Project-Based Learning, or PBL, is an exciting, constructionist instructional strategy that puts an authentic challenge forward as the centerpiece of a unit. In a hands-on, group endeavor, students engage in a well-planned process of discovery and assemble a product that demonstrates their content-knowledge. PBL can be difficult to execute well. Students will need ample scaffolding, front-loaded content, carefully chosen groups, explicit instructions, varied assessments and ample feedback. Fortunately, project-based learning is made easier with educational technology.
Edutopia’s Vanessa Vega published a useful review of the research surrounding PBL. The evidence-based keys to success and the known pitfalls are full of opportunities to take advantage of a blended classroom. Leveraging a one-to-one ratio of students to WiFi enabled devices can make teachers’ lives easier while making your PBL more resilient and flexible.
An Online PBL
The most obvious iteration of educational technology’s role in PBL would be to direct students to build a project using their computers or tablets. There are scores of websites, apps and resources that give students the power to build powerful content that can have an authentic impact. Videos posted to YouTube and edited using iMovie, lectures made with Educreations, or websites created in Google Sites are just a few of the ways teachers could construct an online PBL. But for many teachers, this form of edtech will not make project-based learning easier. An instructor will need a high degree of technical confidence to manage a class full of web designers. There are instead ways to use classroom-ready technologies that will not add another layer of obstacles.
Are your students ready?
A skilled lawyer will never ask a question to which they don’t already know the answer. A skilled teacher will never give a summative assessment without knowing how their students will answer. Frequent checks for understanding and other formative assessments will allow an instructor to carefully measure student comprehension well before the “big one.” A project requires students to apply a wide array of skills. You can take a few simple steps to prepare for this and improve your chances for success.
First step is to identify the concepts students will need before the project ever begins. For example, if your ambitious project is to speak at city council meeting about concerns of water contamination, you may want to equip them with ecological vocabulary and frame of reference so they can continue research independently. Give mini projects in advance of the big project to see how students fair in a more independent environment. Revise and retry until you’ve gotten the knowledge and the procedures down pat.
Next, enter the learning targets into your Course / Class Editor in ExitTicket. With a few clicks, you can link the questions in every ExitTicket assessment to the concepts and skills students need. Your class will be accountable for getting proficient in the necessary concepts before they’re qualified to engage in the project. And once they see their scores in each standard turn green, they will have an additional degree of earned confidence.
Front-loading your instruction using ExitTicket will not only provide you with quantitative data showing your students’ readiness, it will also give you a better understanding of their strengths and struggles. You can use this data to build groups that have complementary strengths.
A student’s academic performance is far more nuanced than a class average. Parsing their grade into the concepts within your curriculum can give you the insight to match a student that has mastered a skill with a student that needs help with that specific concept.
Assessments and Feedback
Varied assessments are a critical component to a successful PBL unit. A rubrics with language that is accessible to students and referenced frequently is the basis of success. But there has to be more frequent and varied types of assessments to supplement the core rubric. Frequent checks provide the guidance and accountability that maintain your project’s structure.
ExitTicket can help. Ungraded practice assessments about the higher ordered concepts students should be discovering can help nudge students in the right direction while recognizing those that are “getting it.” Polls can discretely allow students to rate their groups and provide the teacher with an essential intervention hotlist. And since explicit instructions are so essential for projects to thrive, it can also be helpful to give students short assessments about the procedures they should be following to execute their group work.
The feedback you can give by including ExitTicket in your PBL is so much richer and specific. Pulling a student to the side and explaining you’re concerned will go a lot smoother if there is data to reference. More importantly, the data is associated to a specific skill. It’s not an issue of being a bad student, it’s an issue of this concrete target. Interventions can happen when they’re needed most and can be about the topic that’s most needed.