Student Research Project – crowd-sourcing feedback

This is a draft version of a Year 8 assessment task called the Student Research Project. It is quite a task that spans over a month where students plan, conduct, analyse and present on a scientific experiment.

This assessment task has already gone through a few feedback cycles within my school, but I’d like some feedback on it from educators, parents, scientists or anyone beyond that. The task is designed so that it caters for a range of teachers and students. For example the task leaves it up to the teacher and their students to decide HOW they will present the task (they can submit it as a traditional word-processed document or they can make a video, etc). The task can also be turned into project-based learning for those classes that have gone down that path.

Hold it right there. We learn about black holes in Year 10, not in Year 8

This term my Year 8 class has been running Science News. Science News is where each student in the class takes turns in presenting a science news item that they have found interesting. They have to showcase  the science news item in a two minute presentation. The purpose of Science News is to expose students to the latest discoveries in science. I wanted them to know that science is everywhere.

However, Science News has also taught me new things and not just scientific things. One Science News item challenged how I was designing my learning for my students and how our education system designs learning for our students. Daniel talked about new discoveries on black holes. You can read Daniel’s speech to the class here. Right after Daniel finished his speech, half of the class’ hands shot up with questions.

“What exactly are black holes?”

“What happens when you go into a black hole?”

“I heard that time slows down when go inside a black hole. Is that true?”

“If we can’t see a black hole. How do we know it is there?”

“What is a light year?”

I was really happy that my students were so enthusiastic about learning more on black holes. So what did I do? I spent about 5 minutes skimming through the basics of gravity, dark matter and the speed of light and then I said, “OK. We actually learn about this stuff in Year 10. We need to stop now and continue learning about the ozone layer.”

While ozone in the Earth’s atmosphere is very important and Year 8s were also interested in ozone, I felt really guilty in almost extinguishing my students’ curiosity in black holes because the syllabus said that they should learn it in Year 10 and right now they should be learning about the ozone layer. I’m sure many teachers have faced this kind of situation before but it really got me thinking on how the current education system does so much to restrict the learning of our students.

Why do we have to learn about black holes in Year 10?

To be more accurate, students in NSW learn about black holes in Year 9 or 10 (It’s this thing we call Stage 5, which is Year 9 and 10). I understand that the need to learn age-appropriate concepts. For example, many early primary school-aged students may not have the cognitive ability to tackle abstract concepts (you know, because of all the Piaget stuff). However, I don’t see why if my Year 8s want to learn about black holes (and I know they will be able to), they can’t learn about it because the syllabus says they learn it in Stage 5. When you learn swimming, your age doesn’t determine what kind of things you learn, it’s how fast you are progressing and what you are ready to learn.

Why can’t we learn about black holes and the ozone layer?

Why couldn’t I have let my students go online on their phones and look up videos and websites that helped answer their questions about black holes and share it with the class, and then continue with the ozone layer? I wanted to, but I only have 3 hours with them a week and I only see them an hour at a time. Last year I had the same class for 14 hours a week in an integrated curriculum and I would’ve let them explore black holes and then continue with ozone layer because I had the flexibility to do so. However, now I am back to a more traditional and rigid timetable where learning starts and stops with the school bell. Previously I have blogged about the challenges of implementing project based learning in such a traditional school structure. The more I try to implement project based learning or anything that builds on students’ curiosity and passion or anything that personlises their learning, the more I want to knock down the existing school structure. A few days ago, I was in a workshop with Greg Whitby on teaching and learning in a Web2.0 world. He said the timetable is the one thing that is stopping effective learning and teaching. I couldn’t agree with that point more.

Greg also talked about agile learning spaces. I have to admit when I first heard of agile learning spaces a few years ago, I just liked the look of them. The bright colours and funky furniture looked particularly attractive when you are used to 1950s furniture in classrooms. But since I’ve started PBL, I get it a bit more. So going back to the black hole scenario … In an agile learning space style of learning, Daniel would’ve presented his science news to the whole cohort of Year 8 or a mixture of students from different year groups in one large space. The ones who were interested in learning more about black holes can go with one teacher and the others can go with the other teachers to continue to learn about the ozone layer. Teaching and learning is no longer restricted to one teacher teaching 30 students. Depending on the need, you can be teaching one student or 10 students or 80 students. The space enables you to do so. There are no walls that says you have to teach 30 students at a time. There are also no bells to tell you that you need to spend 60 minutes on learning something; you take as long as you need to. The video below gives you an idea of what learning is like in an agile learning environment.

