10 Ways to Rethink Your Project Based Learning Directions #HackingPBL

    Once you have a solid project idea, getting it down on paper and delivering it to your students can be a daunting task. At the beginning of the planning process, you often don’t have much more than a blank slate and a job that involves creating directions that will hopefully help to bring to life the project you’re envisioning. I have been designing project based learning directions for several years, and I have found that working with certain features in mind helps to (1) provide me with a solid direction, and (2) assist in making my directions that much more effective.

    Here are ten features to always consider when creating project based learning (PBL) directions for your students.

    1. Essential Question: After you and/or your students have created your project’s essential question, make sure it “hits them in the face” wherever they turn for as long as they are engaged in the project. One way to ensure it’s everywhere is by including it at the top of all project-related materials, such as your directions (think, branding). We want students to see the essential question as much as possible as a continual reminder that everything they are learning falls within its context.

    2. Checkpoints: When students are engaged in PBL (or any type of long-term activity) never wait until the end to see what they know/don’t know. In other words, a final product should never come as a surprise. At certain points in your directions, perhaps after more complicated steps, include something like, “Teacher conference/approval before moving on.” This way, you can consistently gauge “where students are” and then adjust your instruction accordingly.

    3. Formative Assessments: Also, let students know when more formal formative assessments may be taking place. From my experiences, I have found these assessments are ideal when placed at “hinge points” (when there is a noticeable shift in content). For example, my students built pinball machines while first learning about electricity & magnetism and then force & motion. So, they took a quiz after each one of these topics. Even though these quizzes were graded (thus, they were not technically “formative assessments”), results were used to guide instruction.

    4. Summative Assessment: Remind students how they are going to be summatively assessed (if you plan on assessing them using something other than the project’s process and/or product). For example, at the end of my directions for a science project on animal adaptations, I included, “At the end of the unit there will be a culminating test.” This reminder is one way to let students know how they will be held accountable for their learning, and more importantly I have found it can ease the concerns of parents who may not “get” PBL and are asking, “How do you know Johnny is learning what he’s supposed to learn?”

    5. Formatting: After typing out your directions, look for any opportunities that may exist to break down certain portions into numbers (e.g., a series of steps) or bullet points (e.g., some type of list). These small tweaks will make your directions more “scannable,” and then it will be easier for students to use and follow them throughout the project. Also, work on breaking down larger paragraphs into shorter ones.

    6. Theme-Based Design: When I first started to implement PBL, all of my directions were quite formal and unimaginative, as they mostly consisted of endless lines of black text on white paper. However, after stumbling upon the ways in which images evoke emotions, I started to take a different approach by making most of my directions thematic in nature: a restaurant menu for a restaurant review project, a Lean Cuisine box when learning about plant growth, and video game graphics when engineering solar powered cars.

    7. Theme-Based Fonts: If you are going to go with a specific theme for your directions, you will probably want a font that correlates. For example, here is how I used an Angry Birds font to go along with its directions and project theme. There are plenty of websites (including this one), which contain free, instantly recognizable fonts. And, with a quick Google search, you can find how to install a font (on Mac or PC), and then it can be used in any application.

    8. Electronically Available: Make sure your directions are posted somewhere, whether it is to your classroom website, a learning management system (LMS), Google Drive, etc. This way, students (and parents) can access them whenever, wherever. When any of my students lost their directions (which didn’t happen often), rather than having to let me know, they knew how they could get their hands on another copy without making a fuss. Also, to avoid potential compatibility issues, possibly convert your documents to PDFs prior to uploading.

    9. Digital Hub: Along with making your directions electronically available, consider packaging them with additional materials for students to independently access throughout the project. Such resources may include: a glossary of relevant terms, information pertaining to mini-lessons that may occur during the project, images/details of hands-on materials that may be used, project exemplars, related videos, etc. If you think students will get overwhelmed by being exposed to everything all at once, think about introducing these materials only when necessary.

    10. Google Template: Consider accompanying your directions with a “fillable form” that has been created as a Google doc, or the form could replace your directions altogether. Here is an example of how I used this technique for a math project in which my students designed health shakes. (The form has been downloaded from Google and converted to PDF.) It provides students with a starting point, walks them through the project without giving away too much, and it can be distributed to students using force copy (thanks, Alice Keeler) or in Google Classroom you can add it to an assignment and select “Make a copy for each student.”

    These ten points represent what I believe should be taken into consideration when creating project based learning directions. So, the next time you have a solid project idea and you’re wondering how to deliver it to your students, call upon these ideas to get you started!

    How do you rethink your project based learning directions?

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