My very first teaching job (my one-and-only) was at an experiential school, where we used project-based learning as the dominant "instructional" approach. I had zero training in project-based learning when I started.
Because my project-based learning experience was limited, I didn't have a choice but to launch PBL on the first day of my teaching career, whether I was experienced or not - whether I was ready or not. Not surprisingly, it all worked out. Here I am, 13 years later, trying to encourage you take the same plunge.
There are several common reasons that make educators reluctant to try project-based learning: 1) they don't know how to coordinate PBL experiences, 2) they lack the confidence to facilitate PBL, 3) they wonder how it can work for a variety of learners, 4) they worry about the time-commitment, and 5) they struggle to work in all of the required standards.
Even after ten years as a project-based educator, I still get it wrong sometimes. Often, if I am being honest. Like anything in teaching (or in life, for that matter), we learn as we go, and the biggest hurdle is getting started.
Getting Started is the hardest part. I have taken it upon myself to myth bust the excuses that prevent educators from getting into project-based learning. Check out the commonly sited hesitancies below, and how to get around those concerns
Common Worries About Starting Project-Based Learning
1. "I don't know how to do project-based learning.":
There are specific components of PBL that are important to understand before undertaking the process with your students. Project-based learning is very different than a project. The short explanation is that PBL incorporates the community, emphasizes real-world topics or issues, and includes authentic learning experiences from how students demonstrate learning to who they share their new skills and knowledge with.
What can you do right now to learn more about PBL?
2. "I'm don't feel confident starting project-based learning."
I understand this feeling. It is hard to be confident about something that is new to you. On the upside, the worst that could happen is that something doesn't go the way you thought it would. If this is the worst thing that could happen, you are right on track. Trial and error is a good thing! To get better at something you have to try it and learn from it.
What can you do right now to gain confidence?
3) "How do I differentiate project-based learning?"
Project-based learning, when student-directed, is personalized by nature. It works for AP and IB students, homeschool learners, kids that are schooling on the road, distance learners, ELL students, and more. Students design their own projects based on their interests, needs, backgrounds, strengths, challenges, and more.
For example, if you are focusing on ecosystems, each student could choose one type of ecosystem as their project topic, choose how they will gather information, demonstrate learning, who they will share their new skills and knowledge with, and so on. Choice in process and outcome is what differentiates the experience.
What can you do right now to make PBL work for YOUR student population?
4) "Doesn't project-based learning take a lot of time? I don't think I could fit in in."
This a common perception from educators about many experiential learning activities, including PBL, that they take too much time away from checking off the mandatory standards (look at #5 for more on standards).
Yes, project-based learning experiences can take weeks. That is because they require students to dig deep, which is a good thing! You could lecture, give students a worksheet, or even assign them a project that is not an authentic PBL experience, but students would likely forget the information quickly, and that is if they ever absorbed (or even heard) that information to begin with. It is necessary and IMPORTANT that PBL takes time.
The question still remains, then, how can you fit it into your day?
5) "How can I cover all of the required standards and do PBL at the same time?"
I wish that this didn't have to be a concern for teachers, but it is the reality - in the U.S., anyway.
So how do you incorporate standards into a project-based learning experience AND cover the unrealistic number of standards that is expected of you?
Design one project that covers an entire "unit" of standards. For example, my environmental science students do a PBL experience on endangered species every year. Their objective is to put together a comprehensive species protection plan for their chosen species. To do this successfully, students would have to learn about the natural history of the species, their behaviors, threats, habitat, territory, and more.
Because endangered species are largely the result of human activity, this PBL experience covers a large number of - if not all of - the NGSS's "Earth and Human Activity" standards - six of them (HS-ESS3-1 through 6) as well as others about ecology, evolution, climate, and more.
If possible, create a list of concept map of the standards that need to be met, and design projects using my PBL tool kit that incorporate many of the standards at once.
Self-directed project-based learning is not reserved for homeschoolers and project-based learning schools. It is for everyone. Those of you that are tied to specific curriculum may have to do some convincing to higher-ups, but I assure you, it's worth it.
If you cannot make project-based learning the norm in your learning environment, try to slip a few PBL experiences in here and there. You won't regret it.
Good luck to you all! Let me know how I can help, any questions I can answer, and what you need to get rolling on PBL.
Yes! We have arrived to our final post in our distance project-based learning series. It has been fun, but I'm ready to wrap it up. What better way to do that than with assessments and reflections? Makes good sense.
A newbie to project-based learning asked me this week how I test my students on content after project-based learning experiences have wrapped up. The very short and sweet answer to that question is that I don't. Testing does not improve quality of work, assess skill-development, incorporate personal and/or academic growth, or intrinsically motivate students to learn.
I understand that some educators are required to test their students, and if that is a must, then go for it. But ALSO complete project rubrics (some student-generated), provide narratives, and help learners develop project portfolios as they go. Thankfully, all of this can be done virtually using Google Apps.