And now I don’t how to end this post. I sort of feel disillusioned. I want to knock down the walls of my classroom but realistically that can’t happen. Not just yet anyway. So when the school week starts again, it will be back to the status quo. *Sigh*

The challenges of PBL in a traditional school structure

I’ve been trialling project based learning for about a year. Last year I was lucky enough to have a year 7 class for 14 hours a week for 5 different subjects so I was able to easily design and implement cross-curriculuar units of work that were framed  by project based learning. This year I’m back to traditional high school teaching where I see kids for 60 minutes at a time. I had to change my game plan for project based learning. What I have found most challenging is balancing the students’ passion for learning with ‘getting through the syllabus’.

I’ve just finished a unit called ‘Sharks: Friends or Foes’, which is basically a unit on ecosystems and food webs. I modified the unit with a PBL framework. Instead of just looking at food web diagrams in a textbook or playing with interactive food webs online, students acted as scientists and produced a product for a shark scientists conference to convince the community whether sharks are our friends or foes in the midst of all the media attention on shark attacks.

The project was done throughout the unit in different stages and students also had to learn about population sampling techniques, food webs and how energy flows through ecosystems. During the unit they also had a real shark scientist talk to them.

From the results in the students’ pre-tests and post tests, all students made huge progress in their understanding of ecological relationships. On average students improved over 40% between their pre-test scores and their post-test scores.

In comparison to last year, the students’ teamwork skills and self-regulation skills have massively improved. My main challenge this year is time. PBL takes time. A lot more time than traditional teaching. The unit that ‘Sharks: Friends or Foes’ is based on is supposed to take 5 weeks maximum, but my modified PBL unit took 8 ½ weeks. There were times that I was feeling pressured to rush my students to make sure I don’t fall behind and so that I can get through the syllabus in time. Last year, I saw my students for large blocks of time (5 hours straight twice a week) and they can use these chunks of time to work on their movies, posters and other products for their projects. This year I see them for 3 separate hours a week and this lack of continuity makes the product creation process a lot more challenging.

But does it have to be this way?

This term I realised that I wished high schools did not to have separate subjects. I wish schools didn’t require students to walk in and out of classrooms like they are on a conveyor belt.

I wish every unit was cross-curricular so that subject experts can work together as a team and students can have more time to develop their passions for learning and be knowledge creators rather than just consumers. If you need 4 hours straight to work on a science/maths/geography project then you should be able to do it without being prevented by a timetable structure. Is there a reason why we need to have separate subjects? What is the reason for timetables?

I don’t have the answer or solutions to these questions, but I hope education is moving towards this direction. In the meantime I’m going to take small steps. I’ll continue with PBL with my year 8s and have already approached another faculty at my school to design and implement a cross-curricular PBL unit.

Learning in Term 3

Now that Term 3 has come to an end, I am again analysing the data from Year 7’s evaluation of their learning. Year 7s complete a weekly reflection on their learning as well as an end-of-term evaluation. Their end-of-term evaluations gives me an idea on how they feel about how I structure their learning activities so that I can adjust the next term’s learning accordingly.

For Term 3 our project based learning focus has been on newspapers. For 8 weeks, students deconstructed the language features of news articles and put together a range of articles on the Olympics, the Paralympics and other newsworthy items. Some of these articles were written in groups and some were written individually. Year 7s then selected some of these articles to put together a newspaper using Microsoft Publisher. Each news article involved students revising the article at least twice using the goals, medals and missions structure of feedback. In Term 3 we also did science experiments on Tuesdays that were based on sport science under the theme of the Olympics. For half of Term 3 the class worked with Year 6 students from Merrylands East Public School on Murder under the Microscope, an online environmental science game where students acted as forensic scientists to solve a crime involving the pollution of a catchment area. One new activity I introduced in Term 3 were weekly revision quizzes. These quizzes were essentially thirty-minute pen-and-paper-exams that tested Year 7’s understanding of concepts we have learnt during the week. However, they were allowed to refer to their books if necessary (I just think this is more realistic of real life. When in your life do you come across something you can’t do and force yourself to sit there for 30 minutes without makin any attempt on finding out how to do it. I also think it gives a purpose to students’ book work and instil in them a routine of what revision and studying looks like and feels like.) With these weekly revision quizzes, students mark each other’s work. The quiz is divided into concept areas such as algebra, language features of newspapers and scientific investigations and marks are awarded separately to each concept. Students then look at their performance for each concept area and write a short reflection on what they are good at and what they need to improve on.

