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Pursuing Project-Based Learning: Tips and Tricks for Implementation

By Nicole Jamerson, 7th Grade Civics Teacher

Project-Based Learning (PBL) is one of those educational buzzwords we hear so often.

You may have also heard of problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning, or even place-based learning. My experience focuses on Project Based Learning (PBL), which can be defined as “a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge” (What is PBL?, 2022).

Some teachers implement portions of it, while others utilize it a few times a year, and there are some educators who teach exclusively using PBL. A few years ago I was one of those teachers who liked the idea and sound of PBL, but was not exactly sure what it entailed. I had my students do projects in my classroom, but PBL seemed to be so much more. In fact, I initially found it to be very intimidating.

How to Start Project-Based Learning

When I first began my research into PBL, words such as “dessert” and “main course” were being used. And one might wonder, what does PBL even have to do with food? When PBL is first described to people, it is often mentioned that while projects are normally considered dessert, meaning the project comes after the content is learned, while PBL is meant to be the whole meal or “main course”, meaning that the project is the content learned (PBL Works, 2022). And while that can sound great in theory, the reality of implementing it can be time-consuming and the whole process can take longer than normal lessons might. One thing teachers are always lacking is time. With standardized testing and deadlines, there is pressure to push through the content. And while PBL may seem great, the thought of using it in the classroom can be daunting.

I have been utilizing project-based learning in my classroom for the last three years, and while I am by no means an expert, here are some of my tips for getting started:

Start small

There are many different elements of PBL. The resource, PBL Works highlights “Seven Essential Project Design Elements” which include: a challenge problem/question, sustained inquiry, authenticity, students' voice and choice, reflection, critique and revision, and a public product (Larmer, 2020). Choose one or two and work to add them into your classroom. In fact, you might even already be utilizing some of these elements. Choice and reflection are easy ones to begin implementing and these were two I found that I was already using within my classroom. I have used choice menus with my students and very often I incorporate reflections after content is learned.

This slide is part of the final product for a project with the driving question: “How can we design exhibits for a museum about the Covid-19 pandemic?” We ended up designing a virtual exhibit using Google Slides.

Do a “mini-project”

While it may seem to go against PBL to have a mini project, you can slowly build up your capacity for incorporating the elements of PBL by offering a challenge problem/question that relates to your content and bring together a few of the other elements such as voice and choice, reflection and revision. Give students the driving question and provide scaffolded research documents and processes for them to utilize, then offer them choice either in who they can work with or in the final product that they can make. You may even want to offer both. Somewhere within the process, offer feedback from yourself as well as incorporate an opportunity for peer feedback. Finally, have students reflect on both the project itself and the process that they went through.

Making it public makes it real

This element was the one that I found to be the most intimidating, yet the most rewarding. When we began presenting to others or sharing our final products with people in the school and community, my students found a greater sense of accomplishment. We have created a virtual museum that was sent out to the community, a podcast that was used to help incoming middle school students, created academic infographic posters for teachers to use in their classrooms, and more! When I added a public element, I also found that my students worked harder and wanted to make their final products even better than they might have for it to be just a grade.

Use rubrics

I found that my students sometimes wanted clear expectations of what needed to be included within the final product. While I initially worried that it would stifle creativity, I did find that it helped to provide them a sound structure by which to work on their projects. One way to combat that potential worry is to have the students help in the rubric creation process. I have begun to do this and have found that when they help with the rubric design, they take more ownership over the product outcome.

This is an example of a rubric that students helped to create.

Have fun with it and let go of some control

For many teachers, this can be the most difficult part. At times it feels like not much is being accomplished and some students may need more guidance and direction than others. But what I have found more often than not is how much my students have surprised me with their creativity and innovation. Students collaborating can also yield some very unique results. It allows for students to bounce ideas off of one another and build upon each other’s ideas to create something amazing.

In all reality, the “main course” concept can be very intimidating. But if you just try PBL as a snack first, then you can build your way to the whole meal. Start with just a small element of PBL you can realistically implement in a class period or for an assignment. If you find that PBL is not for you, do not feel bad or like you were not successful in any way. There are so many ways to teach and using project-based learning is simply one of them.

Nicole Jamerson is a middle school civics teacher. She works with some amazing students in Orlando, Florida and loves helping them learn more about the government and country we live in. She has been teaching for over 6 years and in the last 3 years has been incorporating Project-Based Learning in her classroom. She and her husband who also teaches love having their summers off to road trip and travel the country!

References

Larmer, J. (2020, July 22). Gold Standard PBL: Essential Project Design elements.

PBLWorks. Retrieved May 7, 2022, from https://www.pblworks.org/blog/gold-standard-pbl-essential-project-design-elements

PBL Works. (n.d.). “Doing a project” vs. project-based learning. PBLWorks. Retrieved May 7, 2022, from https://www.pblworks.org/doing-project-vs-project-based-learning

What is PBL? PBLWorks. (n.d.). Retrieved May 7, 2022, from https://www.pblworks.org/what-is-pbl

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