My project-based learning digital resources are Google Slides that can be assigned and monitored using Google Classroom, Canvas, NearPod, and exported to Powerpoint. Unfortunately, my expertise lies in Google Classroom, so that will be the focus of this post.
I you have purchased some of my digital resources, go back and peruse the last 2-3 posts that offer step-by-step instructions and tips on assigning them using Google Classroom and communication and feedback using Google Apps.
You can also go back a bit further to look over project brainstorming, final products, community experts, and authentic presentations digitally.
How to Assess and Evaluate Project-Based Learning Experiences Digitally
So let's go over some of the project-based learning assessment strategies that I use and how to apply them virtually.
1. Project Rubrics
Self, peer, and community expert assessments are encouraged in project-based learning, and not just at the end of a project. My students use their project rubrics to self-assess throughout the project experience in order to stay on track and produce quality work.
All of my digital project-based learning resources include a generic project rubric that students can evaluate right on the slide. When peers, experts, and teachers evaluate student progress or project outcomes, students simply duplicate the rubric slide.
Students and teachers can communicate about assessments right in the Google Slides resource. Look back at last weeks post for tips on virtual communication and project feedback.
If you're only looking for project rubrics, check out my generic PBL rubric and my student-generated rubric, which works well for self-directed learning experiences of all kinds, not just PBL.
2. Project Narratives
This is an important piece of project-based learning as well. Providing a letter grade is fine, but illuminating specific strengths, challenges, and areas of growth is difficult to accomplish with a test alone. Observe students as they work. Make note of their personal accomplishments.
My students develop a personal learning plan at the beginning of the session/class. They then look back on their PLP's periodically throughout the PBL experience and again at the end of the project to reflect on whether they've met their goals, where they've improved, what they've gained from the experience, and more.
My personal learning plan is an editable Google Slides. Use this as one method of including a teacher narrative and student-reflection piece to project-based learning experiences.
3. Project Portfolio
Rather than demonstrate learning through testing, which I would argue gathers an inaccurate depiction of learning, have students add their project outcomes (evidence of skill-building, photos of final products, standards met, videos of students working with experts, project rubrics, student reflections, teacher narratives, etc. ) to their portfolio throughout the course of a class or learning session.
My (free) project-based learning assessment portfolio is an editable Google Slides that can be completed right online or printed and assembled into a binder. Subscribe to my mailing list and get this critical PBL assessment resource on the house.
If you have a second, I would love to learn more about you and get a better understanding of what brings you to Experiential Learning Depot. Are you looking for resources? Training? Tips? Inspiration? Ideas? Please fill out this short survey!
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest & Instagram for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources.
Project-based learning resources created by Experiential Learning Depot are largely self-directed, because that is the nature of experiential learning. Students design and direct their own PBL experiences. Your PBL projects do not have to be student-directed. You are welcome to design a PBL experience for your students.
The assumption is that if you're reading this, you are distance teaching. Whether you design a project for your students or they design it themselves, you will need to communicate and provide feedback to your students regularly. All of the following tips apply to self-directed PBL experiences, and most of them can be applied to teacher planned PBL experiences as well.
My digital resources are created in Google Slides. Assigning Google Slides to Google Classroom is super easy. Check out last weeks post on how to assign a digital copy to each student on Google Classroom.
The following PBL communication tips between students and instructors, then, exclusively applies to Google Classroom. Good luck!
Teacher and Student Communication and Project Feedback Using Google Slides Resources
Let's say your student is designing their project on my Google Slides mental health PBL resource that you have assigned them using Google Classroom, and that student is struggling to create goals. That student can type a question to you using the "comment" button in the upper right hand corner of their Slides. The comment/question will be sent directly to your email.
You can respond right from your email, or you can pull this student's resource up from Google Drive. Click on your "Classroom" folder. Open the resource that belongs to this particular student and reply to comments and questions directly to their resource. I like this avenue of communication because the comment is added precisely it applies in the resource, such as on the slide where the student is writing goals.
2. Teacher Approval Alerts/Sign-Offs
Another element in the project development process where you are needed is project approvals, and in some cases, the approval of student-generated rubrics. At any point that a student is ready for your approval, such as when they have completed their project design/proposal, they can send you an alert using the comment box noted in
"1. Questions/Feedback" above.
That alert will arrive in your mailbox. At that point, you will go into this student's resource through Google Drive as described above, to peruse their project plan and sign-off on their proposal. If you are not ready to sign-off, and the proposal needs more work or a few tweaks here and there, respond to their "comment", or alert, with suggestions.
3. Peer Approval Meetings
An approval meeting is basically a get together where a student presents their project design to a small group, other students in this case, and that small group offers suggestions for design improvements.
