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A step-by-step guide to project-based learning

Melissa WilliamsApril 25, 2019

Teachers often use projects in the classroom — but are they doing so effectively? Projects are great for assessing learning and moving students away from more typical activities. They’re also a nice place to inject creativity, both from yourself as a teacher and from your students as the participants.

The term ‘project-based learning,’ however, refers to something a little different than the projects we’re all used to. It’s a teaching method that uses projects over a longer period of time with fairly robust academic goals.

Rather than using a project as a final, culminating activity at the end of a unit or lesson, project-based learning combines the learning, curriculum, and instruction in one package. The learning happens during the project and is about problem-solving at its most basic definition. Through project-based learning, students gain knowledge about a topic while also practicing critical-thinking, collaboration, and communication skills. These goals may sound a bit lofty, but that’s why projects are spread out over time.

Sound complicated? Don’t worry — with the right preparation, project-based learning can have awesome outcomes for students and actually allow them to take hold of the reins with their education. This method of teaching and learning can also spark students’ interest in new subjects and strengthen important skills that will help them in the years to come.

5 steps to get started with project-based learning

dart target
Photo credit: rawpixel

1. What is the goal?

First things first, what are you hoping your students will learn? Pin down the exact outcomes you’re looking for so you can better plan the path to that destination. For these steps, we’ll borrow the create-your-own-country example from our article on project-based learning ideas.

For step one, we’ll say the goal is to have students learn about the ins and outs of what makes up a country: forms of government, economic plans, and any other considerations you would like to cover. These are big concepts, so they will lend themselves well to this teaching method!

black board with a question mark drawn on it
Photo credit: Pixabay

2. Choose a specific problem or question

Project-based learning focuses on solving a problem or answering a question. Circling back to our example, let’s say the question is, “What do the main forms of government look like and how do they function? What do the main economic systems entail, and which works best with your chosen form of government?” Again, big questions, big topics! The beauty of this teaching method is that learning happens in a more natural and memorable way. Students will be diving in and exploring the topic with a degree of independence that would simply not be there with more traditional methods, such as a very formal lecture.

school day planner with pens and glasses
Photo credit: SaadiaAMYii

3. Plan and facilitate the process

Now it’s time to plan your project. Here are some questions to consider as you prepare the assignment:

  • What kinds of resources will your students need to work on their project?
  • How could the project and information be presented?
  • What kinds of formats would work with the question or problem you’re dealing with?
  • What will the time frame be like, and how will learning be assessed?

Project-based learning typically occurs in groups or teams, so you’ll want to keep collaboration in mind during the planning phase.

For our create-your-own-country example, students would likely need access to quality research material. Depending on your school, this may require booking computer or tablet time. You’ll also want to gather some good resources to help students on their way, or to put together a mini-lesson on good online research skills. Be sure to specify how much time to devote to research.

With younger students, you may also want to consider the option of providing background information. There should then be time provided for group discussions and the opportunity for students to debate the merits of the different government forms and economic systems that they’re considering. Once they’ve chosen their desired form of government for their country and the accompanying economic system, how will they present the information? Posters? Slide presentations? Videos? Perhaps some students are creative and would like to develop a flag, national anthem, and any other emblems.

Finally, though this hopefully goes without saying, be sure to provide students with criteria for assessment so that they understand how to best complete their project.

Teacher presenting to young students sitting on a carpet
Photo credit:  Laurie Sullivan

4. Demo time!

Now it’s time for students to show what they’ve learned. Regardless of the topic, it’s a good idea for students to present their final product to the rest of the class. This gives them a chance to practice their oral presentation and listening skills. It also allows students to learn from their peers. Remind students how to be a good audience ahead of time and go over some critical presentation skills (speaking clearly, maintaining eye contact, inflecting one’s voice, etc.)

Don’t forget to have your chosen criteria ready as you assess the actual final product, the evidence of learning, and the extra skills such as teamwork, problem-solving, and communication. Observe students during the project creation to determine how well some of these targets are being met (teamwork, for one), with a final assessment happening during demonstrations. For example, throughout the project, you may have students submit vertical slices with accompanying peer evaluations. Then, rubric in hand, you can assess the final in-class presentation yourself.

Encourage groups to divide the presentation equally among their members so that everyone has a chance to speak. Alternatively, you may decide that each student must simply contribute to the presentation in some way that is not necessarily tied to speaking. For example, one student could be in charge of setup or arranging visual effects. Within their groups and with instructor approval, students should detail each member’s expected contributions and roles and submit it with the final product.

students in class working seated at their desks
Photo credit: Google

5. Reflection

Part of project-based learning is taking the time to reflect on the progress (or lack thereof). As teachers, we should get in the habit of enforcing some form of reflection after lessons and projects so students can assess their performance and make adjustments in the future. You could have students fill out a short, simple ‘exit slip’ type of reflection in which they write a brief paragraph or complete a checklist on different aspects of their project — both its creation and the demonstration. They may also write about what they would like to improve on or what they would do differently next time.

If you’d like, you could make these reflections a bit more involved. For example, students could write a report or record a short podcast reflection. In any case, students should discuss what they’ve learned about the subject and their teamwork and/or presentation skills. You may also wish to encourage students to set realistic goals for future assignments or units.

Get your students involved!

Project-based learning is a fun and creative teaching method that gets students involved in their learning, rather than handcuffing them to their desks and books. These ongoing projects will stick with students well beyond your class and offer a fantastic opportunity for them to work on developing many important skills. Try it out in your own class and see the benefits unfold for your students!

Photo credit: Google