Regaining a Student’s Perspective on Project-based Learning

After playing the role of teacher for several years, I picked up the role of student again in the Fall of 2009 in pursuit of a Masters degree. After paying a grand for my first course, I fully expected lengthy lectures and a series of unit-based tests. When there were no lectures at all and large projects instead of tests dotted the landscape of the course syllabus, I was taken aback. Being the recipient of another teacher’s choices also gave me new insight on how my students may view my class. Here’s my take-away:

Impact of Inflated Project GradesFake A’s
There were projects into which I poured blood, sweat, and tears and received, of course, an A. Then there were projects that I slapped together because of life demands, and those projects received …. an A. PgradeA Wow, fake A’s are so deflating. I had to decide that my personal investment into a project was not to earn a grade but to learn. One professor handled this differently. She used a rubric that totaled to 100 points that she then divided by ten to generate a project score out of 10. This allowed her to show one area was less than perfect (she noticed!), yet the score in the end represented success.

Impact of Project Feedback
Even small amounts of personal teacher feedback powerfully impacted me. A project, unlike a written test, involved a personal investment. As a student, I scoured the graded project for any teacher-given feedback. An authentic, related comment to my work would go a long ways. As a teacher– I have to confess — I tend to become overwhelmed when grading projects and tend to skimp on the feedback portion in an effort to be finished. What am I doing to my students’ motivation levels in the long run when I do? Some student projects stand out to the teacher for awhile. I’ll see former students, and often a great project that they completed comes to mind. (Am I alone in this?) In compensation for the lack of feedback I gave at the time, I’m quick to tell them, “I still think about that great project you did on ________.”

Impact of group work
No shocker here: Group work is challenging. A bad group combination actually produces less than can be done individually. One project comes to mind; the randomly-chosen group spent more time fighting on direction. On the other hand, the power of good group can produce a better product than could be produced on my own. (Shout-out to my Virtual Mentoring Project Group! For this group, our professor required us to build our own groups by marketing our ideas to others in attempt to draw teammates to our project.)

Now a graduate of a project-based program, I have an overall sense of accomplishment and learning, but I also feel empowered that I CAN still accomplish and learn more on my own. Project-based learning — powerful stuff.

AlgebraSimplifiedIconDawn is a secondary Algebra teacher in Maryland with a B.S. in Secondary Mathematics Education and a Masters in Information Science and Learning Technologies.

Projects from our Bloggers

Our bloggers have some favorite projects that they would like to share. Click on the icon if you would like to see the full product.

Dawn Roberts_Project Pic (1) Writing Linear Equations: Linear Function Art ProjectCreativity, technology, and algebra combine in this Liner Function Art Project to reinforce student understanding of writing equations for linear functions.  In this synthesis level project students create a unique design out of line segments and then recreate the picture using only algebraic functions with restricted domains.
A project from Dawn at Algebra Simplified.  

Kim_FAVproj1To Kill a Mockingbird Tea Party
With testing mandates there is a lot of pressure, which can make school seem tedious at times, but I still try to have fun!  One of my favorite projects to complete is a character analysis activity and tea party for the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.  Completed at the end of their reading, this also provides a way to assess my students’ learning.  Additionally, because it involves dramatizing characters and contributing refreshments, students have opportunities to show-off their lesser known talents.  In fact, once I had a boy make homemade scones and Devonshire cream!
Kimberly Patrick, of OCBeach Teacher, enjoying her tea!

EllenBrain7 (1)MI Tasks to Merge Scientific Method and Innovation
Students enjoy inventing products and even creating their own tasks related to course content. This unit presents a basic scientific method + one mystery component that students apply to link content to their worlds beyond class. To start, students survey their unique intelligences and determine their team’s strengths.
From Ellen, at Brain Based Learning

TKAM Inquiry cover  Stand Up & Shout: The Mockingbird Project
This inquiry project is designed to not only teach students about the important themes in the novel, but also to help them apply the lessons they learn to their own lives. Students will reflect on the lessons they learn about tolerance and intolerance through writing prompts that are used after several sections in the novel. They will work together to plan and design a website that reflects their learning and demonstrates their own writing skills. The project also requires that they become heroes for real-life mockingbirds in their community. Finally, they will present their website and project to the class.
From Jackie, at Room 213

Company Project Thumbnail1The Company ProjectThis project combines creativity with real-world writing.  Students come up with a company and several products/ services.  They’ll write a company history and testimonials… but then they write Business letters that they trade with group mates who then respond.  Good practice writing letters and responding.  Includes addressing an envelope, too.  Wrap up with a flyer and/ or commercial.   This project works well with limited resources– they can trade tasks, or alternate using a computer, and I even re-use the tri-fold poster boards students don’t want to take home.
From Ms. Clair Dickson, from High School English on a Shoestring Budget.

Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose: The Twenty Percent Project

Project based learning is now accepted as a wonderful way to engage our students in an authentic learning process.  But what if we pushed it even further and let them decide what they want to learn?  It’s a fascinating–and scary– idea: give them twenty percent of their week to explore their own interests.  The theory is that they will spread their wings and fly.  Check out the resources below and see what you think.  Post your comments; we’d love to hear your responses!

