Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
I have been a high school experiential educator for over a decade, and my dominant approach has been self-directed project-based learning. Students design and execute their projects from start to finish with my guidance. But it's not perfect. That is the reality.
I didn't choose personalized project-based learning when I first started teaching. In fact, I didn't even know what it was. But the school where I taught insisted on it, and for good reason. PBL is a deep and powerful learning tool, especially when self-directed.
But it isn't perfect.
As with any pedagogy, there will be snags at times, mishaps, challenges, and disappointments, but I try to look at those setbacks as opportunities for students AND educators. What feels like defeat just may be an opportunity for learning and growth.
For those of you that are project-based educators or are trying to transition to project-based learning, you have likely come across some pitfalls. I've listed some challenges below that come up the most often in my classroom and ways to overcome them.
Before I get rolling on common PBL challenges, I want to preface that in this blog post I only offer my own experiences.
I highly recommend checking out my Facebook group - Experiential Learning Community for K-12 teachers - where you can throw some challenges you're having out there for feedback, ideas, and tips from other educators in the same boat.
7 Common Project-Based Learning Challenges and How to Overcome Them
With self-directed PBL, students design projects around their interests. Interest-based learning can be powerful, but can become difficult when students tell you that they don't have any interests. This problem comes up often, and is painful for everyone involved, including the students. Don't take it personally and don't give up!
Everyone has interests. If you have a student saying they don't have any, start digging around for the source of this statement. A student might have interests, but not the skills to identify them (yet). Or maybe they simply aren't comfortable with you yet.
Sit down and talk to them. Learn about them. Relationship-building and the offering them the right tools are key. By getting to know each student you can help them figure out the struggle, set personal goals, AND identify their interests and skills for potential projects.
2. Low Productivity
Low productivity is one of the most common problems with anything that is student-directed. You are giving them choice and freedom, which is wonderful in so many ways.
Having choice and autonomy is empowering, but students may not know what to do with this freedom, especially if they are new to student-directed PBL. They often, then, choose not to do anything with it.
Your job as teacher, facilitator, coach, and mentor is to provide students with the tools to direct the experience. Give them the appropriate guiding materials, implement consistent checkpoints, and provide feedback often. Be organized yourself!
Another student might have all of the tools and experience, and still be unproductive. Work with students one-on-one to determine the source of low productivity. Once the source has been identified, tweak expectations and goals.
3. Poor Quality
Students produce projects that are well below their capabilities. There are many problems with that, and if you recognize it as a pattern in a student or two, nip it in the bud quickly.
I wrote an entire blog post a while ago about how to boost PBL project quality, so I won't get into that too much here. Check out the link for specific tips and tricks.
But generally, if students are producing poor quality work, the root of the problem is likely the expectations that have been set. As my post emphasizes, establishing a culture of quality work from the start is the ticket.
4. Burning Bridges
Project-based learning is different than a standard project for several reasons, one of which is the use of community experts. Students rely on the community as a critical source of information.
Occasionally a student doesn't follow through with a scheduled meeting with a community expert. Regardless of the reason, bridges are burned, and that is painful.
The solution? Don't stop trying. It can be frustrating, but guiding meaningful connections between students and community members is a part of your job as a facilitator.
You can also ask that the students deliver an apology letter and write a personal reflection on the matter, depending on the situation. Help the student empathize and take responsibility.
5. Shortage of Willing Community Participants
Cooperation and collaboration between students and community members are not always seamless and are not entirely on the shoulders of the students.
Occasionally, students or myself will get rejected by a community expert when asked to get involved in a student's project. One of my favorite local artists flat out said "I don't work with teenagers." Again, painful and frustrating.
All you can really do is move on. You might also consider pushing a little harder by tactfully helping the community member or organization see what the student(s) will bring to the table. Organize collaborations and partnerships with community members that are mutually beneficial.
6. Incomplete Projects
Projects fizzle out. Students start a project, work diligently on it for a day or two, and then never return to it again. How much, if at all, do you let them do this?
You may have noticed a theme throughout this post; student-directed project-based learning is not a one-size-fits-all model. One student may ditch a project for an entirely different reason than another student. Handle the issue on an individual basis.
If it's a pattern they may be struggling with organization. They might get distracted or lose interest. They might even lack specific skills that would normally promote follow-through. Communication between you and your students is key.
Another piece of the puzzle may be your own lack of organization and/or management strategy. It can be difficult to manage multiple projects between students. If you are not aware of where students are at in the process, you can't help them make progress. Try to stay organized.
7. Lack of Independence
Lack of independence is an overarching challenge that encompasses every other frustration that I've already mentioned in this post.
Apathy, low productivity, poor quality projects, etc. all stem from the inability or desire to independently produce quality and meaningful work.
So let's get to the core of this issue. "Why aren't my students more independent?"
The first place to start is acknowledging that your students may lack the skills necessary to independently manage and produce great PBLs. They're young and may not have had opportunities to design and lead their own learning experiences.
Therefore, if they are not trained in student-led project-based learning they simply are not going to know what to do, which tends to lead to apathy and low productivity.
Make PBL culture-building and training a priority. Diving right into student-led PBL might work for some but will definitely not for others. If you notice some students struggling with independence, take a step away from self-directed PBLs and insert some training exercises.
One option is to start with teacher-directed project-based learning so that they can get a handle on PBL components and the steps involved in project-based learning.
Then give them PBLs that offer opportunities for choice. When you feel they have developed the skills to independently direct and manage their own PBLs you can try launching student-led project-based learning again.
Let’s recap. Yes, self-directed PBL is challenging to implement at times, especially if you and/or your students are beginners. Even seasoned project-based educators make mistakes.
We reflect, grow, and learn just as we ask of our students. The key to troubleshooting is relationship-building. Learn what drives and motivates your students. You'll figure it out together.
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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.