So how to coordinate approval meetings from a distance? In a classroom environment, I would have students present their project plans to the class or a small group. In the case of distance learning, you have a couple of options:
4. Project Circles
In my classroom, I would periodically have all of my students come to our large round table where we have class discussions, organize collaborations, and have project circles. A project circle is where students come together and present to each other on their project progress and they can offer each other feedback and suggestions for improvement.
In the case of remote or distance learning students could follow the same steps as they would for approval meetings mentioned above (conference calls and Classroom forums). They could also use other members of their household, such as siblings, to be a part of a project circle.
5. Self/Peer & Teacher Evaluations
My digital PBL resources include a rubric. Students can assess their own work directly into the resource. Teachers can go into the student's resource through the Classroom folder on Google Drive, make a copy of the rubric slide, and complete the rubric as well. Community experts can do this also if you are looking for additional feedback for your students.
6. Peer Evaluation Meetings
When student's are done with their projects, they could go through an evaluation meeting, similar to a project approval meeting. This offers students a chance to get pointers from their peers and go back and make final revisions. This improves project quality. Host peer evaluation meetings the same ways as you would approval meetings and project circles.
Throughout the year I have students add their project outcomes to a project-based learning e-Portfolio, also a Google Slides resource that can be shared using Google Classroom and filled by students online. You will communicate and add feedback to this resource the same way you would the others that I have mentioned so far. Grab this free Google Slides PBL e-Portfolio by subscribing to my mailing list.
If Covid has taught me anything it is that no parent or teacher needs any additional stressors, such as coming across kinks and hurdles to getting learning materials to students. When someone purchases a digital resource of mine, I want the process of getting the resource to students to be seamless. Troubleshooting is an additional task that no one needs right now, or ever for that matter.
I have had a couple of questions from buyers about how to get the digital resources that they're buying from me onto Google Classroom. I have since started adding instructions to all of my digital resources, but I wanted to add it here as well to give the visual folks out there some guidance.
One of my own project-based learning resources is used as the example in the tutorial below. However, these step-by-step instructions apply across the board. You can use the following steps to assign all pdf's that include a link to a digital resource.
My project-based learning resources (most of them) include a printable option with a link to a fillable Google Slides that can be assigned using Google Classroom. The following steps walk you through the process, from downloading the resource to sending a copy to each student on Google Classroom.
1. Purchase and download the resource!
The resource in this example is a community action project about mental health. It is a combination of project-based learning, problem-based learning, and service-learning. Check this one out, and others like it at Experiential Learning Depot on TPT.
2. Find the Link and Click!
After you have purchased one of my resources, you will download the pdf. The first page of the pdf in my resources contains a link and instructions to getting copies of the digital resource to your students. Click the link.
3. "Make a Copy" Prompt
Clicking on the link will pull up prompt that allows you to make a copy. Click the blue "Make a Copy" button.
4. Automatic Copy to Your Google Drive
Clicking the "Make a Copy" button will automatically deliver a copy of the resource to your Google Drive. The digital resource, in my case, a fillable Google Slides, will appear in a new tab.
5. Head to Google Classroom
Head to the class that will receive the resource on Google Classroom and click on the "Classwork" tab. Then click "Create".
6. Create the Assignment
Once you have clicked "Create", a list of options will pop up. You will click on "Assignment".
7. Assign a Copy of the Resource to Each Student
Write in a title and add a description of the product for your students. Click on the paper clip "add" button on the bottom left. Click on "Google Drive". I then click on "recents", where I find the resource that was added when I forced a copy earlier. Click on that resource from your drive to add it to the assignment. MAKE SURE to click on "Make a copy for each student". If you do not click this, a view-only resource will be sent to students.
Click "Assign" in the upper right hand corner when you're ready.
8. Student View
This is what your students will see from their end once you have assigned the resource. They will be able to click on that assignment, open their copy of the Google Slides resource, and type right into the text boxes to design their own PBL projects.
Next week I'll be adding tips on how teachers and students can communicate with each other about project-based learning experiences from Google Classroom. Distance project-based learning can be a challenge because in a classroom the teacher would be facilitating and offering feedback on progress and outcomes.
How do teachers oversee project-based learning experiences when they're not face-to-face with students? How do they approve projects? How do they provide feedback? Complete a rubric? Include self and peer assessments? All of these questions and more will be answered in next week's post. Stay-tuned.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest & Instagram, for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources.
What is an authentic presentation?
Some of my favorite projects over the course of my teaching career have been those that have truly embraced the idea of sharing work with a relevant and meaningful audience; those that have included an authentic presentation.
Let's say a teacher assigns students to research invasive species. Students create a poster board with information on that species and present final products to their classmates. That is a project, not PBL. They are different things.
