Project based learning – a continuing journey

I have been embarking on a journey this year that is transforming my teaching practice. I have always liked to experiment with different teaching and learning strategies, but they’ve always had constraints that were beyond my immediate control, which included running them within one hour periods and within one subject area (when I knew it had so much potential for cross curricular opportunities)

Now that I’m teaching a year 7 class in English, maths, science, geography and history, I have more opportunities to try things like project based learning. I see my year 7 class the whole day on Mondays and Fridays and they’re our “project days”. That just means on Mondays and Fridays we have at least two to three hours where students work in teams on projects. These projects span from one week to a few months. They all involve students working in teams,, determining their project goals, working out a timeline to achieve those goals and producing a product that they think best demonstrates their learning. The process of getting to the end product is just as important as the end product itself. the process of the project is adapted from the design process.

design process

To build student capacity to undertake such activities, we started with relatively small projects that were heavily scaffolded. These projects were completed within a few hours over a couple of days so that students can get used to working in a team and practise self-regulatory behaviours. Students then moved onto a project that required a couple of weeks to complete and involved them designing a question about the people of the school, creating a survey to answer the question and then creating a more complex infographic than the previous project. Some students chose to draw graphs on a poster, while others decided to make a video.

In each project, students completed an ‘evaluation of my learning’ activity, which involve students reflecting on:

  • whether they have achieved their goals and why (most students are quite honest with this question, often citing the completion of some tasks were held back because they were distracted for some period of time)
  • how they knew they’ve done a good job
  • how they can improve on their next project (we still need to work on this more as many students still say “work faster”)

Students then review each other’s work and give feedback to each other. We then upload the learning products onto our class blog, Too School for Cool, so that a global audience can comment on the students’ work.

The project the year 7s are doing now is the 60 second science video challenge, which is their first long term project. The project involves students working in teams to create a one-minute video to explain a science concept. The project is divided into four phases: research, pre-production, production and post production. Most year 7 teams have completed their research, a draft script and a draft storyboard for their video. We have also learnt some of the easier script/screenplay conventions and also camera angles for the storyboard.

So these projects with year 7s have been working well so far. When I surveyed the class, the majority of students said they enjoyed doing the projects, learnt a lot from doing them and would like to continue doing projects in the following term.

For me personally, it is a continuing learning journey. I have experimented with similar project based learning activities last year, mainly with games based learning. However, this is the first time where I have been able to implement project based learning continuously for a much longer time. I think it does make learning more meaningful for students and allows them to create products that demonstrate their understanding, that shows me much more on what my students can do and need to improve on in comparison to traditional lessons that lead up to a topic test. Lessons also place a lot of emphasis on the process of learning, which is often lacking in more traditional-styled lessons.

However there are some challenges that I am exploring and implementing strategies for, such as:

  • Continuing to build some students’ abilities to negotiate in teams (some teams often break up as they can’t agree on minor details like whether to do a presentation or a video and we had to play some games and do role plays to show the importance of communication in team work)
  • Some students needing much more help in self regulation than others
  • Students being up to different parts of their project – This sounds relatively minor but it’s the biggest challenge I face at the moment. For example, in the last few weeks of term 1, some teams were still researching, other teams were writing their scripts and about three teams were ready to do their storyboards. It was difficult to determine when I should stop the whole class and have a quick session on how to draw storyboards because three teams were up to it or teach it to each cluster of teams when they were ready to do the storyboards. One of the biggest challenges are towards the end of projects when a few teams finish and some teams haven’t. This isn’t like some kids finishing a worksheet a few minutes before the others. Since these are projects spanning weeks, some teams might finish a few hours or a few days before others

Overall I find project based learning requires a lot more effort to design learning experiences for than the more traditional lessons, but projects provide more intellectual rigour and allow students to enjoy learning rather than seeing it as ‘school work’.

I’m more than happy to continue this journey and I don’t see myself turning back.

10 thoughts on “Project based learning – a continuing journey

  1. Well said! Keep the faith and stay the course – I love PBL as well. Lots of work, but the results are worth it. I love how my kids are engaged in their own learning, and going deeper, further, getting better results. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I am very interested in student self regulation.often teams are criticized and overlooked because the students progress at different rates. This is the point no class is homogenous and as they work out how to be ate and progress at different rates then the teacher feedback is even more important and needed immediately . Of course the student evaluations are also very important in the teacher judging what to do next or teacher the three groups ready got the next step
    And addresses the needs of those still
    Struggling to make the team work.the complexity of this process is exactly what we want and the next step is determined by what the groups need and their progress in learning to learn this way. Imagine how well they will be able to do this I’m year 9 or 10 after a few years practice !

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  4. I just visited your students’ blog and was wondering if they curate it or if you do? How do you get them to actively engage in the blog? My students think of it as a generally annoying assignment.
    Great ideas on PBL here — thanks for sharing!

    • Hi HollyAnne

      I moderate the blog. Some of them upload their own work which I approve, but do to technical/admin issues, some of the students upload their work onto Edmodo and then I upload it to the blog. I haven’t made the blog “compulsory”. I just tell them it’s a way to share what they’ve learnt with people outside the school and they love seeing comments on their posts.

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  7. Hi Alice, I’m going to be a first year teacher beginning in a couple weeks. I’ll have 5 graphic design classes grades 9 – 12, as well as a photography course and an animation course. I’ve spent most of my career as a web and graphic designer, so I’m planning to utilize a website, video tutorials, forms, and project based learning to teach my class.

    I’m a little nervous since it’s my first year teaching because from your blog posts it sounds like what I’m doing with PBL may be a little too ambitious. But to be honest, since I’m coming from a professional design background, collecting homework and doling out grades seems totally foreign to me. As a matter of fact I distinctly remember them telling us in art school, “Your grades don’t matter. All that matters is your portfolio.” Making the classes model the professional industry just seems like common sense.

    I have some of my ideas listed out on the website I created for my classes at Am I in over my head? What do you think?

  8. Hello Alice. As a preservice teacher how do I when I graduate plan lessons that are meaningful for the students and achieve learning outcomes? Whether it is PBL or any other pedagogy how do I make merge students learning outcomes with meaningful learning? For every lesson and every topic? How do I know I am doing this? I read your blog and I see that you solicit feedback from your students at every opportunity and use surveys but how do I plan a lesson that is headed in the right direction. I know I need feedback in order to self reflect but I want to start well.

    • Hi Kare

      You would’ve observed more experienced teachers as a student teacher and picked up on what engages students and what doesn’t. I think when you first start you need to make sure you link what students are learning to the real world. Students need to know what they are learning is useful to them now. I would also recommend a range of activities in each lesson – a mixture of listening, hands on, independent writing tasks, group work, etc.

      In terms of feedback, if you want more regular feedback than the end-of-topic surveys, you can have your students complete exit slips, where they write on slip of paper what they have learnt that lesson and what they enjoyed the most.

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