On Psychological Safety in Project Based Learning

The standard team experience in higher ed is motivated by a deeply ingrained understanding that the grade is paramount and that each team member is more overwhelmed in their other courses than anyone else in the group. The routine begins by setting aside minimal time and mental capacity toward assessing and probing the problem while devoting the majority of collaboration time on exploring the ways that will result in the best academic performance in the least amount of time.

For the most part, the gut of any project is bland and a half-hearted revision of a previous year’s work. In a given course, any team that identifies an unseen opportunity and proposes a creative solution is dismissed as investing too much time; their course load must be easy. In a given team, a passionate team member proposing opportunities and ideas is met with team approval with the qualification that the individual carries out the work necessary to execute their proposed ideas.

When institutions aren’t intentional about the experience, it is difficult to expect psychological safety to be present in a majority of teams. Below are the major impacts of not ensuring teams have fostered relationships and established psychological safety amongst their group.

Approaching the problem becomes second to crafting a solution

The biggest loss is that innovation is seen in the context of the outcome not in the opportunity identified. Innovation addresses dilemmas, not products. In STEM fields, students assess their peer’s work on the novelty and time spent on the solution. We don’t acknowledge or reward strong approaches to problems as we attribute them to a difference in environmental scanning as opposed to something more intentional.

Students become self-serving and less focused on the team

Rarely do students confront teammates when they aren’t contributing enough in the eyes of the other team members. A peer evaluation form becomes the escape and students are assured that as long as they put in the required amount of time they will be rewarded. This translates to just about nothing outside of academia.

Students can’t identify solutions without being predisposed to previous solutions

Each course is associated with famous projects and former students tell their peers that are entering the course their experiences and projects. Students process this information and use it to their advantage in the form of making a nearly exact spin off of the projects they have heard before

I don’t need to state the benefits of subscribing to Project Based Learning. However, if institutions are promoting and advertising these programs, they need to be more thoughtful on the student experience and less on using it as a tool solely for content as opposed to something more broad. Project based learning’s best asset isn’t that it is a social way to learn static material, it is the skills learned alongside the content and I fear in many instances we have lost the latter.