A project-based educator, on the other hand, might have students research a specific community invasive species. Students might collaborate with a local conservationist to design and develop a tool or method to effectively remove the species from the habitat while preserving and conserving the natural ecosystem. The teacher and students organize an invasive species removal event, inviting community members to help remove the invasive species using the tools that the students have created.
This is PBL, and the invasive species removal event is the authentic presentation.
Authentic presentations in the Covid era?
We are currently in a situation that makes authentic presentations a bit more challenging. Communities are social distancing and many schools are still distance teaching. How do students share new skills and knowledge with an authentic audience when they can't physically come together to do so?
You have to go digital. I know this isn't ideal for all, but given the circumstances, it is better to do authentic presentations digitally than not at all. On the upside, sharing capabilities online are out of this world. Google apps, FlipSnack, Canva, animation programs, video and photo editing programs, websites, and more all provide a variety of sharing options. Check out last week's post on digital PBL final products.
10 Digital Authentic Presentation Ideas for Project-Based Learning
Digital authentic presentations brain dump:
Check out these authentic presentation options that will hopefully inspire you and lead you in the right direction when planning PBL experiences. There are MANY others. Think about WHO could benefit from the information or final products that your students have to offer.
If you're looking for PBL resources that include project planning templates with authentic presentation suggestions, check out my teacher facilitated, student-directed PBL resources on TPT (grades 6-12).
I also encourage you to grab my free editable Google Slides e-Portfolio where students can showcase outcomes, including authentic presentations, in one handy digital portfolio. Free when you subscribe to ELD's email list.
1. Add Final Products to a Professional/Established Website:
Don't reinvent the wheel! You could create your own website and have students add their final products to it, but a marketing campaign would have to go along with it to make an impact, especially on a relevant audience. Take advantage of someone else's network, and if possible, coordinate a mutual collaboration with this person. Check out my post on establishing a community network.
Example: Students collaborate with the Nature Conservancy, for example. Students develop tutorials on how to make and use their invasive species removal tools, compile them into a FlipSnack magazine, and ask the Nature Conservancy to publish the FlipSnack link to their website.
2. Write a Guest Blog Post:
Connect with a popular blogger that is relevant to the topic at hand. Coordinate a guest post for students to showcase their work. Again, don't reinvent the wheel!
Example: You, or your self-directed students, connect with Nikela (a conservation blogger) to arrange for a guest post. Students write mitigation plans for their invasive species of choice. Nikela becomes a coach and editor AND publishes student work to their blog.
3. Social Media Campaign:
Note the word "campaign". This wording is deliberate. Social media is a powerful and rapid mode of sharing information, but for the presentation to truly be authentic, the audience needs to be authentic as well. Time needs to be spent targeting and reaching a specific audience that can use the information or final product to their benefit.
Example: Students create a portfolio of pins, from infographics to awareness campaigns. They then create a Pinterest account about conservation, for example, not a personal account, and add boards related to conservation, such as invasive species. Students add their homemade pins to their Pinterest page and market their account to a relevant audience.
4. Youtube Guest:
Youtube is a really popular way to share information. But again, without a relevant following, Youtube is an ineffective authentic presentation option. Instead, have students connect with people that host established Youtube channels, relevant to the topic, to either co-host an "episode" or guest post videos.
Examples: Students create a mini-documentary about a specific invasive species that's negatively impacting their community. Students then connect with Youtube's Nature on PBS to get the documentary added to that channel.
5. Submit to Online Publications or Contests:
This is one of my favorite ways to have students present their final products because it encourages quality work. Students submit to teen art contests, student science publications, writing contests, STEM competitions, and more. There are many options that pop up with a simple Google search. Teen Ink is a favorite, among others.
Example: Students conduct scientific open-inquiry investigations about a specific invasive species, write a lab report, and submit their work for publication to a student-specific scientific journal.
6. Local Media:
Have students submit articles, editorials, ads, video promotions, and more to local media. The type of media will depend on the final product, but might include a local newspaper, radio station, or public television station.
Example: Students create a video advertisement that encourages viewers to do "this" or "that" to mitigate the spread of an invasive species.
7. Live Virtual Presentations:
Have students host a live radio show, present their work to a community elementary students, share their final products on a relevant organization's Facebook live, and more.
Example: Students connect with Conservation Minnesota and schedule to stream project presentations on Conservation Minnesota's Instagram live.
8. Audio Publishing:
Podcasts! I'm a sucker for podcasts. Students could take advantage of the popularity of podcasts in so many ways from guest speaking on established podcasts to creating their own episode or series.
9. Public Display:
Alright, this is not necessarily digital, but students CAN still present their work in an authentic way without being physically present. One of those ways is to display work in a relevant location.
Example: Students create posters that instruct boaters how to check their boats for zebra mussels before entering and exiting new waterways. The students then print physical copies and display the posters at boat launches across the region.
