Assessing soft skills in PBL

This week in class we explored the Essential Fluencies as an alternative set of ‘soft skills’ to the General Capabilities in the Australian Curriculum.

One of my students followed up this investigation with the following juicy question:

Essential fluencies seem to structure skills within select criterion, however I am curious as to whether PBL uses these as guides (depending on the student’s PBL objective) or whether students are meant to meet all of these at different stages of their PBL (to achieve a final product)?

If this is a flexible criteria, would using a feedback grid be the most effective way of communicating the development of an idea (as it focusses less on curriculum goals, more on constructive advice)?

I decided to post my answer to part of this question here on the blog:

You’ve asked a good question about skills and standards. My understanding of PBL (and other inquiry-based models) is that assessing skills is just as important as assessing content knowledge.

There are two (opposing) axioms that relate to this:

  1. ‘What gets measured gets done’.
  2. ‘Not everything that matters can be measured; not everything that can be measured matters’.

At the moment I’m inclined to agree with the PBL movers and shakers – that developing ‘soft skills’ should be seen as a vital curriculum goal, just as important as the acquisition of discipline knowledge and technical skills. The argument here is that if we don’t find a way of measuring/assessing soft skills then teachers will continue to sideline them. Because ‘what gets measured gets done’.

The BIE crowd have developed a range of assessment rubrics for the four skills that they identify as most important to PBL specifically: creativity and innovation, presentation/communication, collaboration, and critical thinking. You can find them here:

Of course, the opposing view is that such assessment rubrics lead people to forget the second axiom ‘not everything that matters can be measured’. I know sometimes I’ve watched presentations for example that are awesome, but their awesomeness can’t be explained using the BIE assessment rubric. It’s like all rubrics actually need a criteria labelled “X factor!” for when a piece of work or project does something amazing that we didn’t plan to (or cannot) measure. And sometimes by focussing students so explicitly on assessment rubrics, they can get obsessed with how to ‘game’ the criteria to reach the highest standard, rather than taking risks in their learning to work toward a big-picture goal.

Opposing axioms.

Opposing axioms.

As there is no ‘Ultimate God of PBL’, we are free to use whatever framework we want to think about “soft skills”. We can take up the Essential Fluencies, we can take up the skills foregrounded by BIE, we can use the 4Cs proposed by, or we can use the General Capabilities from the Australian Curriculum.

But ultimately I’d argue that yes, whatever framework you choose, you should find a way of explaining to students the standards you are looking for on a range of criteria, for the particular project they’re working on. Assessment rubric sheets should be designed to make the criteria and expected standards transparent to the learner, and to aid the feed-forward process throughout a project as well as the feed-back process at the end of a project.


I know I haven’t answered all of the parts of this student’s juicy question, and we’ll be talking more about it in class. It may generate another blog post. In the meantime…

  • How would you answer this student’s question?
  • Do you agree that providing assessment rubrics for soft skills is useful for learning in PBL (or otherwise)?

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  1. #1 by Kurt Challinor on August 29, 2016 - 8:05 pm

    A thought provoking post Kelli, thanks for sharing! This ties in really well with where we are at the moment so forgive this rant!

    Our School Wide Learning Outcomes were written 9 years ago based on what was valued at the time. With the introduction of the Australian Curriculum we swapped our SWLOs with the General Capabilities as there was a bit of overlap. We are in the process of another review of what we value now in regards to these ‘soft skills’ as there isn’t a whole lot of ownership over an externally initiated set of capabilities and there are other learner characteristics we value as well, like agency and leadership. The discussion so far has been interesting and we look forward to seeing where it takes us.

    You make a good point regarding the debate on whether the ‘soft skills’ should be assessed formally. I agree with your point that what gets measured gets done, but I would phrase it as ‘when we measure it we show it has value’. We both measure and report on the ‘soft skills’, which also highlights to our parents what we value in our learners. Although, as you point out, it very hard to cater for and construct marking guidelines for the ‘X’ Factor in these areas.

    A step often missed I think in this process is the explicit teaching and modelling of the skills and qualities we are hoping to see our students exhibit. Sometimes I think we expect our students to demonstrate them without giving them the skills, practice and feedback to do this well.

    I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how we approach the assessment of ‘soft skills’ recently and I think a definite next step for us is a greater involvement of our students in articulating where they feel they are currently demonstrating proficiencies in relation to the ‘soft skills’, perhaps framed around their online student portfolios of work. Students, with teacher guidance can highlight the skills and qualities they are currently demonstrating and plan regarding areas for improvement. I think this will be a better way for our students, teachers and parents to both value the skills and qualities we are trying to instil, without them being seen as imposed and judged by the teacher.

    Thanks again for a great post.

    • #2 by kmcg2375 on September 6, 2016 - 2:42 pm

      Thanks Kurt – I think your phrasing is more diplomatic and probably more productive too! ‘When we measure it we show it has value’.

      I absolutely agree that explicit modelling and scaffolding of skill development is crucial. Using these skills as a area for self-assessment and reflection is something I will think about. I wonder that if ultimately it isn’t reported to parents or students formally then it lessens the ‘value’? I know I could talk to my own (university) students until I was blue in the face about their Graduate Attributes, for example, but because there is no formal reporting on them the students quickly de-prioritise such lenses.

  2. #3 by Luke Bartolo on September 3, 2016 - 11:56 am

    I liked this post a lot too, especially the reiterating of those somewhat paradoxical axioms. I sometimes like to think of the ‘X’ Factor as being ‘above and beyond’ the rubric… as in, one student might get 20/20 whereas another, who exhibits an X factor of some sort, would get a theoretical 25/20. We’re not able to write that as a mark, but there should be room for it to be expressed in feedback.

    Anyway, great blog!

  3. #4 by mandylupton on September 4, 2016 - 9:42 am

    I include x-factor in my assement rubrics – ‘Your assignment may have X-
    factor (originality, creativity, flair, elegance)’.

    • #5 by kmcg2375 on September 6, 2016 - 2:36 pm

      Thanks Mandy – I’m going to experiment with placing it in the ‘high distinction’ achievement standard for my next assignment. I love your phrasing, am going to steal it!

  1. How to teach “soft skills” in project based learning | Alice Leung

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