Your Checklist for Virtual Project-Based Learning
It may appear counterintuitive, but the spring of 2020 was, in many respects, an ideal time to get started on a challenging project. Students were well-prepared to apply the knowledge they had already gained to a difficult problem of their choosing, despite the fact that the nation’s school system was facing an unprecedented disruption at the middle of the school year. They were able to work independently at home in a manner that was both engaging and provided continuity for their learning thanks to projects that were well designed.
How about the current year? Projects are still an effective method for motivating students, even in difficult circumstances; however, we need to exercise caution to ensure that students are actually learning from their work. How can we apply what we know about the science of learning to the process of designing projects that are going to be successful?
To begin, project-based learning isn’t always the most effective way to teach fundamental information and abilities to students, despite the fact that some people see it as part of a vision to revamp the American educational system. Direct instruction, which entails a lot of radar pings and low-stakes testing to determine how students are doing, is more effective in this regard. This is because direct instruction is followed by additional instruction and practise based on any knowledge gaps you find. I am aware that saying something like this is like stepping on a sacred cow, so I would like for you to read this academic paper, this article, and this blog.
The observations of psychology professor David Daniel can guide us through the transitional phase between honing our fundamental capabilities and embarking on more difficult endeavours. According to Daniel, the purpose of education should be to produce knowledge that is not only long-lasting, but also usable, and adaptable; that is, knowledge that is long-lasting well beyond the length of the instructor’s class; knowledge that is known well enough to be actually usable by students; and knowledge that is adaptable enough that students can use it in new contexts. When the fundamental ideas have been thoroughly internalised, projects have the potential to really shine. This is the stage on which long-term viability, adaptability, and usability can be constructed, and it is also the arena in which genuine learning can take place.
PREPARE STUDENTS FOR YOUR (REMOTE) PROJECT
Because project-based learning reveals learning gaps among students, refer to this check list before beginning any project-based learning activity, especially at home:
1. Get them to reflect on their previous ideas and assumptions: Before beginning a project, it is important to find out what prior knowledge, skills, stories, and interests students already have. Do not just assume that they have the necessary materials; rather, find out. Make use of questionnaires and other forms of formative assessment. Display images, video clips, or quote excerpts that will stimulate conversation.
2. Develop fundamental knowledge and abilities: If there are any knowledge gaps, direct instruction in the form of concrete examples, stories, and analogies should be used. Prepare the students with typical questions and then lead them through example answers. Deliver the content in manageable bites and check students’ comprehension on a regular, ongoing basis with frequent, in-lesson formative assessments.
3. Continue to consolidate: Utilize retrieval practise, spaced practise, and self-explanation in the days and weeks after the material is first learned to assist in the storage of key knowledge and skills in long term memory; this reduces cognitive load when students begin the project. Every practise should have very few or no consequences for failure.
4. Practice academic independence: Move students from guided practise (in-person Zoom call or videoed lesson) to independent practise monitored by you (students working independently while still on Zoom with you or working asynchronously but able to email you with questions), and then finally to completely independent practise (submitting a short low- or no-stakes assignment to you before the next class).
5. Perform one last test to assess your level of knowledge: Using a last, quick formative assessment, you can determine whether or not the students are prepared for the project. For instance, you could design a quiz with five questions and short-answer responses to test students’ knowledge of important information and skills that are necessary for the project (not multiple choice). The findings may show that certain students need a brief practise assignment before they begin the project, while others may require ten to fifteen minutes of targeted reteaching to fill in gaps in their knowledge.
CONNECT PROJECTS TO PURPOSE
A growing body of evidence suggests that providing students with a distinct sense of purpose and relevance can boost their motivation, thereby encouraging them to put in the extra effort necessary to successfully complete difficult assignments.
1. Determine the optimal moment: Ask your students whether they are ready to start exploring the kinds of big questions that are involved in projects. You can do this by reading the room, which you can do online by having students fill out a quick form or by having them participate in a poll. Students might need a break from these issues after exhausting themselves with deep thought about them, and the school can provide that break for them if necessary.
2. Make connections: If you’re ready to get started, there are a lot of significant problems that the world is facing right now, such as a global pandemic, ongoing problems of race and equity, and climate change, to name a few of them. Give your students the task of drawing connections between the concepts they’ve learned in class and the problems that exist in the real world.