10. Participating in Virtual Events
I know, I know. Not ideal and it's getting old. But virtual events are here and are likely here to stay, so let's embrace it. There are SO many ways for students to share their work virtually these days, and Covid has increased those opportunities tenfold. Look into virtual science fairs, auctions, fundraisers, art shows, conferences, and have students participate in these online events.
When I was teaching I would get a handful of students every year that had a deep passion for cooking. One particular student was interested in cooking, science, and travel. Together we designed a project-based learning experience that combined those three interests.
This student coordinated a fundraiser to raise money for a school trip that blended her loves of science and cooking. She learned about chemistry concepts by experimenting in the kitchen. She then created a cookbook using FlipSnack with original recipes that demonstrated chemical reactions, and sold the cookbook to friends, families, and neighbors in the community. This project inspired me to do kitchen inquiry with my own children last year, which I posted about in this blog. Check that out for fun kitchen science activities!
This student could have learned about chemical reactions, thrown some definitions and formulas onto a poster board, presented it to her class, and called it a day. Instead she applied the content to real-life and created a product that could be shared digitally.
With the onset of Covid related school closures, the means to create innovative final products is more important than ever. A while ago I published a post here with over 100 innovative end product ideas for project-based learners. Below is a list of ways to create and share each of those final product options digitally.
If you are new to project-based learning, or you are experienced but are looking for time-saving strategies, check out my project-based learning planner. Use the templates to develop unlimited PBL experiences. You can also check out my guided PBL resources, which all focus on a theme and include end product ideas, all of which have a digital option.
Project-Based Learning Digital End Product Ideas
Online Images (Ex: Canva, Photoshop):
I use Google Maps for a lot of things including student-designed tours, storytelling, and more. Check out this post with end product ideas using Google Maps. If you're looking to save time or are looking for PBL guidance, check out this high school PBL resource that uses Google Maps as an end product tool.
Interactive Presentations (Ex: Google Slides, Wick Editor):
Movie Makers (Ex: iMovie, Movie Maker, WeVideo, etc.):
Other digital movie making tools to check out: Screencast-O-Matic, PlayPosit, Green Screen by Do Ink, Animaker Class, Edpuzzle, Binumi, Adobe Spark, Touch Cast Studio
Online Books (Ex: FlipSnack, Book Creator):
All of these could be completed using a simple word processor such as Microsoft Word or Google Docs, but tools such as FlipSnack offer options to insert images and video clips.
Audio End Products (Podcasting hosts, FlipGrid, Clyp):
Other digital audio tools to check out: Anchor, Beautiful Audio Editor, StoryCorps App, Toontastic 3D storytelling app, Explain Everything, Audacity, SpeakPipe.
Blogs/Websites (Ex: Weebly, Blogger, WordPress):
I would love to know what you are doing with your students in the virtual world! Although I have a lot of experience with in-person project-based learning, I am learning about how to make PBL meaningful and impactful digitally right along with you. Tell us about the digital tools for demonstrating learning that you love the most! I would love to make this a continuous and growing catalog of digital end product possibilities.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest & Instagram, for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources.
There are some aspects of project-based learning that can be daunting or intimidating. Connecting and collaborating with community members was one of those things for me at the beginning of my PBL journey. But putting that fear aside is a must for several reasons:
Those of you that have dabbled in project-based learning know that bringing an expert to your students is common practice, as is bringing your students to the expert (Ex: A research lab). Community experts come into a place of learning for many reasions such as to speak, work with students directly on their projects, offer feedback and assistance, and occasionally play a role in final evaluations.
That has changed a bit with Covid. Distance learning presents an obvious challenge to connecting experts with students face-to-face, as does classroom learning. Even those students that will be back in a classroom will be experiencing a different learning environment than before, with understandable precautions put in place.
So how do you continue to incorporate community expertise into project-based learning mid-pandemic? Technology! Thankfully we are living in a digital era where communication is not a problem. My students engaged with community experts digitally even before Covid because there are so many cool ways to do that these days.
Before moving on, click "Get in Touch" right here on this website to sign up for my email list. You will receive my free project-based learning assessment e-portfolio where students can showcase their project outcomes, including community experts/collaborations. Grab my PBL Tool Kit to help with designing projects that include community experts.
Connecting with Community Experts Virtually for Project-Based Learning Experiences
How to Utilize Community Experts for PBL During Covid:
Students should use experts to gather information about their project topics. I am a biology teacher, but I am not an expert on colony collapse disorder, for example, a topic that came up during out pollinator study. The U of M had a CCD research program at the time. I was able to bring my students to their lab to discuss their research on disappearing bees. But how could students have gathered information from this expert team without being face-to-face?
