Practical Ideas For Better Project-Based Learning In Your Classroom
By Jennifer Rita Nichols
Teachers are incorporating more and more projects into their curriculum, allowing for much greater levels of collaboration and responsibility for students at all levels. Project- based learning is a popular trend, and even teachers who don’t necessarily follow that approach still see the benefit to using projects to advance their students’ learning.
Projects can be wonderful teaching tools. They can allow for a more student-centred environment, where teachers can guide students in their learning instead of using lectures to provide them with information.
The increase in classroom technology also makes projects more accessible to students. Research no longer requires a trip to the library, and displaying information no longer requires a poster board. Instead, students can access endless amounts of information with a few clicks, and create all kinds of creative final products (such as slides, videos, cartoons, ebooks, blogs, websites, graphics, and much more).
Despite general agreement about the benefits of using projects and project-based learning in general, it must be noted that all projects are not created equal! It is quite possible to create projects that remove creative ability and control from the students and places all the power of decision with the teacher.
This may happen fairly often because teachers are wary about being able to assign grades to the final assignments handed in to them by students. If all students aren’t given the same components to work on, with similar topics, and the same final layout to create, then how can the projects be accurately compared by the teacher? In short, they can’t – but also, they shouldn’t!
Students do not need to be compared against each other, but to the standards they need to achieve for their level. How each skill is demonstrated can differ from one student to another, yet each student can succeed nevertheless. A teacher who knows the program will know what skills each student needs to acquire, and present them with situations to help develop those skills. A teacher can also gauge whether a student has developed each skill regardless of the way they choose to create and present their project.
When students are engaged and interested in the work they are completing, the final product will be much better than when they feel forced to complete a task.
…but how can you make sure that the project you assign is engaging to as many students as possible – if not to all of them?
Here are some great tips to keep in mind when putting together your next project.
1) Better project-based learning has students work in small groups or pairs whenever possible.
Don’t underestimate the power of collaboration. Working alone can be great at times to place a student’s level of ability on their own, but it can be frustrating to a student when they run into parts that they are less adept at. Peer support can help keep things running smoothly, and also help students to build the skills that they are lacking by learning from each other.
If groups are too large, students are given the opportunity to shrink back and leave the work to others, but pairs or groups of three allows everyone to share input and really take on a role within the project. Don’t be afraid of assessment from projects, you will be able to tell how each of your students are developing by maintaining a constant presence in your classroom and observing/interacting with your groups.
Being able to work together will definitely keep students more engaged in the work, especially since they become responsible to each other and to themselves for the completion of the project. There is less chance of students giving up or giving in mediocre work when they are being counted on by peers and are having fun.
2) Better project-based learning chooses skills to be worked on instead of specific topics.
The goals of education focus on helping students to build the skills that they will need for their future. These skills involve being able to collaborate, write well, read between the lines, infer meaning, organize information, find solutions to problems, research effectively, and learn about their place in the world.
When forced into specific topics, students are limited in their ability to be creative and to focus on learning information that they find relevant to their lives. Instead of asking students to all complete projects on an animal, for example, why not decide on a few target skills and build a project guideline that can be used for many different topics instead? That way, students can focus in on something they would like to learn more about, while following your guidelines to make sure that the skills you are targeting are being developed.
If you want students to define a set of problems associated with something and work together to try to find plausible solutions to those problems, there is no need for every group to be working on exactly the same topic. This will also make things much more interesting when it comes time to present the projects, instead of listening to each student’s version of the same thing!
3) Better project-based learning gives students guidelines that allows for individuality.
After choosing the skills or content that you would like to be the focus of your project, build guidelines that support student individuality and creativity. Instead of making a list of specific questions with specific answers (such as ‘what is the habitat of the grizzly bear’ questions), lead students towards more open-ended answers in your guideline.
Using questions such as ‘list three facts that you found surprising while researching the topic and explain why they surprised you’, ‘based on the information that you gathered, explain why you think ____ happens’, and ‘explain what the top ten things people need to know about your topic are in order to understand it well’ can really lend themselves to multiple subjects.
Your guideline should list the skills that students are working on, so they are aware of them and can actively work on developing them. If you want students to learn about democracy and how the government works, as well as to develop their problem solving skills, then telling them to build their own country – similar to the USA or Canada in structure and government – but with their own flair added in, can be an engaging way to do it. Allow for some crazy bits included in their constitution, or even elections where voters submit to X-rays instead of bringing ID.
In order to complete the project, they will need to research the government you want, and take it even further by using the information as a basis for their own creations.
4) Better project-based learning encourages students to take on different roles while collaborating.