So this week, Year 7s completed an end-of-term evaluation of their learning on Survey Monkey.

Term 3’s evaluation consisted of these questions:

  • What is your favourite subject?
  • What makes this subject your favourite subject? What do you like about it?
  • Rate how much you enjoy the following activities (students choose from “I enjoy it”, “I find it OK” and “I don’t enjoy it”
    • Project work
    • Science experiments
    • Maths and numeracy
    • Murder under the Microscope
    • Edmodo homework
    • Rate how much you learn from the following activities (students choose from “I learn lots from it”, “I learn some things from it” and “I barely learn anything from it”)
      • Project work
      • Science experiments
      • Maths and numeracy
      • Murder under the Microscope
      • Edmodo homework
      • Do you want to continue doing project work on Mondays and Fridays?
      • What are 3 things you have learnt from the newspaper project?
      • List 3 things you want to improve on next term.
      • If you were the teacher of 7L, what would you do to improve learning for the class?

So here are the results:

What is your favourite subject?

A pie chart of Year 7's favourite subject

I’m going to conclude by just saying it takes a lot to beat PDHPE as students’ favourite subject.

Reasons why integrated curriculum is their favourite subject

Below are some of the responses from students who chose integrated curriculum as their favourite subject:

Because we get to have fun in those classes and do interesting stuff.


The experiments we do and how all the subjects are put into one class.


It involves technology.


There are so many opportunities to do fun activities and showing people my work.


Some of the major themes from this question are that students find integrated curriculum classes “fun”. They also like using technology such as laptops and tablets for their learning, as well as having 5 subjects embedded into one class.  Some students enjoy having their work showcased on the class blog.

Rate how much you enjoy the following activities

A sector bar graph showing year 7's enjoyment rating of different activities

Rate how much you learn from the following activities

A sector bar graph showing how much year 7s learn from different activities

What are 3 things you have learnt from the newspaper project?

 A word cloud was created for students’ responses to this question where the larger the word in the word cloud, the more frequent that word appeared in the responses.

A word cloud showing what students have learnt in the newspaper project

List 3 things you want to improve on next term.

This term was the first time students wrote features of effective team work for their improvements for the following term. In previous end-of-term evaluations, students often listed relatively superficial things they’d like to improve on such as write faster or finish work faster. For this term’s evaluation, the majority of students listed features of team work skills such as listening to other students, working as a team and self control. Many students also identified specific areas of content they’d like to improve on such as algebra or types of scientific variables. This is in contrast to how they listed their improvements in previous evaluations where many students wrote umbrella terms such as numeracy or literacy.

For me, this shows an increased level of maturity in the way they assess their learning. While I can’t attribute the cause of this change to any particular strategy I’ve used, I do have a strong feeling it is to do with the goals, medals and missions structure of providing feedback in their PBL tasks and also their weekly reflections on their revision quizzes. Over a term I think most Year 7s have increased their self-awareness of their own learning.

What have I learnt?

For most of this year I have been experimenting on strategies on guiding students to become more effective learners. The PBL initiatives, the goals-medals-missions structure of feedback, the weekly revision quizzes and weekly reflections of learning have all been things aimed at allowing my students to further develop into effective learners. While I always knew that features such as working together and being self-aware of your strengths and areas for improvement are equally important as understanding subject-specific concepts, I think teaching my Year 7s for 5 different subjects have really made that clear to me. When I think back to how I structure my learning in previous years for my science classes it has always been more focused on content rather than developing students into effective learners. When I do eventually return to teaching science classes only, the way I will structure learning for those classes will be very different to how I used to structure them. Teaching an integrated curriculum has so far been one of the best professional learning I’ve had.