I have been able to get my hands on so many unqiue resources by connecting with the right people. My favorite of all time was a human brain. A neurology student conducting research and writing her disseration on addiction came in to speak to my students and brought with her a real human brain. She then donated sheep brains for us to dissect. Connect with these community members however you see fit! She could have shown us the human brain on a video call and sent us the sheep brains to dissect together.
Collaborate with experts! Organize experiences that are mutually beneficial to your students and your community expert. There are so many amazing online programs that offer sharing and collaborating capabilities. For example, lets say students are coordinating a fundraiser. Students collaborate with local chefs to create a cookbook filled with recipes using only local ingredients. They then sell the cookbook.
FlipSnack is an online magazine/book creator that can be shared. Canva is another example, as are Google Apps. This entire cookbook could be created by a variety of collaborators without anyone ever seeing each other face-to-face. Of course that is not ideal, but that is the situation we're in, and it's a good option considering.
Start Building Your Network:
Keep an eye out for awesome community experts, especially if you will be the one coordinating these collaborations. My students self-direct their PBL experiences, so my students often find their own experts, but it's nice for you to have a log of potential connections to offer your students. Start with these steps:
1) Brain Dump: Grab a piece a paper, pull up a Google Doc or planning program, and dump all of your ideas for connections and collaborations into it.
2) Reach Out: Connect with a few people a day. Connect with someone of interest on LinkedIn, email a few people here and there, put a post on a Facebook group or Instastory.
3) Log Connections/Develop a Network: Jot down those that you make connections with or work with. Once you have worked with them, stay connected and keep them posted so that there is potential for future collaborations.
What are some of your favorite ways to bring community collaborators into your curriculum? How about digitally? I am gradually learning about amazing educational technologies, but have a lot more to learn. Fill me in!
For more details, tips, tricks, and resources on community experts, head back to to some earlier blog posts. Try this post on using the community as a resource and keep checking back for more posts in my PBL digital series.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources.
If you've been following Experiential Learning Depot for a while, you know that my experience and passion lies in self-directed project-based learning, particularly when it comes to science topics (I'm a life science teacher). True student-directed learning encourages and offers ample opportunity for student choice. That includes students determining their own project topics and driving questions.
When students have the flexibility to choose project topics and driving questions for ALL of their projects over the course of a session (see self-directed learning series for details), they can get overwhelmed with possibilites. This is especially true if you are not beside them in a face-to-face learning environment.
If you're distance learning this fall, create a system for developing and organizing project topics. That system can include a digital brainstorming activity (FREE at ELD on TPT) that can be shared via Google Classroom. Another piece of this system is having students log or list project topics of interest that they can return to over the course of the session when in need of project inspiration. Once students have project ideas, they can list them out and design their projects using my digital personalized project-based learning bundle (personal learning plan and PBL tool kit). As they complete projects, they can showcase their work in my PBL assessment e-Portfolio, FREE when you subscribe to my mailing list.
True self-directed project-based learning is much easier done in flexible learning environments such as those that have support from the district, those teaching an entire course on PBL or passion projects, advisories, home schools/coops. If this is not you, PBL can still be self-directed, there just wouldn't be a need for topic brainstorming because you would be assigning a general topic for students to cover. However, students can still choose a subtopic around a broader theme, determine how they will demonstrate learning, how they will share their final product with an authentic audience, etc. Check out my guided, themed PBL resources.
If you are in a position to offer true self-directed project-based learning, check out how you can help learners brainstorm project-topics virtually!
Project-Based Learning Topic Brainstorming Activities for Distance Learning
Because self-directed project-based learning is personalized, you need to start by building a relationship with every individual student. Get to know them. That can be a little more difficult when learning is taking place virtually. Before moving onto the following virtual brainstorming activities, grab my personal learning plan. This is a great way to begin to get to know your students.
1. Look at Interests
Self-directed project-based learning is personalized, and part of that is identifying learners' interests. What do they enjoy? What are their strengths? What are their hobbies? The result of students developing projects around their interests is an intrinsic motivation to learn and a passion for learning.
How do that? Start with an interest survey, especially if you are just beginning to know your students. Check out my free interest survey that can be shared digitally via Google Classroom.
2. One-On-One Conversation
When working face-to-face with students, casual chat between us is the most effective way to determine a project topic. I go over their interest surveys with them, and/or their personal learning plan, ask them questions about their answers to those activities, and more. This almost always leads to a project topic that they can get excited about simply by allowing them to talk about themselves. But what about virtually?
I highly recommend making time to meet with students via Google Meet, Zoom, or some other video conference tool, to have this conversation. You can also provide feedback directly to their Google Slides personal learning plan and/or interest survey, as they are both shareable with Google Classroom.
3. Project "Circle"/Group Share
When we were in a classroom, my group had regular project circles, which is basically an opportunity for peer input. We would gather in a literal circle, go around and talk about projects that they are currently working on, what they may want to do next, lack of motivation and/or inspiration to start a new project, etc. The purpose of this is to get other students to add their input. It's a great big think tank rather than each student's only source of feedback coming from me. Virtually, though?
