Why Project Based Learning is good for students (PBL Series Part 5)

Not only is the teacher’s life unique in the PBL classroom; students have a dramatically different experience in this model too.  They may whine and complain at times, especially when a project is nearing completion, but it is really good for them.  Here’s a few reason’s why:

Long-term focus

Many of my students can’t think ahead past next period.  Go read Ruby Payne if you don’t know why kids of poverty aren’t big on planning and organization.  Planning ahead is a skill that can be learned but expect growing pains along the way.  The long term focus of PBL helps students to learn goal setting, self assessment, creating a plan, monitoring progress, and time management.  How are kids to be expected to learn these skills if they are never taught them?

Embedded Skills

Many skills can be embedded within the goals of a project.  Rather than learning these skills in isolation or by doing trumped up projects, the kids learn the skills while learning important content.  This includes 21st Century (ooo-weee-ooo!) skills like research, vetting and citing sources, product creation.  It also includes timeless skills such as inquiry and reading/ writing skills.


Opportunities for differentiation are limitless.  Projects can be differentiated for content, process and product.  I was honestly never consistently good at differentiation until I started doing PBL.  Now I’ve constantly got kids all over the room working on different things (or similar things in totally different ways).  Hectic, yes, but it’s a blast.  I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Assessment for Learning

Assessment should be based around authentic products for a real-world audience.  Grades are not important in this type of task because the push is to present a quality product, not on “getting a grade.”  Because the teacher is not too busy “teaching,” they have time to mentor students, give personal feedback, have conversations about learning, and gather evidence about students that goes far beyond letters and numbers.  Now that’s good assessment!

Next post in the PBL Series – How to do inquiry-based PBL

Previous Posts in the PBL Series

Part 1 - A subtle epiphany – over planning kills engagement

Part 2 - Why my instructional approach didn’t work

Part 3 - What PBL is and what it isn’t

Part 4 - The teacher’s role in PBL

The teacher’s role in PBL (PBL Series Part 4)

The teacher’s role in an Project Based Learning (PBL) classroom is unique.  I’m still figuring it out – and probably will be for years to come.  That being said, I’m confident about a few things the teacher must do to make PBL click on all cylinders.

the teacher has to juggle many hats in the PBL classroom

the teacher has to juggle many hats in the PBL classroom

Here are 10 things a teacher should do to facilitate PBL effectively:

  1. Find a hook and deliver it well.  Grab the students’ imaginations and leave them with lots of questions, wanting to learn more.
  2. Set an engaging, thought provoking driving question but leave plenty of room for inquiry.  If you set the driving question, let the students decide how they will answer it.  Better still, let the students generate the driving question.
  3. Gather materials that the students can’t get for themselves.  Nothing kills inquiry quicker than a curious kid not having any way to answer their questions.  This include resources
  4. Serve as a mentor for individual students and small groups.  Help them figure out how to complete their project.  Help them to see themselves.
  5. Facilitate whole class discussions.  When students are working in small groups or pairs for an extended period of time, there must be whole class activities as well.  This maintains the learning community of the group.  Use discussion protocols like socratic seminars, rotating fishbowls and the like to get eveyone involved.
  6. Provide sufficient structure and support so that students don’t get stuck.  Help them to plan, monitor progress, and assess their results.  Keep the students focused on the big picture.  Remind them often of the driving question and revisit milestone dates and final product dates daily.
  7. Help students to determine success criteria for each project.  Facilitate analysis of various models that will help them to see what an end product might look like.  If you feel a rubric is needed, have them create it.
  8. Provide descriptive feedback.  Don’t evaluate their work in progress but give them information to help them see how to move forward.  Don’t let them bog down for too long.
  9. Recruit an audience.  Students should be presenting their learning to an audience outside of the classroom.  Invite parents, community members, other staff members, district administrators, local university staff and students, local scientists, local business people  – anyone who may have an interest in what you are doing.
  10. Allow time for reflection, for students and for yourself.  Use that reflection to improve the next project for students and yourself.  Listen to the students very carefully and learn from them.
Photo of mathematician Ronald Graham juggling used under cc licence from the Wikimedia commons

Previous Posts in the PBL Series

Part 1 - A subtle epiphany – over planning kills engagement

Part 2 - Why my instructional approach didn’t work

Part 3 - What PBL is and what it isn’t

One step to becoming a better teacher

I can make you a better teacher.  Right now.  With one simple step… backwards.

taking a step back

taking a step back

What do I mean?

