Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
There are a few elements that are important to consider in project-based learning, otherwise your students are just doing projects. I vaguely talked about this in a post published last week, "What is Project-Based Learning Anyway" and now I'm back with details on specific elements of PBL that make it what it is. That post includes several examples of project-based learning in action.
Key Components of Project-Based Learning:
1. Innovative Final Product -
Students conduct research or gather information on a topic of their choosing. Students then assemble that information into a final product that will demonstrate learning. Students are quick to settle on poster boards or a slideshow presentation because it's easy. An innovative final product moves away from the cut and paste approach. Deeper learning results. Examples include timelines, business plans, video promotions, skits, etc.
Check out my latest project-based learning resource, Project-Based Learning Task Cards, which is a set of cards with suggestions for final products and authentic presentations. This is a great resource to help students and teachers design PBL projects, to be used as a formative assessment, and for early finishers.
2. Community Experts -
This is a critical component of project-based learning. The idea is that students learn about their project topic by communicating and collaborating with primary sources - real people specifically. Students might conduct an interview, shadow, intern, volunteer, or work directly on a project with a community expert on their topic. The community member might assist with student projects by providing materials, a work space, or knowledge. This element of project-based learning helps students build communication skills, develop a community network, and gather authentic information and experiences.
3. Authentic Presentations -
An authentic presentation is one where the end product of a PBL project is shared with an authentic, relevant audience often outside of the boundaries of the classroom. The purpose is to motivate quality work and make an impact on the community. One of my students did a project on grieving the loss of a parent. She created a blog as a resource for those in a familiar situation. It would have been unfortunate if she only presented that project to her teacher and classmates, as she wouldn't have directly reached an appropriate audience. In addition to presenting to the class then, this student published a blog and marketed via social media so that her blog could meet those in need of resources and support during their time of grief.
4. Assessments and Consistent Feedback -
Project-based learning doesn't often have cut and dry, right or wrong answers, which can make some students uncomfortable. Providing regular feedback is critical, giving students security and validation.
To give you a loose framework, this is my PBL assessment process: I have my students self and peer-assess periodically throughout the project process using my Generic PBL Rubric, or a Student-Generated Rubric created by the student and approved by me before they began their project. I meet with students one-on-one to go over their self-assessment several times over the course of the project experience. I provide feedback at that time and allow the students to go back and revise and improve their work. When they have completed their projects they present to the class AND their authentic audience. After that point I arrange for a one-on-one final evaluation meeting with each student. We go over a rubric and their final project reflection together. It is a great idea to include project community experts in any or all of these steps.
I have a project-based learning bundle that also acts as a PBL implementation manual. It's great for beginner project-based teachers. It includes 20 projects as well as implementation instructions, rubrics, project proposals, topic research templates, personal learning plans, a project reflection, and more. This resource requires zero prep on your part because a project-based teacher is a facilitator, not a deliverer of information. Check out my blog posts on student-directed learning to get a feel for the duties of a PBL educator.
5. Project Reflection -
This piece is so important. When a student's project is complete they should always look back on the experience. The ability to reflect, adjust, and improve is an important life skill. The ability to take constructive feedback and go back and improve is a skill that many adults haven't mastered, me included! Don't skip this part!
My students use this checklist when designing their projects to make sure they've covered all their PBL bases.
Great PBL Example:
I want to give you a quick idea of project-based learning by telling you about one of my all-time favorite student projects. Keep in mind, this was a senior project. Not all projects have to be this elaborate. My student worked on this project over the course of a year. But it's a great example because it really hits on all of the reasons project-based learning is GOLD.
One of my students was interested in botany. Around this time I was taking a course on teaching biotechnology. One day we were talking about it, and he told me about an article he read on algae farms, and how algae was being harvested for fuel. This is how his senior project came to be, from a simple conversation about his interests.
My student's final product, he decided, would be harvesting algae and processing it into biofuel. He started volunteering at the University of Minnesota greenhouse. He contacted Brett Barney from the U of M Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering. My student worked alongside Dr. Barney in his lab to gather information on how to start his own crop. Dr. Barney even GAVE my student algae and materials to get him started.
The Algae Biofuels Summit just happened to be taking place in Minneapolis around that time. My student got in touch with Advanced Biofuels USA to negotiate a deal on a ticket to the conference. They offered to donate my student entrance to the conference free of charge as long as he agreed to write an article for their newsletter on his experience.
Read the rest of his article here.
The bottom line is that this student discovered an interest, asked questions, gathered information using a variety of world-class experts on the topic, created an innovative final product (harvesting and processing his own algae), and shared his work with an authentic, public audience. I don't think he even realizes today, seven years later, the immense impact this project had on his life. Only this experience could have resulted in the skills and knowledge that he gained. Completing a poster board on algae as a biofuel wouldn't have had the same results.
If you're interested in executing project-based learning, but aren't in need of specific project topics, check out my student-directed, project-based learning toolkit. This resource has all of the templates you and your students would need to implement student-led/interest-led PBL, much like "passion projects".
What are some cool projects your students have done? What do they gain from the experience in addition to content knowledge? There are so many amazing ideas and cool projects going on out there. I see them everyday. Brag about yours students!
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Observe. Question. Explore. Share.
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.