Project Based Learning Best Practices Part 2

With projects as with almost anything, if you plan effectively, you are more likely to find success with your project. However, project planning is not just about the product, the process and assessment require just as much thought as what you are going to make/do.

Organizing a Project:
When I start a project, as I said in project based learning part 1, I will use forward design. So once I have decided upon the concept I would like the students to know and apply, I write that down in a Google Doc. It is important that you use some cloud based service or if you are going low tech, a piece of paper that you carry everywhere. The reason being, once your mind starts thinking about this, you will have flashes of inspiration at the most random of times.

I will spend a week or so simply adding the document until I reach a critical mass of thoughts about the project. Then I go through and organize it by topic (assessment, resources for materials, ideas for products, etc). You will find that the project practically orders itself. If you do not have much experience with projects to fall back on, it is most helpful to go talk to another teacher or colleague about it. You will find that your ideas will double and many of your concerns will be answered when seen from a new perspective.

Make sure you create a calendar of some sort where you have expectations of what will be done each day. Create extremely clear instructions to avoid confusion. If you have not yet made a model or example of the product, do so. If you have an exhibition in mind, consider how it will be displayed and where. My second year of teaching project based learning, I decided we would make life size boats out of PVC to study buoyancy and volume. We were about half way done building these amazing boats when it dawned on me, I had no idea where we are going to test them!

How Long Should a Project Last:
There is no strict rule that projects should be a week or a month, it depends on the project. However, if you have created a detailed calendar you should be able to estimate. I say estimate because unforeseen factors too numerous to mention will emerge and slow down or speed up your pace. To compensate for this I always build in at least two "fudge" days, to allow for mistakes or obstacles. I do not tell the students this as this might encourage them to slow down, but it is important to have them as you will find that students + projects = scheduling uncertainty.

Make sure you align your calendar with your school and local calendar. It would be a shame to have an exhibition due on the same day as a religious holiday or have your project broken up over winter break.

To summarize, careful planning will help you determine a pretty good estimate of the time needed.

This could be a post all by itself. If you are trying to achieve learning through projects, then a performance based assessment would seem to fit best. If you choose to use a paper based assessment to ensure understanding, make sure you align it to the project. Just because a student spent time applying the concept of slope, does not mean that they understand every aspect of it but if you are aware of that you can properly assess what they know.

While this isn't a one size fits all approach, my experience has determined that there are 4 main areas of a project through which one can assess.

  1. Self Assessment - Reflection on what went well and did not go as well.
  2. Group Assessment - How well did this person work with others, did they do their share of the work?
  3. Audience Assessment - Does your exhibition achieve the goal which it was intended to (teach 2nd graders a science lesson, put on a Shakespearean play, increase community awareness about global climate change, etc)?
  4. Teacher Assessment - Is the project of high quality, does it meet the expectations and parameters of the project?
As for grading, this is a choice to be made by the educator/school/district. Depending on the assignment, these areas are weighed differently. 

Rubrics are useful for determining to what degree a student has completed a task or shared the work. However, rubrics can skew the data heavily if students do not properly fill them out or are being nice to their friends. It is for that reason that I require that a response on a rubric be accompanied by anecdotal  evidence about why they assigned that grade (example: give an example of when the student helped out the group). Rubrics can be administered very effectively through Google Forms. It will collect and sort all of the data for you which saves a ton of headache at the end of a project. 

If you can plan your assessment into your project you will save a ton of heartache and stress. What this means is for the student to complete the project they need to understand the content. In all of my math projects, the student cannot proceed or complete the project until a previous step is calculated. Similarly if you structure your project to require feedback, the students can help each other to learn and improve the project.

Teacher Refinement:
If you are not refining your own work, then you should not ask the students to do it. Even the best planned out projects can still become better. I highly encourage you to keep a document where you can quickly jot down ideas on how to refine for next time. I call mine "Math/Physics for next year" and I am eternally grateful for that document because there is no way I would ever remember all of the feedback I gave myself throughout the year.

I wish you all the best as you seek to use an exciting and enjoyable way to work with students towards understanding. If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions, don't hesitate to leave a comment.