoring interactions among group members during class discussions or while working together on projects outside of class hours, instructors may also be able identify any potential conflicts between teammates that could have hindered progress towards goal completion set forth at the beginning stages of planning phase of the project.

However, given the high enrolment numbers of my course and the diversity of technologies employed by each team, tracking group activity has become impossible. Aside from Slack, the primary communication medium for the course, some teams choose WeChat, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, text messaging, or Discord, to name a few.

When designing assessments for project-based design courses it is important to consider both formative and summative evaluations. Formative assessments provide insight into student progress as they work on their projects while summative assessments evaluate overall performance at completion of each assignment or at end when the course objectives have beenmet. Below I outline four assessment methods that might provide more holistic evaluation possibilities for project-based courses, including the benefits and drawbacks for each.

Assessment Method 1 - Customized Assessment

By tailoring the evaluation process, instructors can ensure that students’ projects reflect their individual strengths and weaknesses, while also providing meaningful feedback throughout the course. This allows learners to develop a deep understanding of the material and hone valuable skills in problem-solving, critical thinking, communication and collaboration.

Customized assessment procedures that take into consideration not just a student's ability level, but also their learning preferences, speed, and any other individual characteristics that may impact how they approach problem-solving or creative activities within the course, are critical in ensuring that all students have equal access to success in project-based design courses.

By taking these factors into consideration when creating assessments, instructors can ensure that every single learner receives an equitable evaluation based on his or her own unique strengths and weaknesses rather than being judged, or ranked, against a one size fits all standard model of grading criteria.

However, these kind of student-focused evaluation procedures place a significant strain on the instructor and may not be feasible in a course with a large enrolment, such as the one I am presenting you here.

Assessment Method 2 - Competency-Based Education (CBE)

Competency-Based Education (CBE) has become increasingly popular in recent years, as it allows students to move through the curriculum at their own pace and demonstrate mastery of skills rather than simply completing a set number of hours or course modules. While this approach can be beneficial for some learners, there are also several potential downsides that should be considered when evaluating CBE programs.

The first downside is that CBE may not provide enough structure for certain students who need more guidance and support from teachers to succeed academically. Without traditional classes with regular assignments and due dates, some learners may struggle to stay on track with their studies without consistent reminders from instructors about upcoming deadlines or assessments. Additionally, since student progress is based solely on demonstrating competency in each subject area instead of accumulating credits over time like a traditional school setting would require, there could potentially be gaps in knowledge if they don’t receive adequate instruction along the way.

Because it does not rely solely on numerical data, like traditional grading systems, this method offers instructors more flexibility when evaluating each student's progress throughout the semester, allowing for more comprehensive assessments based on multiple criteria that reflect each individual's unique strengths and weaknesses better than numbers alone would allow.

Assessment Method 3 - E-Portfolios

Another option available for those looking at holistic assessment methods could include E-portfolios where teachers collect evidence over time about what their students know and are able to understand from various sources including quizzes, digital artifacts, written assignments, presentations and so on. These portfolios provide a glimpse of how well a student has learned specific topics while also indicating places where extra assistance may be required before moving on to the next modules.

Assessment Method 4 - Ungrading

Not technically an assessment method, ungrading is a concept that has received significant attention from educators in recent years and may offer an alternate method of authentic and informative learner evaluation. It does not rely on traditional methods of assessment such as tests, quizzes and grades and offers many benefits for both teachers and students alike.

One benefit of ungrading is that it encourages student autonomy in learning. As mentioned above, this is an integral part of constructivist learning theory. By removing the pressure to achieve a certain grade or score, students are able to focus more on their own individual learning goals instead of trying to meet expectations set by an external source like a teacher. This can lead to increased motivation for self-directed learning which can help foster deeper understanding and better retention over time. Additionally, when students are given the freedom to explore topics without fear of judgement, they may be more likely engage with the material at higher levels than if they were simply aiming for a good grade.

Another advantage is that it gives instructors more flexibility in assessing student progress because they don't have to create new tests or grading rubrics every time new material is covered; instead, instructors can simply observe how well each student understands the topic during class discussions or activities. Furthermore, this strategy provides teachers with information into where each individual learner sits academically, allowing modifications to be made to ensure that everyone gets what they need from course materials. To summarise, ungrading has several advantages over standard assessment methods, including fostering independent learning, giving various assessment possibilities, and assisting teachers in gaining insight into complicated classroom dynamics.


The difficulty of assessing students holistically without ranking them is a challenge that many academics face. It is important to create an environment conducive to fostering learning and academic success for all students. In order to assess student performance in a balanced way, it requires educators to look at the whole person instead of just their test scores and letter grades. This means taking into consideration factors such as individual motivation,engagement with course material, ability to work collaboratively with peers on projects and assignments, critical thinking skills developed through class discussions or activities outside of school hours. While many of the evaluation strategies discussed in this whitepaper are suited for small class sizes, many university undergraduate courses are becoming larger. Providing the ideal learning experience with personalised feedback may only be achievable with the assistance of technology.

Sources that inspired this whitepaper

Bowen, J. A., & Ebooks Corporation. (2012). Teaching naked: How moving technology out of your college classroom will improve student learning. (1st ed., pp.153-184). Jossey-Bass.Editor,

Blum, S. D. (Ed.). (2020). Ungrading: Why rating students undermines learning. (First ed., pp.91-104). West Virginia University Press

Davidson, C. N. (2012). Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century. (pp. 105-131). Penguin.

Fugate, J. (2018). Assessment for project-based courses. Journal of Problem Based Learning in Higher Education, 6(2), 153. https://doi.org/10.5278/ojs.jpblhe.v0i0.1864

Garrison, J. (1998). Toward a pragmatic social constructivism. Constructivism and education (pp. 43-60) https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511752865.005

Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A's, praise, and other bribes. Houghton Mifflin Co.

Njai, S. N. (2021). Constructivist pedagogical approaches in higher education: A qualitative case study of students and their learning experiences in a collaborative learning space. (https://www.proquest.com/dissertations-theses/constructivist-pedagogical-approaches-higher/docview/2597796486/se-2

Assessment Challenges for Project-Based Courses

A Whitepaper written for UBC's course INDS 502, Fall 2022