Start by watching Dan Pink’s Ted talk on what really motivates us:

The Twenty-Percent Project

Designing 20% Time in Education

A Letter to Students & Parents

The Bad Idea Factory

Using Rhymes (or Raps) to Learn, Review, and Share

Reviewing history is even less fun for reluctant learners than learning it the first time.  But when they’re having fun with it, they forget they’re reviewing, or learning.  That’s the joy of project-based learning, such as a History Rhymes Project.

History Rhymes on Display For the History Rhymes project, I assigned pairs of students a time period.  With that time period, the students had to think of the most important thing or events and make a rhyme about it, to make it easy to remember.  Once we got past the whining about rhyming, and added rapping as a choice, (because they couldn’t rhyme… but could rap) they started to get into it.  They willingly grabbed their books and debated with their partner about what to include, and how to say it. They sifted through details to find the most important things and then rhyme them together.  The results were memorable, historically accurate, and students were talking about them ever after turning their posters in.

Great Depression RhymeThe rhymes (or raps) were not just fun to create and share in our classroom, I made sure to hang them prominently in the hallways, where other students passing by could stopp to read and enjoy.  And maybe remember a few things about history because of a catchy rhyme—like that rhyme about Columbus: “In 1492/ Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Watergate rhyme It was great to see students milling about the posters, reading and talking about the rhymes.  Students that “don’t like” History were willingly reading it in the hallway.  An added bonus.

This sort of rhyme (or rap) can work for many subjects—parts of any sort of science concept like cells or the body; characters or books in an English class; government (like School House Rocks videos from back in the day); and more.  It can work as review of prior concepts to start off the year or jig-saw type project to share new concepts with the class.

I wish I had done this project earlier in the semester because of the positive benefits of hanging them in the hallway.

CDickson Profile PicMs. Dickson spent 9 years teaching English (and History) to reluctant learners at an alternative high school.  She sells her English materials, featuring free eTexts and more project-based learning at her TPT store.

PBL & ELA: Using Lit to Tackle Big Issues

When I first heard about project-based learning, I was excited.  It just made so much sense: students active and engaged, working on skills with real world application to complete a collaborative project.  Most importantly, the project would be integrated into the course, and not an add-on at the end that asked them to paint a picture or do a video.  However, the add-on project was precisely the way I had been doing projects.  Students would finish a novel or a play then do a project, usually a painting or a video.  Guilty as charged.

I knew that PBL was something I wanted to dive into, but I was having trouble deciding how I could do PBL and still cover all of the curriculum in my lit classes.  It was the age-old conundrum: how do I do something that will lead to real learning when I have so much stuff to cover?

Armed with a handbook on PBL put out by the Buck Institute for Education (check out , I started trying to figure out how I could make this work in an English class.  BIE suggests that “at its core, the project is focused on teaching students important knowledge and skills, derived from standards and key concepts at the heart of academic subjects”, and that the inquiry process would have students “engaged in a rigorous, extended process of asking questions, using resources, and developing answers.”   So, I looked to the heart of my course, the texts.  When I did so, I discovered that the novels and play had a common theme: intolerance.  Within each text were lessons about why intolerance happens and shining examples of humans who make a bridge to tolerance.  Looking further, I realized that many of the short stories and non-fiction texts that I used could be easily tweaked to fit under this theme.  

intolerance posterSo I had my starting point.  I gave my students this handout at the beginning of the course, and told them they had a mission: to figure out why human beings treat each other badly and to figure out a way that they could make the world a more tolerant place.  During the course, students would work in groups to create a blog that explored what they were learning during our study of the texts, and to plan a project that would have them doing something to promote greater tolerance in their world.  After we completed each unit, students would reflect in their journals about what they had learned from the text.  Then, they get to work on their blogs, posting about the lessons they have learned and making suggestions about how we can promote understanding among people.  For the blogging component of the project, they had to use a variety of writing techniques, and find links to other texts, as well as interesting images that would enhance their messages.

Once we get further into the course, usually about half way through, students will start to plan their project.  TKAM Inquiry taskThey need to find a real-world way to promote tolerance, using multi-media to spread their message.   In order to keep them on task, I have them fill in a form that tells me who is responsible for what, along with due dates for the completion of tasks.  Once we finish all of our texts, class is dedicated to the final stages of their projects; I send them out into the “real world” to stand up for a group that often faces some form of discrimination.  They took on things like bullying and racism, poverty and ageism.  The greatest part about all projects was that they stepped outside of their teenage comfort zone and helped another group of people.