Zoom! I know Zoom is getting old. But if you're distance learning, make time for it. I suggest a project circle at least once per week, ideally more. You could also start a class forum or discussion on Google Classroom where they can offer their ideas in text format. One student might need credit in economics and is having a hard time settling on a project topic around those standards. Other students can chime in with their experiences or ideas.
Just because projects are student-led and they get to choose their topics, it is a reality that most students are required to meet specific standards/benchmarks or complete specific courses to graduate. This was the case at my school. So our students, in part, chose topics and designed their projects around standards that they need to meet. If a student needs to hit a benchmark in ecology, specifically as it relates to food webs, and they enjoy surfing, they may consider designing a project around the important role that sharks play as tertiary consumers.
Have students pull up a new Google Doc. They can add a table with two columns, one with standards that they need to meet, and the other with project topics that would help them meet those standards. The personal learning plan available in my store includes this type of organizing tool, which is also editable to fit specific needs.
This is my favorite way to inspire project topics. A "spark" is a word coined by my boss that is essentially a learning activity that gets students excited about a topic or question. Part of my job as an experiential educator at an experiential school was to plan and organize these sparks. Examples include field trips such as a visit to a museum, local park, a nearby factory, a farm, etc. The purpose is to get students asking questions that can become driving questions for a project-based learning experience. But there are many other ways to spark project topics than going on field trips, thankfully, since we are currently not in a position to be going on any.
So how can you provide sparks virtually or remotely?
There are many other options for sparks, you just have to keep your eyes and your ears open! My free project topic brainstorming activity mentioned above is all basically sparks compiled onto one document.
Let's summarize. What can you do to start self-directed project-based distance/remote learning today?
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources.
Distance learning is a challenge in itself, as is differentiated learning, even in a classroom setting when you are face-to-face with students on a daily basis. But differentiating learning from a distance significantly adds to the challenge. How do you engage high school learners in content and skill building while also considering and applying each student's unique qualities and circumstances?
Project-based learning is an awesome tool for differentiated learning, especially when projects are self-directed. My students self-direct every PBL project while I facilitate, meaning they have choice in driving question, project topic, how they will demonstrate learning, who they will share their new skills and knowledge with, etc. Students all gain the same skills and learn whatever content you assign them, but they learn it in a way that works for them. Projects are designed and catered to each unique student to ensure success for all. Click here for posts on self-directed learning for more details.
So how do you apply individuality to project design when you can't be face-to-face? It will take several posts to answer this question to its entirety, so I'm going to start with talking about creating digital personal learning plans. A personal learning plan is a document developed by each student in collaboration with their instructor. A personal learning plan includes a variety of features such as interests, learning challenges, learning styles, goals, etc. That info is then used to develop a learning plan specific to each student. Part of that learning plan includes a list of self-directed PBL projects and desired outcomes.
I have a digital personal learning plan in my store. It is a Google Slides and it is editable for YOU to include whatever features you find important for understanding your students. You will use this digital PLP to help students develop self-directed PBL projects that suit their needs, interests, etc. You do not need my resource to do personal learning plans with your students. This resource simply saves you time in having to create a template yourself. The following is a list of what my digital PLP includes. Have students develop a personal learning plan right away when they head "back to school" this fall. Get to know your students right away to ensure successful project-based distance learning for the rest of the year.
Differentiate Distance Learning with Digital Personal Learning Plans
My Digital Personal Learning Plan Includes:
Using a PLP to Design Self-Directed PBL Projects:
This is one way to differentiate learning with high schoolers, but one very powerful way. I stick with self-directed project-based learning for a reason.
If you have not already, subscribe to my email list to get your free project-based learning assessment portfolio (also Google Slides). You should have seen a subscribe pop up upon entering this site. Combine that with my self-directed project-based learning tool kit, and you and your students will be set for the year. Check back next week for virtual project topic brainstorming activities.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources.
I'm several posts into my student-directed learning series now, and I'm finding that I may never reach an end. There is so much to say about it. Generally speaking, when learning activities are truly student-directed, classrooms are transformed as are students. Student-directed learning, in short, gives students choice, voice, and autonomy. This approach to learning provides students with opportunities to develop important 21st-century skills, grow in knowledge, and develop the tools for lifelong learning. These learning experiences can also be done just about anywhere: trapped at home on a rainy day, out in the backyard or school yard, on the road, or traveling around the world. The options are limitless because the experiences are designed and led by the students themselves.
The three learning tools of focus on this post do not necessarily have to be student-directed. They can all fall under teacher-directed if the teacher is making most of the decisions and directing the experiences. Guiding is much different than directing (check out my post to see what teachers do in a student-directed learning environment.) I chose the three learning activities that I did, not because they have to be student-directed in order to work, but because they have the framework in place to make student-directed learning possible and easy to implement. The following activities are great ways to start if you are looking to transform your classroom (and students) by way of student-directed learning.
