Performance-Based Learning: How it Works

Students engage in performance-based learning with science project

Should you give your students another assessment or worksheet from the textbook? Why aren’t your students engaged in your classroom? Traditional instruction may not be enough for our 21st century students to be fully engaged, take ownership of their work, and activate their higher-order thinking skills. Active learning, through performance-based learning and assessment, is something that any teacher can implement in their own classroom with just a little planning, preparation, and progress monitoring.

Performance-based learning and performance-based assessment is a system of learning and assessment that allows students to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in a learning environment that embraces their higher-order thinking skills, as well as relating it to real-world situations (Performance-Based Learning and assessment, n.d.). This type of learning is an on-going process that allows student-centered learning and progress monitoring where teachers and students collaborate and adjust their learning where needed. When planning for performance-based learning, keep in mind that the content and instruction does not have to change, but instead of assessing the students’ knowledge from the content, the student is allowed to demonstrate what they have learned. With proper preparation and planning, the instructor has full control over what the content is and how it is taught.

Performance-based learning is being implemented at all levels of learning, from primary and elementary to high school and higher education. Performance-based learning can be implemented along with traditional instruction when used in a balanced setting. As Hibbard et al. (1996) mentioned, “Performance-based learning and assessment achieve a balanced approach by extending traditional fact-and-skill instruction” (p. 5). The traditional learning coupled with performance learning allows for instructors to ensure that students master content standards and student learning objectives. Although utilizing traditional instruction along with performance-based learning can be time-consuming, and ensuring that all standards and SLOs are being taught effectively can seem cumbersome, once the material for allowing students to demonstrate what they have learned is created, the results and data collected on student achievement will be much more meaningful. Specific data and actual observations will help an instructor redirect or re-teach a student on the spot and in a timely manner. 

So, what does a strategy or activity look like when it includes elements of performance-based learning or assessment?  It may include:

  • Focusing on the end in mind, then working backwards to understand what specific details the students will need to understand in order to perform a task. Think about what is most important for students to take away from an activity and how they can best demonstrate their learning.
  • Using critical thinking, deep thinking, and problem-solving skills. This will help students think about how an activity can be approached in different ways, taking into account multiple variables in order for the best answer to be shown. 
  • Allowing students to see your expectations and how they will be graded. If using a rubric, give students a copy and give them information and criteria on how they will be graded on their performance. When students are given set standards with clear expectations upfront, they tend to have more accountability and ownership of their assignments.
  • Providing a space, an app, or a program for students to use to show their level of understanding about the content learned. This space, app, and/or program could allow for mistakes to be made, and corrected, with an opportunity to explain their process for proceeding in the manner they chose.
  • Allowing constant practice. Many students may not have had the opportunity to show or demonstrate their learning, so the opportunity to do so may be foreign. Practice of demonstrating and understanding of a concept may be necessary.

These may be steps you are already using in your course, so now, the key is to allow students to have more accountability and ownership of their work. Let them reflect and figure out why something worked or not. When students are given a chance to take ownership of their learning, they are more motivated and determined to succeed. Student ownership of learning also leads to self-reflection on their performance, which means that they are able to identify their own areas of strength and weakness. Then, of course, teacher feedback and follow- up with students regarding their performance and assessment is vital for students to fully receive the full effect of performance-based learning and assessment.

This type of instruction and assessment allows instructors and students to customize their learning and make it applicable to real-world situations. Once both instructors and students become more familiar with performance-based learning and assessments, and adapt their learning and thinking, the process becomes smooth and engaging. And, student achievement will be easier to observe and reflect upon.

Mary Jo Hollandsworth is a graduate from Texas Woman’s University, with an MEd in Leadership and Administration and currently teaches sixth-grade math at a small rural district in North Texas.

Laura Trujillo-Jenks is an associate professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Texas Woman’s University, where she teaches principal and superintendent courses in the Educational Leadership program.


Performance-based learning and assessment. (n.d.). Retrieved February 5, 2020, from

Hibbard, M. K., Elia, E., & Wagenen, L. van. (1996). A teacher’s guide to performance-based learning and assessment. Alexandria, Va: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Based_Learning_and_Assessment,_and_Why_is_it_Important%C2%A2.aspx