When I look back at my time in the classroom, memories that most often pop up are seeing and hearing my students work together to finish a project. Many times, they were in groups of three or four busily drawing, coloring, writing, talking. For the life of me, I can barely remember the projects themselves, but I can remember the chatter, laughing, arguing, and smiles when the project was finished. I used to feel like, this is learning! Many teachers have probably experienced and felt that same sense of excitement and accomplishment. When we see our students fully engaged and involved in a project, it reveals their interests and connection to the topic. You will likely see many ‘aha’ moments.
When we engage students in answering a complex question or solving a real-world problem through a project, they inevitably manage and take ownership of their learning process. They actively formulate solutions to a problem they can connect with, which takes learning out of a classroom and into life. This approach to teaching and learning, or problem-based learning (PBL), provides students the opportunity to answer the often asked, “Why do I need to know this?” It is authentic learning with application to real-life situations and events.
PBL enhances 21st century skills like critical and creative thinking, collaborating and communicating, showing initiative, being flexible, and using media and technology. Another benefit to PBL is that it accommodates students who are at different learning levels and learn in different ways (modalities and styles). As students gain more experience with PBL, they will discover more about how they learn – their strengths and needs for improvement. This becomes one of the many exciting milestones of PBL.
It’s critical that when PBL is introduced, students understand the why’s and how’s of how a project is completed. This includes learning objectives, where to get information, how to organize the research, and ways to present the solution. There should also be a rubric that can be used as reference throughout the project work, including self-assessment at the end. In this way, students fully take responsibility for their involvement in the process. In addition, feedback is integral because it guides revisions needed to improve the culminating project.
Incorporating PBL can seem daunting in and of itself, and with the new reality of distance teaching it may seem even more challenging. But the rewards are well worth the effort. Below are a few tips for both the physical and virtual classroom environment.
|How to start
|Brainstorm topics and issues that students see in their communities or have experienced themselves; chart responses and decide on which one the class would like to tackle as a whole
Post a question such as, “What do you want to change in your community?” in a shared doc/file stored on Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams, or similar LMS. Students add their ideas to the doc and at a scheduled virtual class session, discuss and agree on a topic.
Ask guiding questions to develop a list of expectations for the project. This can include how team members interact to when the project is due. Post expectations in a place clearly visible in the classroom for easy reference.
|Post a short, bulleted list of expectations and invite students to add feedback and/or ask questions. During a virtual class session, clarify the expectations including the feedback and questions. Come to a consensus on the expectations. Keep a ‘final’ version of the expectations in a folder used solely for the project.
Create a rubric so that students understand the assessment expectations. Start with a general one and add to it during class discussions. It is more meaningful when students can voice what should be included in the rubric. The rubric should be posted in the class, and each team should have a copy.For help on creating rubrics, try RubiStar.
|Similar to what can be done in a physical classroom, discuss assessment expectations in a virtual session. As students become more comfortable with rubrics, post a general rubric as a shared file and have students add suggestions. Give students a limited time to add suggestions, then create the ‘final’ version and post.
|Have materials accessible to students by setting up a dedicated space in the classroom. The space should include a web-enabled device, if available, to search for information online. Bookmark approved websites and video links. QR codes can also be created and added as images to a sheet of paper and students can use their smartphones or tablets to scan and open.
|In a shared file, create a list of suggested and approved websites, including the hyperlinks. QR codes can also be created and added as images to the doc. Students can also suggest other websites where they have found pertinent information, but have them send these privately. Review the sites and add them to the shared doc at your discretion.
|Schedule regular times during the week for teams to collaborate and work on the project. In the beginning, provide a goal for that block of time. For example, in a project addressing the differences in cost for organic and non-organic foods, students must identify what is considered organic and why.
|During a virtual session, have students meet as teams in ‘breakout rooms.’ Observe student discussions by going in and out of rooms. As with a physical classroom, set a goal for the time and check progress at the end of the whole class virtual session. Both Zoom and Adobe Connect have these functionalities.
|From time to time, allow for feedback from classmates. This can be at the closing of designated PBL blocks or having two teams discuss progress. Observe student interaction and provide guidance and/or clarify misunderstandings. Refer to the rubric often to keep teams on track.
Create a shared doc where teams post their progress on the project. Ask specific questions such as, “What was the goal for your team today? Did you meet that goal? What are your team’s next steps?” Provide feedback on every response and, as with the physical classroom, refer to the rubric often.
|The culminating project is an opportunity to flex ‘creative’ wings. Teams can make diagrams, build models, record video, present findings, etc. For some PBL projects, invite family, friends, school staff, community members, etc. This can give team members a sense of accomplishment and pride in hard work well-done.
|Schedule ‘presentation’ days for culminating projects. Students can share screens to present, including diagrams, slide presentations, videos, etc. Consider scheduling 2-3 presentations a session, giving time for audience comments and teacher feedback. All projects should be stored in a folder for that topic. Send links to the projects with team members to share with family and friends.
If the thought of undertaking PBL seems intimidating or the steps involved feel overwhelming, try using pre-made, standards-aligned, resources. There are also multiple examples online of successful PBL experiences. Share a few of these with the class so that they understand what’s needed and the satisfaction that comes from completing a project.
Really, the goal of PBL is to provide students (and teachers) with a dynamic learning experience that they will remember years from now. Teachers, you too, will remember the sounds of learning and the sense of pride that students had during presentations. Those are the ‘aha’ moments we all look for.
For more information on Project-Based Learning, visit:
- PBL Works
- High Tech High
- Global School Net
- The Virtual Schoolhouse
- Project Based Learning: Why, How, and Examples (video)
- Projects and Project-Based Learning: What’s the Difference? (video)