Performance-based learning involves students being able to do something, perform something, or demonstrate something. Students develop specific skills related to the subject under study, which helps them see the connection between academic concepts and real-life situations.
Students apply knowledge they have learned in class to a practical scenario. This allows them to exercise skills and gain a different perspective on the subject under study.
As Hibbard et al. (1996) explained,
“Performance-based learning and assessment achieve a balanced approach by extending traditional fact-and-skill instruction” (p. 5).
Performance-based learning can completely transform the educational experience of students. It is far more interesting to students and matches the active learning style of those that have trouble sitting still and listening for 50-minutes at a time.
Through active learning, students are believed to absorb information more deeply and learn about subtle nuances of a subject that cannot be fully understood through a traditional classroom lecture.
Performance-Based Learning Examples
- Demonstrating knowledge through creating a product: A high school English literature teacher asks students to choose a famous play by Shakespeare and transform it into a comic book.
- Learning to drive: The process of learning to drive is a great example of performance-based learning because it can’t be merely theoretical. The student sits behind the wheel and performs the task. When assessed in a driving test, it’s also a performance-based test.
- Developing a practical plan based on what has been learned: Students studying to be paramedics are instructed to develop an emergency management plan for an airplane accident.
- Working on an outdoors project: An entire elementary school creates natural science lessons that directly engage children in gardening.
- Physically building something: Every year, the students in a physics course participate in a competition on which group can construct the strongest bridge out of paper and tape.
- Assessing students based on role-play scenarios: Professor Santos has his HR students conduct role-plays on how to tell a senior employee that their contract will not be renewed.
- Applying math to real life: A team of math teachers put together an assignment called Mission Relief that involves students playing different roles to guide an airplane to safety using mathematical formulas.
- Creating new technology in class: Advanced Design students choose to design a tech gadget. They are assessed on the product quality, fit for market, and how well it solves real-life problems for consumers.
- Creating a book: Dr. Flannigan lets her elementary education students create their own pop-up book on a theme of their choice.
- Teaching practicum: Teacher education students spend a lot of time at university reading books and talking theory. But in the courses where they go into a classroom and practice teaching, they get the biggest benefit because they get to perform the craft they’ve been learning all about in class.
Benefits of Performance-Based Learning
Key benefits include:
- Students are assessed on their practical application of knowledge rather than mere theoretical understanding.
- Teaching and learning is skewed toward active learning rather than passive learning. Active learning is believed to be more effective for long-term intellectual, physical, and social development.
- Students get to see and learn about the complexities of application of theory to real life, allowing for learning about the nuances of concepts.
- Learning tends to lead to the creation of a product, which can be a motivational force for learners.
- The connection between school and out-of-school life (e.g. life skill development and workplace skill development) tends to be emphasized.
Weaknesses of Performance-Based Learning
- It is difficult to administer normative standardized tests for many performance-based assessment tasks. This makes it hard to generate quantifiable, comparable, and standardizable grades for students.
- The term can be seen as overly vague. Other concepts, like active learning and project-based learning have significant overlaps with this concept, but have much more scholarly research underpinning them.
Performance-Based Learning Case Studies
1. Oral Presentations
Oral presentations can be used in almost any course. It gives students an opportunity to develop extremely valuable communication skills and build self-confidence.
For example, instead of writing a lengthy term paper on the industrial revolution or some other historical event, students can construct a PPT and make a class presentation.
Writing a term paper does build certain skills, but communicating with others and learning how to present information verbally is a common job task in many occupations.
Certain rigorous elements of conducting research can still apply, such as reading the relevant research, making a reference section, and using appropriate citation practices during the presentation. But the skills the students exercise are far more pragmatic.
2. Dramatic Performances
Putting on a dramatic performance is a collaborative activity that doesn’t just involve students acting on stage. There are many other roles for students to play in this kind of performance-based project.
The term dramatic performance can refer to dance, a recital, reading of poetry, or a performing a play. Although being on a stage in front of an audience is a great way to build social confidence, there are many other benefits.
For example, students must learn fundamental project management skills. They have to devise schedules, assign leadership and work teams, allocate resources, and learn about teamwork and conflict resolution.
These are all very valuable skills for students to practice in the safety of an academic context.
3. Science Fairs
Maybe one of the best examples of performance-based learning is the science fair. Giving students an opportunity to display their project at an exhibition, describe it to others and field questions, are all skills they can carry with them long after graduation.
Of course, there is a lot of learning accomplished while the students work on their projects as well. For example, rather than reading about the plant life cycle, students can actually learn about it by planting their own seeds.
They can document the entire process by taking photos or making sketches of each stage. Their display can also contain text, images, and graphs. Students will still need to read, but they will also learn how to pin-point key information for their display. This sounds simple enough, but it is a key skill that has to be developed with practice.
4. Consumer Science Project
University students in a consumer science course can learn about the expectations of customers by conducting a focus group or a survey that solicits their opinions.
For example, the professor may ask students to design, administer, and analyze a customer satisfaction survey for a restaurant.
Working in groups, students will begin by brainstorming questions to include in the survey and narrowing down those that are most relevant to the type of restaurant their project targets.
The group could then partner with a local restaurant and obtain permission to collect data for a given period of time. Once data collection has been completed, the group will perform various analyses and create several graphs and charts that highlight the key findings.
Learning how to formulate a point of view and convey those points in a public setting can be a very daunting task for most middle school and high school students. It takes a keen understanding of argument potency and a high degree of self-confidence to go head-to-head against an opponent.
However, there may be no more important skill than being able to identify the flaws in a point of view and then counter with convincing statements that support a different position.
The skills needed in debate also include conducting research and practicing civility and diplomacy. Even if not in a formal debate context, the give-and-take of arguments is a common occurrence in the classroom and later in life at business meetings.
Performance-based learning gives students an opportunity to take what they have learned in the classroom and apply it to an activity or project.
It is a great way for students to see the connection between concepts in a textbook and their application to a practical situation.
Preschool teachers to university professors implement performance-based learning in their classrooms to help students develop skills that they will use throughout their lifetime.
These skills include learning how to manage projects, collaborate with others, search for and weigh evidence, as well as performing in a public setting in a professional manner.
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