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6 Evidence-Based Success Tips for Project-Based Learning

6 Evidence-Based Success Tips For Project-Based Learning

Project-based learning is increasingly becoming part of higher education, as the university shifts towards providing students with relevant, 21st century skills and real world knowledge in their fields. However, project-based learning is a skill like any other and as such there is a learning curve when integrating it into your courses. 

What Are Some Ways to Ensure Success in Project-Based Learning?

Luckily, you’re not alone in looking for ways to be successful in project-based learning. I’ve collected some tips that are evidence-based, taken from numerous studies from researchers looking to fine-tune project-based learning practices so it can be most effective for students and educators.

Start off Small

Rather than try to create a large project for your students that spans most of the course, start off with smaller assignments as you become more familiar with project-based learning. Then as you figure out what works and doesn’t work for your subject and your students you can design larger and more complex assignments until you can potentially structure an entire course around one or two projects.

If you teach courses that have tutorials, an easy, stress-free way to get started is to plan a project that can be done in the span of a tutorial section. Try to plan it to take place on a day when you are evaluating your teaching assistants so you can see first-hand your students’ reactions to the project. With you and a T.A. present it will be simpler to circulate and address student queries and to lend a guiding hand.

Have a Carefully Designed Project

Project-based learning isn’t merely doing a project. If that was the case, almost anything could be considered project-based learning! PBL involves tackling realistic, real world problems. There are many components involved in creating a good project. Too open-ended and your students may get off track, or get analysis paralysis and not know where to start, too professor-directed and your students will not find the project to be academically rigorous enough.

Woei Hung (2008) suggests a procedure called 3C3R to go through when designing a project. The link (among other useful sources) is at the end of the article, but here is the summarized version:

  1. Content: Identify proper learning outcomes for your assignment. Blumenfeld et al. recommend that projects center on “learning appropriate goals” to make sure the project has a proper focus.
  2. Context: Make sure the project relates to real-life activities, and that the skills your students must use in the project relate to those activities.
  3. Calibrate: Plan the project’s trajectory. Although you want your students to be creative, have a basic idea where you want the project to go. Identify a few potential solutions and the knowledge students would need to enact those solutions. How can you best support them in that endeavor? If it seems like the solutions will be too easy or complicated for your students to enact, fine tune the project from there. You can also up the ante by adding in things like location, budget, and deadline to make it more similar to real professional situations.
  4. Research: Although not always necessary for PBL, a research component is usually required for more complex projects. Support your students by providing them with advice on proper research skills if you teach a first- or second-year course. Feel free to even point students of any year to proper research sources if students are getting off track or haven’t learned the information necessary to complete the project successfully.
  5. Reason: Create a description of the project that gives enough information to get started but not so much as to give the solution away immediately. Remember, you can always scaffold by providing helpful research tools or knowledge that is required for the assignment. Feel free to even add in clues along the way if you notice students becoming stumped.
  6. Reflect: Provide yourself and your students opportunities to reflect along the way. Adjust instruction accordingly, for example if students are having trouble with the inquiry process, provide them a step-by-step inquiry process you want them to follow.

Project-based learning simultaneously requires a lot of planning and flexibility. Prepare for multiple situations and reactions, but if you go in with a sense of fun and passion for learning, you’ll be able to smooth over any bumps along the way if the project needs tweaking.

Embrace Collaborative Learning

When done well, collaborative learning has the potential to be very rewarding, especially when coupled with project-based learning. Springer et al. found in research done between 1980 and 1999 with undergraduates that group learning promoted greater academic achievement, more favorable attitudes towards learning, and increased persistence in students’ courses and programs.

Project-based learning is best done with groups of 3-4. It’s enough people that students can bounce ideas off one another, but not too many people to encourage social loafing or lack of focus. Students can have different roles in the group that play to their individual strengths.

Robert E. Slavin says that there are two important elements for collaborative learning success: group goals and individual accountability. Having objectives keeps the teams on-task. Individual accountability through having an individual and a group mark for example helps prevent unequal distribution of work. Read my article on collaborative learning strategies for more ways to improve group work.

Provide Frequent Feedback and Assessment

One of the goals of project-based learning is allowing students to improve their problem solving, creativity, and critical thinking skills by tackling open-ended questions. However, that means that students will need extra guidance along the way. Provide frequent formative assessment and feedback to your students so they can continuously improve their final product and stay on track.

Try to stay away from letter grades when providing this assessment, as there are plenty of alternative assessment strategies that will keep the focus on the quality of the project rather than on the student. This reduces pressure about receiving feedback, even if the feedback is not the glowing review they may be expecting.

Consider whole class discussion of how the projects are going, or have students keep weekly journals or send a weekly report. This increases metacognition on the part of the students, and helps give you peace of mind that the students are actually working on the project rather than leaving it to the night before it’s due.

Have a Multi-Layered Summative Assessment

Considering that project-based learning is supposed to tackle real world problems and skills, it makes sense that the summative assessment have a real world component to it. Have students give a presentation or a public exhibition, allowing students to work on their communication skills in addition to showcasing their hard work. Depending on the project, you could also consider having students create a portfolio, which is a valuable skill for many disciplines.

Barron and Darling-Hammond recommend making sure the summative assessment uses many different criteria that reflects all the skills required to complete the project. It may even be helpful to develop this success criteria with your students. This ensures that students understand the criteria and that they find the summative assessment fair and reasonable.

Seek Support When You Need It

You’re not the only educator interested in using project-based learning with their students, so there’s no reason you should have to figure it out alone! There are a number of professional learning networks for educators of varying grade levels such as Edumodo and Edutopia to name a few. Top Hat is also an invaluable support if you’d like your courses to be more student centered and innovative.

Transitioning from traditional teaching methods into project-based learning can seem daunting, but is well worth it in the end. Your students will be more engaged, your courses will be more relevant, and you will enjoy teaching even more! Like every new skill, it takes time to develop, but by following these success tips and doing the appropriate research, you can start revamping your courses today.

And for any other questions or support, you can always consult Top Hat!

Helpful Links:

“Teaching for Meaningful Learning.” Brigid Barron and Linda Darling-Hammond http://www.edutopia.org/pdfs/edutopia-teaching-for-meaningful-learning.pdf

“The 9-step problem design process for problem-based learning: Application of the 3C3R model.”  Woei Hung http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1747938X08000444

“Synthesis of Research on Cooperative Learning.” Robert E. Slavin http://www.ascd.org/ascd/pdf/journals/ed_lead/el_199102_slavin.pdf

“Effects of Small-Group Learning on Undergraduates in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology: A Meta-Analysis.” Leonard Springer, Mary Elizabeth Stanne, and Samuel S. Donovan http://rer.sagepub.com/content/69/1/21.short

“A Review of Research on Project-Based Learning.” John W. Thomas  http://www.bobpearlman.org/BestPractices/PBL_Research.pdf

Top Hat is designed to connect professors and students in the classroom and to facilitate an active and engaged learning environment. If you’re interested in a demonstration of how Top Hat can be used in your classroom, click the button below.

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