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Come On In, The Water’s Fine - How to Stay Afloat in Project Based Learning
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By Kylie Murry, M.Ed.
GHS Physics and Chemistry


Project Based Learning is the catch phrase on every administrator and curriculum director’s tongue; easy to say, a little harder to do. Here’s my advice from the deep end of the project based learning pool if you are just dipping your toe in the shallow end and considering wading in further.

Why Take the Plunge?

Why project based learning? Before I dive into the details, many teachers question the effectiveness of project-based learning. Research reflects that student retention increases when they are given a problem-solving task that requires all of their senses and encompasses all of the learning styles (visual, auditory, and kinesthetic). In addition, project based learning takes place in the portion of the learning pyramid where retention ranges from 50% up to 90% (compared to only 10% retention from lecture and reading).  All levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy (Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Synthesis, and Evaluation) are at play when students are involved in project-based learning.   Finally, if a project is framed and scaffolded in a way that students are interested, given clear goals, and confident that they can be successful, their engagement will be at the highest level.  It encompasses all of the learning styles, it fluidly allows for differentiation, it teaches at the most effective level, it engages students, and if done properly will meet all of your learning objectives. Given the effectiveness of this method of learning, many still balk because of three main concerns: 1) Noise and mess (i.e. students not on task), 2) Not enough time, and 3) Stress about student mastery of TEKS.  If you venture into the world of project based learning you’ll have to loosen the reins a bit and accept that it will be a little noisier and messier than you may be comfortable with at first, but there are ways to manage your classroom to increase engagement and on-task behavior.  And yes, at first project based learning is more time intensive for you to set up and plan than copying worksheets or assigning book work, however, once you’ve established the framework and rubrics, the rest of the time will run smoothly and involve students doing the work while you guide the process.  As far as meeting learning objectives, if you establish guidelines with clear task goals aligned with your TEKS’ key terms and concepts and include a unit test at the end, you will also be sure that your students have mastered the intended objectives.  

Begin With the End in Mind

The first step of planning an engaging and successful project is to begin with the end in mind.  First, look at your TEKS. Many TEKS can be taught as a group instead of individually. Identify a manageable number of TEKS for your time frame. Starting with one TEK and having a short project may be a good way to get your feet wet.  Next, list the key terms associated with the TEKS.  Third, write 3-5 questions that address the key concepts.  I like to call these “driving questions”.  When students answer these questions, they drive their own learning.  The fourth step is the most difficult step for some teachers.  An authentic learning experience needs to be brainstormed. If you need help getting your creative juices flowing, there are many resources online.  Some of my favorites are,,, and  Students engage best with an experience that relates to “real life” or is set up as a competition.  Fifth, lay out a schedule for how many days you predict your students will need to complete the task and set up a task goal for each day.  Use the task goals to identify formative and summative grades that you will take during the project and go ahead and identify those on the first day to establish accountability and clear expectations. Establish a date for the competition or product to be due. It’s helpful to put a breakdown of what needs to be done each day on a blank calendar form as well. This helps teach them to manage their time and set long and short-term goals.  Design rubrics for the product and summative paper and pass these out at the beginning of the unit. I’ve found that if I have my product as a formative grade and a summary paper as a summative grade, no one fails from not completing a project on time or having an unsuccessful end product.  It gives students practice writing, allows them to connect their learning, and allows me to assess their knowledge individually. I also frame my project based learning with a pre-test and a post-test to ensure the learning objectives were mastered.

Some May Need Floaties

Expect an initial lag time when a design challenge is first presented.  The planning part is a good way to scaffold them into ideas, but when it comes to actually putting their ideas into practice I’ve noticed most students have a “pause” period.  This is the point that requires the most patience as a teacher.  The natural inclination is to jump in and start giving them directions and your own ideas; to start pulling out boxes of materials and suggesting what to use.  Be patient!  After the pause period, the students will begin to put things together that you would never have thought of.  Their innovation and creativity will amaze you. So wait for it and let it happen.  Control the urge to jump in and do the work for them.  There are some during the pause period, however, that are not just thinking, but also genuinely struggling.  For those groups, individually conferencing with them and asking leading questions is a good way to get them moving.

In order to ensure that everyone has a role and is a contributing member of the group, I assign jobs or have the groups divide the tasks themselves.  Ideally I gravitate towards groups of three.  I’ve found this number allows for maximum efficiency in dividing a task into manageable chunks without having an observer who isn’t doing anything. To make sure everyone participates equally it helps to rotate jobs daily or with the beginning of a new project.  I usually assign three roles: project manager, materials manager, and recorder.

On projects that require students to bring materials from home to build with, there are sometimes groups on build days that will bring nothing. The point of the project is for them to learn the unit concepts, so have alternate assignments for them to do which will accomplish the same end. In this way they are still learning the concepts, and still receiving a grade.  After one day of working on a packet and watching other groups working on their projects their motivation returns and they will redouble their efforts the next day to catch up.  It works like a charm!

If you want quality projects and quality learning to be taking place it is important to rotate around the room offering encouragement and praise, as well as keeping them on task.  Keep your ears open for problems that arise on concepts or group dynamics.  These are prime teaching moments for students to understand how concepts apply to their project and how to work in a group.  Much of my joy in teaching comes from the project days when the kids are asking me for information instead of listening in boredom as I try to “teach” them.

Swimming Lessons

Sprinkled throughout the project time frame I suggest doing “mini-lessons.”  For example, on the project build days I will start the class period by having the students watch a short video tutorial on one of the key concepts of the units and write down brief notes.  Then we will discuss how the key concept relates to the project design.  When you couple what you want the students to know to what they want to know to make their project successful, it’s a great way to give meaning and relevance to what you are teaching.  I’ll also assign practice worksheet packets at the beginning of the unit and assign due dates to certain pages throughout the project timeline that we grade/go over in class to reinforce the concepts and what the students are expected to know for the unit test.

Just Keep Swimming

Be warned, the first project of the year is usually not as successful as you would hope.  Students learn new skills when doing projects related to working in a group, time management, meeting deadlines, and other social soft skills.  As the year progresses they become much quicker and more adept at assigning tasks within the group, working effectively with their group, keeping on task to meet their daily task goals, thinking creatively, and physically bringing mental ideas into being.  These are not skills that most of our students possess, which is one of the reasons project based learning is so important.  Corporations are saying repeatedly that students coming into the work force are lacking creative thinking, problem solving, and social skills.  To be competitive in the world market we need to be teaching our students these skills just as much as the academic content.  The pride in their eyes when they build or create something, the joy when they compete with each other, and the spark of interest and questions that come during a project are what make my job as a teacher memorable, rewarding, and fun.


Key Steps for Meeting Learning Objectives Through A Project Based Learning Experience:

1) Start by listing key terms for the unit

2) Develop “driving questions”

3) Identify an authentic learning goal (challenge or product)

4) Develop rubrics for the final product and summary paper

5) Administer a pre-test over unit concepts and key terms

6) Assign roles and daily task goals

7) Scaffold learning during the work phase through one-on-one conferencing and mini-lessons

8) Have students write a summary paper after the product is complete and administer a unit test to assess learning

The Science Teachers Association of Texas



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