5 Tips for Project-Based Learning

21st century learning has said goodbye to education of generations past!  A time where students sit independently, listen to long lectures, read lessons from a textbook, and cram for tests just to forget the information the following week is no more. Enter project-based learning (PBL), where students’ voices are heard and learning with—and through—one another equals success!

In PBL, students use teamwork and creativity, navigating through an elaborate process of inquiry where they investigate and respond to a complex question, problem, or challenge. Rigorous PBL projects help students learn key academic content and practice rich 21st century, such as collaboration, communication, and critical thinking.

My First Look

As I transitioned into my first year of teaching this past fall, I was enthralled with the innovative philosophy of my district. Incorporation of two PBL projects into the elementary science curriculum provided my students a critical opportunity. I was excited as it fell directly in-line with my personal teaching philosophy of having a student-centered classroom.

However, with excitement also came intimidation by the process of planning and executing these opportunities. I was also worried that PBL would compromise the sound classroom management of my second grade classroom.  So, I dug a little deeper into my research.

Why PBL?

Introducing PBL into the curriculum is not a new or innovative teaching strategy, but one that has gained widespread momentum in classrooms throughout the world.

Why?  Researchers have finally determined what teachers have long believed: student engagement soars when they can make real life connections to their learning through complex, challenging, and sometimes even “yucky” problems. Because students are given the chance to create their own inferences and eventual conclusions, rather than just being fed the information, comprehension and retention of the content is profound. When students have a voice, they stay connected!

Getting Started

Once I understood the “why” of PBL, I then tackled the “how”. Getting started and envisioning what my classroom would look like with PBL was the hardest part of the process for me, and, as I mentioned, I was fearful that the structure and behavior management I so tirelessly implemented would be compromised. I ultimately chose to approach our PBL projects as I did all previous lesson planning—I began with the end!

Think about what you want students to know and be able to accomplish. What is their learning targets? Their end goal? Collaborate with your team, consult with mentors, administration, and even district curriculum developers, to assist with this process. There are also a plethora of online planning resources that can provide excellent organization templates.

Ready, Set, PBL!

With the school year coming to an end and two PBL projects under my belt (Force and Motion and Butterflies), I have learned so much about the planning, process, and assessment of PBL projects. Here’s my advice on how to start your first project and manage your role as facilitator while your students take the reins and find their voice in the process.

1. Alternate student learning

As an elementary educator, I quickly realized that alternating between true PBL “project days” with independent educational opportunities that are more structured was beneficial to our overall classroom climate. I chose to fill in PBL with mini-projects, webquests, labs, and reflection/feedback activities that contributed to the learning. PBL is always the driving force, and the learning that happens is important to its overall success.

2. Encourage student voice and student choice

It is critical that the PBL project encourages student choice. Students do not necessarily need choice in everything they do, but allowing them to make decisions in some capacity throughout the project gives them a sense of ownership in the PBL process and in their overall learning. This can look very different from project to project, from voicing their ideas on daily learning targets to even creating rubrics. However, from personal experience, I would suggest not allowing choice in terms of the peers students work with.

Below is an example of our student/teacher co-created and peer approved participation log that has been instrumental throughout our PBL project:

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With this co-created participation log, students are motivated to be productive team members and can actively make changes when they fall off track.

3. Organization is key

Stay organized by giving students binders, manila folders, or composition notebooks that remain in the classroom is critical to the overall PBL success. My students keep their day-to-day project work in composition notebooks, along with supporting documents like rubrics and assignments. To help my students stay active and on task in their group work, we use the above participation log. Every time collaboration occurs, students are given a score from 0 to 5, along with feedback and at the end of the project I am able to accurately record a participation grade. It also serves as a visual reminder to the student that teamwork and participation are the key components to our PBL project.

4. Students learn with and through one another

PBL norms and expectations must be established and discussed on a regular basis. Laying the framework for collaboration is key to overall PBL success and learning in general. My students have learned that they need to be able to work with all peers, and we have successfully established a culture of student collaboration. I have implemented the PAL (Partner and Learn) concept in my classroom and it has positively influenced the ways students learn with and through each other.

Partner and Learn (PAL) Anchor Chart

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Additionally, we always start off with a PBL team announcement party. Celebration music plays as teams are announced, team selfies are tweeted, and teams sit together throughout the course of the PBL project. It is a big deal! Check out a short clip of our recent PBL party here.

Apart from that, peer feedback has also become an active element of our PBL projects, and rather than teachers assisting students, students are supporting each other as they develop beautiful work that they can be proud of.

5. Be prepared!  

As facilitators, we must be prepared for the unexpected. During the end of our recent Butterfly PBL, Mother Nature took control and butterflies began to emerge from their chrysalises on a Saturday. I panicked. How could this be happening? Students have worked so hard to get to this moment and it would be missed, connections would be lost, and the PBL would be a failure.

Insert technology here. I instantly made my own real world connection with Remind. Having used Remind since the beginning of the school year to communicate with parents, I immediately sent texts, including photos of the butterflies emerging. I then frantically set up a webcam, streamed a live feed and sent the link via Remind, inadvertently creating a flipped classroom. Because my parents had been accustomed to receiving my Remind communications, they instantly took the reins as facilitators, which resulted in 95% of students successfully viewing this miraculous event.

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PBL = Learning Without Limits

Project-based learning offers a wide range of benefits to both students and teachers, such as increased attendance, improved attitudes toward learning, opportunities to develop complex 21st century skills, such as higher-order/critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, and communication. With students involved in PBL projects, their ability to take greater responsibility for their own learning during more traditional classroom activities is evident.  Students voices are heard and learning with and through translates to educational success!

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