Action learning with Minecraft – Cycle 1

Last term I decided to undertake an action learning project to see whether using feedback will improve students’ self regulation skills in project based learning. This came from my observations that some of my  Year 7 students, who work well in traditional, teacher-centred learning activities, displayed a lot of off-task behaviours in project based learning, which included being not staying with their teams, constantly changing their minds about their projects and other actions, which resulted in a very low-quality learning artefact being produced (see my previous post for more details). This happened in their 60 second science project, where they worked in teams to create a 60 second video on an astronomical phenomenon. Their latest project was to create a model Parthenon in Minecraft where the architecture followed the golden ratio. This project was broken into 4 stages where each stage had a goal and students and I had to assess on how well they have achieved their goal in the form of medals and missions.

Based on informal classroom observations, more students were on task than the previous project. From their survey data, more students said they knew what their team’s goal was, knew how they could help their team achieve that goal, stayed with their team and were on task.

Note: The first graph shows the survey data from the 60 second science project while the second and third graphs show the data from the Minecraft Parthenon project. (Sorry, the categories have been listed backwards in surveys 2 and 3.)

student survey results for self regulation

shows the data from the Minecraft Parthenon project

shows the data from the Minecraft Parthenon project

There were also selected students who struggled with self regulation skills more than the rest of the class in the 60 second science project. Let’s call them Student A, Student B and Student C. When I compared their data, this is what it showed:

student A's survey data over time

student B's survey data over time

student C's survey data over time

When I combine the students’ survey data with my own classroom observations, I can conclude that these three students have worked a lot better during our project sessions. They weren’t “perfect” though, but they did improve. I did see them looking up their own houses on Google Maps a few times while they were meant to be working on their Minecraft Parthenons.

However, I don’t think I can just conclude that giving effective student feedback will cause students to have better self regulation skills in project based learning. There were some major differences between the 60 second science project and the Minecraft Parthenon project:

  • Duration of the project – The 60 second science project lasted 8 weeks while the Minecraft Parthenon project only took 3 weeks. Students might work more effectively in shorter-duration projects.
  • General appeal of the project – While the class in general enjoyed both projects, there was a more heightened excitement about using Minecraft. The games based learning aspect might have affected students’ work ethic. Many students are also very familiar with Minecraft, while the 60 second science project involved students learning and applying unfamiliar concepts such as scripting and storyboarding.
  • Structure of the projects – The 60 second science project involved students working in a range of learning spaces. At any one session, some students were in our main classroom, some students were in another classroom to film, some students were in another classroom so they can record audio. This created a slightly chaotic atmosphere even though it was organised chaos. In the Minecraft Parthenon project, all students were on the mezzanine level of the library. For students who are easily distracted, such an environmental difference might also affect their ability to self regulate.

I’m now coming up to cycle 2 of my action learning project. The next project will involve year 7s creating their own newspapers to report on the London Olympics. I’m staying with feedback and self regulation but will make a few changes to the way data is collected:

  • Student surveys will have additional questions that ask them how well they understood the feedback and how well they know how to act on that feedback
  • Observations from other teachers – I’d like someone else to come into the class and observe Student A, Student B and Student C as well as the rest of the class and note what they are doing at what times of the project session

Cycle 2 will begin in week 2 of Term 3 so watch this space for updates. Also watch this space for updates on how my team of science teachers have been using action learning to improve student learning in science at our school.

Project based learning in an integrated curriculum – students’ perspectives

As Term 2 draws to a close I have surveyed my students again on their perception of classroom learning. I regularly gather and analyse feedback from my students in order to inform my future directions in designing their learning activities. Every week my students complete a “Reflection of my learning” survey and at the end of each term they complete a survey where they evaluate the teaching and learning of the term.

a screenshot of the reflection of my learning survey

This term has been my second term teaching an integrated curriculum class. I teach just one Year 7 class this year. I have this class for English, Maths, Science, Geography and History. This means that lessons often have content from a mixture of KLAs. This is a middle years initiative my school is implementing for the first time. The aim is to allow a smoother primary-secondary transition and to implement best practices in teaching and learning for middle years students.

Over the last two terms, I have also been experimenting with project based learning. My Year 7 class work on long term projects where on two hours every Monday and Friday, they work in teams on their projects. Our two latest projects are the 60 second science project (a combination of Science and English) and the Parthenon Project (a combination of History and Maths). In these projects, each team work at their own pace and they have choice over certain aspects of the project such us the method of presentation, the content, etc. To see some work samples from these projects, visit our class blog.