Take a step back when it comes to control in your classroom.  Release your kung-fu grip of control over content, over discipline, over what students create and how they create it.

Let your students step forward to fill the breach.  Become a facilitator of learning.  Allow students the opportunity to ask and answer their own questions – to inquire.  Let them determine how they will answer those questions.  Allow them to determine how they will demonstrate their newfound knowledge and skills.  Make your classroom a democratic place in which students feel they have a voice.

Once you’ve stepped back, and they’ve stepped forward, get behind them.  Support them like crazy.  Teach them the skills they need to inquire effectively.  Track down the materials they need (if they can’t).  Connect them with experts or others with first hand knowledge or experience.  Help them to find and decipher primary source documents.  Give them frequent, honest, useful feedback on their progress to help them to continue to grow.

Image cc licensed by Scarto

Technology integration and differentiation

Two of my primary goals for this school year have been to improve both technology integration and differentiation for individual student needs/ interests in my classes.

As I’ve begun to delve into tech integration with Edmodo for classroom communication & assignments and Edublogs for student work, I am now seeing how the two goals go hand in hand.


Aviary edmodo-com Picture 1

Screen cap from my Edmodo site

Edmodo calls itself a microblogging platform for students and teachers.  However, it’s really much more than that.  It’s a place to post notes and assignments for students.  It’s a way to open a backchannel in your classroom.  I contains a calendar for coming assignments.  Students can use it to submit assignments electronically.  It’s truly an organizational tool for both students and the teacher.  One really cool feature of Edmodo is that students can input their cell phone numbers and receive messages from the system.  I used this feature just the other day to remind my students to wear appropriate clothing and shoes for a lab the next day – which students often forget to do.  This time, none forgot – even those who weren’t at school the previous day!

I’ve also had students using Edmodo from home after school hours to turn in work or to ask me questions about assignments.  Because I get a text message when a student sends me a direct message, I know to login to Edmodo and answer (you can’t do it from your phone yet).  This way I don’t feel a need to constantly check the site in case a student might have a question.


Student blog post about Zinc

Student blog post about Zinc

I’ve set up every one of my 100+ students with their own blog via Edublogs.  While the process has been a bit time consuming, I feel the payoff will be worth it.  So far, I’ve had students using it to post certain assignments (my chemistry students each chose a chemical element to research and made a post to their blog about it) and reflections on their learning.

Toward Paperlessness

Another side benefit of all of these tools is the ability to greatly reduce the amount of paper used in my classes.  While this is environmentally sound and cost efficient, the real benefit of paper reduction has been in the motivation of my students to do quality work.  They are so much more willing to revise and resubmit their work, based on my feedback, than ever before.  When I returned a lab report electronically via Edmodo with feeback integrated (tracked changes in Word) and a rubric attached, I had 10 of 24 students revise and resubmit their work within 2 days.  When I left comments on their blogs with feedback and suggestions to improve their posts, I had students revising blogs and sending me links via Edmodo to their revised posts.  When too few students heeded my reminder to integrate links to their sources within their blog posts, I gave a quick classroom mini-lesson about integrating links.  I reminded them that their work is now on the internet and plagiarism is not just against school rules, it is against the law.  Several students immediately revised their posts to integrate multiple links.

Why are they so willing to revise?  Because they don’t have to start over from scratch.  Because the feedback from me is right there.  Because the tools are the ones they want to use.  Whatever the reason, they are doing it much more than students ever have done for me in the past.


Finally, I’ve been able to differentiate for student needs with these tools.  If a student has already completed the assignment while their peers are still working on it, I send them a note via Edmodo with suggestions for an extension assignment that they post to their blog.  Students who are behind get extra help both electronically and in person.  All students have more choice about how they will approach and represent their learning.  These are all VERY good things.


Inquiry is absolutely crucial in science.  How to get from guided inquiry to open inquiry, though?  Through technology and differentiation.  Students have the tools and resources available to them now in my classes to ask and answer their own questions.  Edmodo provides a means for me to track what they are doing.  Edublogs provides them an outlet for reflection and a place to present the results of their learning.  This is a powerful combination, for science or for any class!