TKAM Inquiry ex

My students have completed some amazing projects, and their blogs show great insight and creativity.    Overall they are far more involved in the learning process than they used to be when I used a more traditional approach.   Project-based learning has proven to be a far more engaging way to study literature, as it makes it real; students are more easily able to see the connections to their own lives, and to readily make use of the lessons that the authors have attempted to teach.    PBL leads them to ask important questions and to try to find some answers.  Now, it is not a panacea; there are glitches that need to be worked out, students who need nudges and reminders, homework that TKAM Inquiry ex 2does not get completed.  However, in the long run, it is worth it to see the amazing work your students do, and the pride and smiles on their faces as they present their projects.

Dive in.  You won’t regret it.


new logo 3Jackie Cutcliffe (Room 213) teaches high school English in Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow her at Real Learning in Room 213

Host a Medieval Feast and Engage Students in Research

I love doing projects with students. I think that project based learning is the best type of learning. A few years back I had the opportunity to work with a group of seniors in high school and I really wanted them to conduct research. I knew however, that in order to get them to buy in and do their best, I would have to do something new and different.

At the time they were studying the Medieval time period of British Literature. I had each class for an hour and a half and decided to go big or go home. So, I created a Medieval Feast whole class project. I had students divide up into groups or pairs for categories such as food, music, knights, king/queen, and fashion. They then had to conduct research on their topic and prepare something to share with the class on feast day. Each student independently was required to write up a page report on what they learned, and then as a group they could work on the feast presentation.
medevialThe King and Queen wrote toasts as if they were famous kings/queens of the time. Knights jousted in class or created videos of themselves jousting. The music group brought in a CD and played it in the background. The girls in charge of fashion brought in a few dresses and a poster depicting the styles of the time. The food was probably my favorite. The students did a very nice job of finding a variety of foods that were similar to what would have been served. I added to the feast by making hot apple cider (mead) and a bunch of chicken drumsticks. We set the desks up in a big square as our feast table and ate away!

Grading projects, especially with a group component, can be daunting or at the very least frustrating. I dealt with this two ways. First, I had the individual component. I did this to make sure that everyone was accountable for helping with the research and for mastering the skills of researching and citing sources. Secondly, I had students complete an evaluation sheet with regards to the group portion. They had to write down what they did to help their group, what each group member did, and assign a grade. It was very interesting to see how the students evaluated each other. Most of the evaluations lined up with what I observed and the students were very honest. I think that this accountability worked extremely well and it’s something I always do with group projects.

The kids learned a lot, and had a great time. It is still one of my favorite projects that I have ever done with students.

This could easily become a cross-curricular exercise. It most clearly aligns with history but it could also work with science and math. Students could look up information about the scientific minds of the time, they could do math problems that dealt with how many seats around the table, buying enough food to serve the guests, or comparing currency.

TPT ProfileSara Fuller is a 5 year veteran English teacher with an MA in literature who has experience teaching students ranging from the middle school to college level. She blogs about her teaching adventures at Ms. F’s Teaching Adventures and young adult books at YA Lit, the Good, the Bad, the Ugly!

Student Choice in Individual Projects

Time in my math classroom always flies by! Whether we are striving to cover a new concept or spending time grappling with a problem or two, the time passes too quickly. There are so many things to talk about, so many things to “get done” and such little actual time! We have 44 minutes for math (minus time to switch classes) and for 6th graders, it often just isn’t enough time for us to do much more than get through our curriculum. Our students are not grouped by ability, so students in the same classroom struggle with basic facts and choosing the correct operation for a word problem, while others have mastered these skills (and more) a long time ago. Little time is left for in-class projects (though I do dedicate time for group problem solving that addresses real life situations….these sometimes feel like small projects!). When students are at such different levels, projects need to offer options that allow students to work in an area of strength, especially if the actual math topic is challenging for them. While some of my 6th graders will take projects very seriously and put forth fabulous effort, others still struggle to complete a “good” project on their own. For these reasons, I have started offering “choice boards” for projects.
For a recent choice board project addressing fraction operations, I gave students a choice of 12 different projects, allowing them to choose the way in which they wanted to demonstrate/apply their knowledge. The project options were not complicated; they offered a mix of alternatives, some being real-life applications, while others allowed students to function as teachers/presenters. Regardless of students’ choices, my goal was to reinforce the concepts and help student understanding to become deeper, as will happen when students must teach, explain, or apply their skills to different situations.  Doesn’t this aspect of choice boards applies to any subject area?

choice boardFor math projects, it is important to incorporate real-world aspects that will help students to understand the role math plays in life every day. Therefore, included in the choices were: the option to alter the fractions in a recipe; write musical rhythms that applied the use of fractions; find the areas and perimeters of the rooms in a floor plan they designed (room lengths had to have sides with fractions in their dimensions). Other choices helped students to use their logic and problem solving skills to work with magic squares using fractions. More options included presenting or teaching fractions operations through creating a PowerPoint, a video, a children’s book or a song.

There are students who, much like myself when I was in high school, will hesitate to volunteer in class, for whatever the reason. Individual projects allowing personal choice provide those students with a greater opportunity to truly display the depth of their understanding.

JGscruffylogo.216Ellie is a math teacher at the middle level (grade 6). She shares classroom ideas and activities at Middle School Math Moments (and more!).