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5 essential guidelines for using project-based learning

Stephanie CarmichaelApril 12, 2017

Project-based learning is a powerful way to put students in charge of their learning. But like any new method of teaching, it requires a change in pedagogy and a willingness to experiment.

Our #ClasscraftChat with @Tomskeeeeee (Sharon Tomski, a high school engineering, computer science, and math teacher from Milwaukee, Wisconsin) and @Gleewhiz (Kevin Gleeson, a Milwaukee history and social studies teacher) highlighted some good tips for getting started with project-based learning.

What is project-based learning (PBL)?

Project-based learning connects the classroom to the real world. Students identify a complex problem (local or global) and research and develop solutions, creating an opportunity for deeper and collaborative learning.

PBL is also a great way to explore a concept in-depth or connect multiple ideas that you’ve been teaching. This can take many forms and presents learning in a way that’s much more personal and relevant to students than a chapter in a textbook. For example:

  • A week-long simulation where students assume roles in the federal government
  • Building a crane out of limited materials
  • Designing and planning a community garden
  • Creating a virtual art gallery with drawings and stories of the local area

You can find many more examples via websites such as the Buck Institute for Education (BIE).

Grading is less black and white

In PBL, both teachers and students need to shift their expectations. For the teacher, that can involve taking a different approach to the grading process.

Student Project-Based Learning

For example, establishing criteria with observable rubrics is a useful way to measure student performance over the project’s duration. These depend on your curriculum but could assess 21st-century skills such as collaboration, critical thinking, and technology literacy. Assess in stages, with a scale, rather than a single grade for the final result.

Because PBL involves more creativity and iteration from students, learning is happening in a process over time. Make sure you assess that process rather than just the finished product.

Have regular check-ins

One way to approach grading is through continual “check-ins” with your students. With project-based learning, the project is the learning experience, not a supplement to it. This makes it a great way to assess how and what students are learning by encouraging them to reflect throughout the process.

Ask your students how they’re coming along. Listen to their feedback and have discussions about where they are in their research and what tools they’re using. Evaluate based on milestones, not just the “final” work.

Don’t be afraid to adjust

Since PBL is a whole new style of learning, it’s natural for teachers to learn alongside their students.

Students Project-Based Learning

Use those ongoing check-ins to take the time to determine whether you need to change anything about the process. One helpful tip is to always keep the “end” in mind and build from there: Ask yourself what you want students to learn or be able to do by completing the project, and consider this each step of the way.

Some questions to consider:

  • Are students demonstrating creativity with where they’re finding information?
  • Are students course-correcting based on analysis of their mistakes?
  • Are students considering multiple options carefully and choosing the best path forward?
  • Are students successfully collaborating by listening actively and incorporating feedback from peers?

You can find sample rubrics here.

Encourage students to get creative

When students feel more ownership over their learning, they’re more motivated to go above and beyond what’s expected of them. This is a crucial part of project-based learning as the more engaged students are, the more they’ll feel more compelled to learn more than what was originally asked.

Step to the side and allow students to choose the method or topic they prefer. Because PBL offers personal meaning and relevance, learning will be more fulfilling and interesting. They’ll keep following where their curiosity leads them!

Seek experts in your PLCs

Project-based learning requires dedication and diligence on behalf of both students and teachers. If you need extra help, seek out useful resources online or ask colleagues in your personal learning communities (PLCs) who have done PBL before for guidance.

It’s okay if the learning is messier or louder than what you’re used to—it takes some time to adjust, but the results will be well worth it.

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