I have tool kits for all of my go-to self-directed learning experiences including project-based learning, problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning, maker projects, and community action projects (PBL + service learning). I have compiled several of these into a bundle, or they can be found independently at my TPT store. Each tool kit provides all of the materials to help guide students through student-led learning experiences, and helps parents and educators facilitate them. Click on the photo below to get to the resource.
3 Transformational Student-Directed Learning Tools
1. Project-Based Learning (PBL):
I have written a lot of posts about project-based learning because it has been my dominant teaching tool for the past 11 years. Project-based learning is when students investigate a topic or driving question, create an end product to demonstrate learning, and present the final product. What distinguishes project-based learning from other pedagogies or projects in general is that the community plays a large role in the research process, end products must be innovative, and presentations must be authentic, meaning the information gathered or the product itself should meet and impact a relevant audience. Self and peer-assessment is also important. For details on how to start student-directed project-based learning and for PBL examples, refer back to some of my other posts on PBL.
So then how do you make PBL student-directed? Give students choice in as many ways as you can. Students can choose their own topic and learning objectives if you have the flexibility to allow that. If you are restricted to teaching specific topics, then choose the topic and allow student choice in other aspects of the project process. Students can choose how they will gather information, which community experts they will use and how they will utilize their expertise. Students can choose how they will demonstrate learning such as creating a comic or building a website. Students can and should choose their authentic audience. Students can even choose their own grading criteria by writing their own rubric or designing their own formative assessment.
Teacher-directed project-based learning would mean you would be doing all of that work for your students. Not only is that a lot on you, but learners are then robbed of the opportunity to develop those important skills themselves such as networking, communication, and collaboration.
Most of my TpT store is filled with various project-based learning resources. Many of my PBL resources start with a specific topic but give students choice in every other way. I also have a project-based learning toolkit that provides all of the guiding materials necessary for student-directed PBL that can be personalized to any topic.
The photo on the left is one part of the end product of a large and ongoing student business project. The picture is of skate decks for his skateboard company, all designs done by students. The photo on the right is of a student taking photos as a way of demonstrating learning. Photography was a passion of his, so taking photos to document his project was his choice.
2. Problem-Based Learning (PrBL):
I love problem-based learning for so many reasons, but one is the creative solutions that students come up with. Kids come into this activity with a fresh lens! Problem-based learning is when students examine real-world problems. They investigate the problem, research existing solutions, develop novel solutions, and propose a comprehensive plan to mitigate or eliminate the problem completely.
Again, problem-based learning has the bones to be student-directed as long as students direct the experience through a series of choices. I often introduce a problem and then have students choose how they will examine the issue, who they will talk to, resources they will utilize, collaborators, etc. They can also choose how they propose their plan.
True student-directed problem-based learning would be allowing students to choose the real-world problem they want to investigate and solve. This route is so interesting because even the act of choosing their own problem to investigate requires certain skills such as making observations about the world around them or recognizing when there is a problem at all. Students will get better at these skills the more opportunities they have to build on them.
I just started a problem-based learning product line on my TpT site. I have a problem-based learning toolkit that provides the framework and guiding materials to do student-directed problem-based learning from start to finish.
I do a lot of problem-based learning activities on environmental science because I am a science teacher. I give them a water pollution problem about fertilizers (available in my store), and organized a field trip to a nearby organic farm to talk with the farmer about how she grows crops sustainably.
3. Inquiry-Based Learning:
I use student-directed inquiry-based learning quite often because I am a science teacher. It's very fitting for science concepts, as one method of investigation is experimentation. Inquiry-based learning, however, is multidisciplinary. It can be used in any learning environment, for any subject, and any unit (if that's what you're looking for.) Inquiry is simply asking a question and investigating it through whatever means available and effective.
Again, inquiry-based learning is not defined by giving students choice. It falls on a spectrum, as I said in my last post. Feel free to go back one week to see my post on student-directed inquiry-based learning for details on how to guide inquiry activities. If the teacher asks the question, designs the investigation, and directs everything in between, then it is teacher-directed inquiry. Open inquiry is the opposite end of the spectrum where students observe the world around them, ask their own questions, and direct their own investigations. Guided inquiry lies somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.
I have a few scientific open inquiry activities in my TpT store. I also have an inquiry-based learning toolkit with the guiding materials needed for student-directed open inquiry.
Of course there are other activities that can be student-directed, but these specific approaches to learning have worked well for me. Project-based learning, in my opinion, is the best place to start.
I would love to hear about any student-directed learning activities that you do with your students, or how your PBL, PrBL, and inquiry-based learning activities are working out for your students.
To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.