8 Tips for Building Successful Project-Based Learning Units

8 Tips for Building Successful Project-Based Learning Units
Kara Wyman, MEd March 10, 2017

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Designing a successful project-based learning unit can seem like a daunting task. We want it to be innovative, full of 21st-century learning skills, and so meaningful that our students proudly remember every detail for the rest of the year.

But how do we accomplish all this? These eight tips can keep you moving in the right direction:

1. Provide meaningful real-world connections

Having content goals is vital, but you also need to tie your project-based learning units to the world beyond your classroom. Let’s say your primary objective is for students to explain how solar power works. That’s great, but they’ll understand the content on a deeper level if you give students a real-world objective.

How about having them demonstrate the benefits of solar power for a teenager in California vs. one in Kenya? The age-old question of “why do we have to learn this?” suddenly gets answered in a much more meaningful way. Students can appreciate how solar power works, why it’s so important and how it helps people in different ways, depending on where they live and their socioeconomic status.

Grounding a unit in reality conveys a sense of urgency while encouraging curiosity, awareness and even emotional growth.

2. Build in time for experiential learning

It’s easy to list a bunch of tasks to be completed, but it’s important to make sure time is built in for experiential learning components where students have to test something and experience trial and error. Lessons learned from failed attempts are just as valuable as realizations at the moment of success.

If there isn’t time for hands-on learning — say they have to build a sailboat model based on lessons about buoyancy, movement, and stability — then the unit becomes more about checking off items on a list. It’s much better for them to experience what it’s like to apply concepts to effectively construct something and revise based on their mistakes.

3. Provide opportunities for team building

To boost engagement and class connectedness, give students the opportunity to work together creatively so each one can voice opinions and test ideas. Students can learn from each other and build their confidence as investigators and observers — instead of solely relying on you as the “sage on the stage.”

4. Revisit the driving question

It’s important to revisit the driving question of your project-based learning unit as you plan and execute each stage. If your driving question isn’t the force propelling everything, you’ll find yourself having to change course to keep it all clearly aligned.

Sticking to the driving question ensures that the meaning behind the unit doesn’t get lost, that your rubric fully assesses your primary objectives, and that students stay attuned to the unit’s focus and reward.

5. Differentiate through teams

Make sure to strategically group students to ensure the type of success you know they need. You might want to differentiate based on academic ability, collaboration skills, specific interests or social-emotional needs.

This gives students the best chance to learn the material in ways that best fit them. That, in turn, helps them feel personal and academic success within the group.

6. Focus on student-driven learning

Once your project-based learning unit is underway, remember students need this time to learn and explore within your framework. Trust that they are capable of making it work, and rest assured that stepping back to see what works well and what needs to be slightly altered is all part of the process.

If you give them answers or show them how to do too much, they will lose sight of their own problem-solving abilities. It will feel more like a lesson you are teaching them rather than a series of experiences to work through with you as a guide.

7. Include self-assessment

Self-assessment and reflections often get shoved aside when we’re short on time, but they provide valuable insight and focus on growth. Asking students to assess their work and performance as helpful teammates, leaders, observers, and collaborators encourages accountability and introspection.

This can happen midway and at the end of the unit so they have an opportunity to apply what they’ve realized during the unit and for future units. If reflections become routine, students often learn to recognize how they have improved and they can recognize that there are many kinds of success.

8. Reflect on your progress

Although it can be difficult to set aside grading and planning long enough to write your own reflections at the end of a unit, it is crucial to future success. When thinking about how a lesson went, write down things like:

  • What went well at each stage
  • Any surprises or struggles you didn’t anticipate
  • How to improve pacing, engagement, and assessments
  • How to more closely align each stage with the main objectives and the driving question

These reflections help you fine-tune each project-based learning unit so that it gets better each time and your students get the biggest possible gain from the experience.

Kara Wyman earned a MEd and a BA from the University of California-Santa Barbara. She spent a decade working with adolescents as an English teacher, the founder and director of a drama program, a curriculum designer, and a project manager for a teen-centered nonprofit organization. 

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