In order to get all students involved in a project, don’t allow them to simply break it up and then put it back together after each student has individually covered a section of it. Collaboration in the real world involves being able to work together on each part of a task, while learning to compromise and solve problems as they arise.
We rob our students of some great practice when we split tasks! Depending on the needs of the project, you can have graphic designers, managers, organizers, researchers, etc. While one student would be named ‘in charge’ of graphics, for example, they would still be working with the input of the rest of the team – much like how adults collaborate on projects in the ‘real world’.
Encourage them to switch roles as needed, based on the strengths of their team, or on the skills each student needs to develop. No one student should always be ‘in charge’ or ‘approving’ all the work.
5) Better project-based learning allows students creative choice when it comes to the final result.
Do you really need that project to be presented on a piece of cardboard? If so, then make sure you have a good reason for it! There are so many ways for students to demonstrate learning, especially with the integration of technology, that it seems rather ridiculous to rob them of the chance to decide for themselves how to showcase their work.
What you really want is found in the content of the project, not in a piece of paper or cardboard. When students take ownership of the method of presentation, you are sure to be blown away with some extremely creative and innovative presentations. Allow them to make eBooks, videos, movies, animations, mind maps, skits, game shows, talk shows, newscasts, magazines, podcasts, blogs, or anything else they can come up with!
6) Better project-based learning changes the way that projects are presented/displayed.
Even if every group in your class presents in a different way, you will be able to assess each and every one of the projects, based on the skills/content that students need to show you. Students will also look forward to presenting their project, and seeing the presentations made by others!
Also, instead of just pinning projects up on a board, or sending them right home after being presented, consider displaying them in more creative ways. Ebooks, articles, videos, and other media can be incorporated into a class website or blog, where other members of the community can access and appreciate the work.
If students know that their work will be shared online or in the school/community, they will likely be more excited about putting their best foot forward. When you know your work goes directly into the recycling bin once it’s finished… well, less effort tends to go into it!
7) Better project-based learning grades projects based on the targeted concepts and skills.
Create grading rubrics or charts for yourself that help you to focus in on the specific skills that you are looking for in each project. Since each group may have a different final format, you won’t be able to compare them with each other very well (which we shouldn’t really do in general when assigning grades). Students are supposed to be graded on their level of development when compared to curricular goals, not based on comparisons with each other.
Try to avoid assigning grades based on how great one group’s video was when compared with another group’s poster board. While one might stand out more, the other may just have better content!
Letting students know exactly what you will be looking for beforehand will make it much easier for you to see what you need, as they will usually make sure to show it to you!
Besides, let’s face it, if a university professor didn’t explain exactly what was required of an assignment, but graded you based on what they were mysteriously looking for, you would be frustrated and have a hard time doing as well as you could in that class. Our younger students appreciate the guidance too!
8) Better project-based learning considers cross-curricular activities and/or work with another class.
Projects tend to be more engaging if students have the chance to immerse themselves in them as much as possible. Seeing similar content appear in multiple subject areas helps to reinforce what students are learning, as well as make the learning more relevant to them.
In many cases, mathematical or scientific learning can be added to English projects. History is another subject that lends itself well to cross-curricular projects.
Working with another class can also be fun for students. With today’s technology, it is even possible for students to collaborate on projects with classes in other schools – or even in other countries. Doing this definitely helps to prepare students for their futures, as we often find ourselves working/collaborating with coworkers in other departments or cities. It can add an extra challenge to organizing work and getting things done efficiently!
9) Better project-based learning gives the project a purpose beyond the classroom.
If possible, try to build connections to the outside world into projects. If students can work on something that will directly benefit the school or community (such as planning and implementing a fundraiser, or creating books/movies for a community centre or home, or even planning a special lesson for younger students) it can really help to build engagement in the class.
Knowing that your work will do more than get you grades – that it will actually be used to help people – can be a powerful motivator. Students will also help to motivate each other when they know that their work is important and useful.
10) Better project-based learning incorporates the project into the students’ digital portfolios.
While not all projects can directly impact the community, they can at least be used as evidence of learning in students’ working digital portfolios. The great thing about digital portfolios is that they follow a student as they advance through the grades and paint a picture of progress over time.
Once again, doing this can help curb the de-motivation of knowing that work will just be thrown away once completed. Incorporating student reflections and teacher/peer/parental/community feedback can also be a nice way to follow up on the learning that has taken place, as well as provide some future goals to work on in order to improve on skill development.
Beyond just tracking learning, the allure of being able to go and watch a video project you created years ago seems too good to pass up; I can remember a few of my own projects I wish I could see again.