So what do the students think? Here are the main themes from the results:

Integrated Curriculum is most of the students’ favourite subject. (Note that in Term 1 PDPHE was most students’ favourite subject)

A pie graph showing students' favourite subjects

The reasons cited by students for Integrated Curriculum being their favourite subject followed several themes, which were:

  • Having learning activities they thought was fun and interesting
  • Having an enthusiastic teacher who makes the class fun and interesting
  • Students noticing how they improved – We have been implementing the goals, medals and missions model of feedback over these two terms. I don’t give out marks or grades.
  • Project based learning – Students mentioned how they liked having more freedom and choice over the way they presented their learning in these projects. One student mentioned that most lessons are about getting “the right answer” while she is able to express herself more creatively in projects
  • Learning different subjects together
  • Doing science experiments – The most interesting thing from this was that students mentioned how they enjoyed doing experiments where they did not know what will happen. They also mentioned how they liked experiments that allowed them to see changes overtime. We have been doing a lot of science experiments where the content was a mixture of science and geography. They were environmental science activities from Murder Under the Microscope where experiments required observations over several days. Students did not mention they enjoyed science experiments because they involved explosions or flames, which are often mentioned by students in previous year groups.
Students were also asked how much they enjoyed particular types of learning activities and how much they thought they learnt from them. The top three activities that students enjoyed learning were also the activities they felt they learnt the most from.
bar graph showing students' enjoyment of activities
bar graph showing how much students thought they learnt from different activities

When asked in the survey whether they would like to continue project based learning in Term 3, 100% of students answered yes. In my observations and conversations with students, they clearly enjoy project based learning and are on task most of the time. From my observations they are also learning important skills in self-regulation, time management and team work, which will become increasingly important in their later years of high school. From my conversations with students, many of them often say Mondays and Friday’s are their favourite days because they have “project time” and they get very disappointed when I have to sometimes move their project sessions to different days due to learning spaces and resources being booked out.

So where to now?

Well for one thing, I really want to lead my faculty in using data such as these weekly reflections and surveys to drive future directions in teaching and learning. I have found the weekly surveys to be an invaluable source of information to inform my teaching. Yes they take a long time to analyse but I have felt that my own teaching has improved massively because of it.

I am also going to continue project based learning. PBL has been a highly stressful experience at times (see my previous posts). Students enjoy doing them and feel they are learning lots from it. Their formal assessment results also show they are achieving highly as well. So it’s a win-win situation 🙂

I find it interesting that the results show such a positive response for science. There is a trend for students in Year 7/8 to lose interest in science. Many science teachers think that students need to be engaged through explosive experiments. My Year 7s’ survey responses show a different story. They liked experiments which were long term and where they did not know the results before doing the experiment. This data will allow us to better design science learning for our other students.

Action learning with Minecraft

This year I have one year 7 class. Yes, only one class. I’m a high school teacher so this is a massive change. The year 7 class I have is an integrated curriculum class. This means I have them for English, Maths, Science, History and Geography. I saw this as the perfect opportunity to try out project based learning. For the past 8 weeks or so, we have been working on a project called 60 second science where students worked in teams to produce a video lasting no longer than 60 seconds. Students can choose a topic for their video from astronomy, classification or microbes. We just had our last “project session” for this project. The majority of groups have now submitted their videos. Here is one of the videos:

In one of my previous posts, I have said one of the biggest challenges in project based learning was students’ self regulation skills. While the majority of students worked really well, there was a small group of students who regularly walked around, didn’t stay with their teams and did not focus on the task for lengthy periods of time. Even when they had to state their goals at the beginning of their project sessions and had mid session checkpoints, they still had difficulties staying on track. To put things in perspective, these students work really well in traditional learning activities. When we do quizzes, maths worksheets and other teacher-centred activities they are your perfect students.

In my previous post, I said I would need to put more checkpoints into the project process. But I wasn’t sure what I would do in these checkpoints. Do I just simply ask the students whether they are on track? Do I look at their work and say they’re doing well? I knew if I don’t do something different, the next project will involve me telling off the same students by constantly reminding them to stay with their teams and stay on task. I want my students to self regulate and doing this won’t allow them to develop those skills. I’m also not a big fan of using fear to force students to self regulate (well, it’s not really self regulation if you have to threaten detentions for students to stay on task).