3. Make an effort to empathise: In the world of new product development, this is the first and most important rule to follow: Finding solutions to problems requires having a comprehensive understanding of the individuals who stand to gain from the solution. Remember that not all problems that are worth solving have a scope that spans the entire world. Look for problems that need to be addressed in your local community, and investigate ways that your students can talk to members of the community, either over Zoom or the phone during the pandemic, about how the issue affects them and how they see it being addressed.
4. Incorporate elements of choice: Give students the freedom to pick the issue they want to solve within certain parameters. It is essential to set Goldilocks constraints, which should be neither too tight nor too loose. Learning can be stifled when there is an excessive amount of choice or when choice is presented too frequently.
MAKE PROJECTS HIGHLY COLLABORATIVE (AND SOCIALLY ENGAGING)
Utilizing the inherently collaborative and social problem-solving aspects that are at the core of project-based learning is one strategy that can be used to increase the level of student engagement.
1. Prepare your technological tools for collaborative work To begin, if you want to ensure that your students are productive, you should take the time to teach them how to use the technological tools that you have decided to use. Then, provide the means for students to collaborate on their projects by utilising online whiteboards like MURAL and Padlet in addition to group texting, discussion forums integrated into your learning management system (LMS), and breakout rooms within video chats.
2. Facilitate executive functioning: Projects require a significant amount of individual effort and put a significant emphasis on the development of skills related to executive functioning. Make it a point to establish goals that are crystal clear and to scaffold skills such as planning, selecting strategies, monitoring one’s own progress, modifying one’s approach as needed, and determining when one is finished.
3. Give them permission to act like children: Give your children permission to act like children on occasion and encourage them to enjoy each other’s company. To ensure that this school year is successful, it is imperative that you incorporate opportunities for students to interact socially into your curriculum.
4. Make sure you have a way to bring them back: If the students are beginning to wander off, you should make sure you have a method that has been discussed and decided upon to bring everyone back to attention. It is easier to give students the freedom to explore the world when you have established rituals and routines.
5. Define roles and goals: It can be challenging to find a solution to the problem of “one person doing all the work.” It can be helpful to define distinct roles for each member of the group, and grading students according to the specific contributions they make can help create a more transparent system of accountability. Change the students’ roles throughout the school year to prevent them from putting too much pressure on themselves.
KEEP EQUITY CONCERNS FRONT-OF-MIND
Whether or not your parents have a 3D printer in the basement, a Master of Fine Arts degree, or a team of highly skilled tutors at their disposal should not be a determining factor in how your projects are evaluated. This is of utmost importance for students who participate in distance learning because they come from very different backgrounds and have very different experiences at home.
1. Perform a thinking audit: before you begin your project, check to see if everyone has an equal amount of prior knowledge; in other words, does everyone know what they need to in order to be successful? If not, you should learn it. Check to see if your project plan makes any incorrect assumptions about the availability of resources and adjust it as necessary. You could ask the students directly if they have access to all of the materials they require, and if they don’t, you could modify your project accordingly.
2. Allocate time during class If all of the project work is assigned to be completed outside of school hours, certain students will invariably have more time and resources available to them. Set aside time during class for projects, so that the students, and not the parents, are the ones doing the work. This will also ensure that students who are employed or who have other family responsibilities are not at an unfair disadvantage.
3. Give students feedback in real time: The research indicates that providing students with clear, encouraging, and specific feedback while they are learning is extremely beneficial; however, students need the opportunity to act on the feedback they receive or else it will be wasted.
4. Provide an incentive for revisions: If you are going to give a final grade, make sure that the student receives credit for acting on your feedback, which includes iterating on and improving their work.
MAKE PROJECTS TRANSFORMATIVE
At each and every institution, there are always a few transformative projects that live on long after the students have left the building. If you ask an alumnus of the school where we teach, St. Andrew’s, who they interviewed for their Oral History Project during their junior year, which typically results in a product that is more than 60 pages bound, almost all of them will remember both their interviewee and the specifics of their story. When you ask the same student who the “Great Compromiser” was in American history, it is less likely that they will remember the answer (even though our history teachers examine Henry Clay in great detail).
The year can be defined by great projects, and life can be changed by them. They not only gain knowledge but also develop their attitudes and personalities. They are the most important step in the process of constructing learning that is long-lasting, practical, and adaptable. They have the potential to be useful culminative examinations or demonstrations of one’s level of competence. They are the things that remain ingrained in our memories even ten years after we have graduated. We shouldn’t be considering “if” we should elevate our PBL into an equitable school experience that helps all students learn; rather, we should be considering “how” and “when” we should do so. And for project-based learning to be great as well as equitable, the “how” of it needs to be informed by the science of learning.