So I’ve decided to undertake an action learning project. I had an inkling that the students who experienced difficulties in self regulation didn’t know how they were progressing during their projects. They were thrown into an eight week project without regularly knowing what things they were doing effectively and what things they need to improve on. While I did have the project broken up into four phases, it didn’t have a formalised way for students to self assess. So I’m doing an action learning project to find out whether formalised feedback cycles will improve student regulation in project based learning.

I’ve so far collected some baseline data from the weekly survey I give to my students.

student survey results for self regulation

The data shows that a small group of students:

  • don’t know what the team’s goals were
  • did know what their team’s goals were but did not know what they can do to help their team achieve those goals
  • didn’t know how to negotiate with their team

From the data I think I had a few lost lambs in the classroom, who knew they were meant to be creating a video, who had done their scripting and storyboarding, but couldn’t piece them together.

So for their next project, I will be embedding feedback cycles in the form of goals, medals and missions, which we already use for our writing tasks. Our next project will be The Parthenon Project. It will involve Year 7s building a model Parthenon that follows the golden ratio, a somewhat “magical” number that the ancient Greeks used a lot in their architecture and art (and we still use today). Year 7s will be able to construct their Parthenon in Minecraft or with other materials like Lego. The project will have four stages: (1) Research and project planning; (2) Planning the Parthenon; (3) Constructing the Parthenon; and (4) Presenting the Parthenon. Each stage will involve student self assessment and teacher self assessment to allow students to monitor their own progress and learning process. The assessment will be based on a product that students produce at the end of each stage.

project outline for Parthenon Project

self assessment sample for Parthenon project

Students will continue to complete their weekly survey and that data will be used to see whether the feedback cycle will have any impact. The Parthenon Project starts this Friday. I’ll keep you updated. 🙂

Lessons learnt from project based learning

This year I embarked on a journey of project based learning with my year 7 class. The Year 7s have been doing mini projects in the first term. They have made infographics, videos and models. These mini projects allowed them to develop team work skills, time management skills and self-regulation skills.

At the moment, my Year 7s are doing their first long-term project. They are now working in teams to make a one-minute long video to explain an astronomical concept (the occurrence of day and night, seasons, tides, etc). They will enter the video into the 60 second science competition.  This project didn’t involve a simple point-and-shoot video. The project had four phases: (1) Research; (2) Pre-production (scripting and storyboarding); (3) Filming; and (4) Post production. Students were guided through the processes of scripting, storyboarding and using video editing software for post-production.

We have 4 hours of “project time” a week and most students are on task. Each team needs to state their goals and also say why they needed certain equipment (such as iPads and laptops) before they started.

So far most teams are progressing well:

  • One team is extremely well prepared. They have spent time and effort into their script and storyboard. They have organised props and are filming against a Chroma key background. They will soon be working with a teacher who specialised post production skills to edit their video. This group is doing really well.
  • One team is highly experienced in creating videos, especially animated videos. They now spend their dedicated project lessons doing highly technical things that they learn from watching video tutorials.
  •  One team is now up to their post –production phase. This group was a little less prepared than the other teams in their scripts and storyboarding, so they found it difficult to negotiate during filming as each person had a different idea of how it should be done. In the end (with some suggestions on how to negotiate and compromise), they were able to finish their filming.
  • One team is using GoAnimate to make their video. This team has also completed a fairly detailed script and storyboard so their filming process was also straight forward.

However, one team is not progressing as well. They have changed their scripts and storyboard multiple times and is the only group who haven’t started filming. This team works well in traditional classroom activities, but seems to be overwhelmed in project based learning. Even when they state their goals at the start of a session, the goals would often change.

So the lessons I have learnt so far is:

  • Have more checkpoints in the project phases – Even though I broke up the project into the stages of research, pre-production, filming and post production, I should’ve built in checkpoints within each phase. For example, students had to get feedback from another group about their storyboard after drawing three scenes. This would’ve helped students gain more regular feedback.
  • Have a half session checkpoint where each group needs to report on the progress in reaching their goal.
  • Have restrictions placed on the task – Next time I would not only specify the video is 60 seconds long, but only contains a certain number of scenes. This would’ve prevented students from going overboard and becoming overwhelmed with the process.
  • Have small sessions on how to work in a team, how to communicate effectively and how to negotiate and compromise.
  • Have each group nominate a project manager who is responsible for making sure the team stays on track.

I am just a beginner in project based learning and I am learning a lot of lessons. What lessons have you learnt from project based learning?

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.