Tips for project-based learning

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Project-based learning has the potential to teach key skills and knowledge in a more engaging and real-world way. Earnie Kramer looks at the pros and cons and offers some advice.

Built on the principle that students learn better when taught through real-world problem-solving, project-based learning is a classroom model that emphasises enquiry-based, hands-on lessons that are student-directed.

Project-based learning, or PBL, somewhat abandons the traditional curriculum in that students are not required to learn specific facts on specific days. Rather, students are presented with a project (often working in groups) and are tasked with using their knowledge and lessons to solve problems and complete that project.

Benefits of project-based learning

Project-based learning gives schools the ability to:

  • Increase application and retention of information.

  • Encourage critical-thinking skills.

  • Foster communication and collaboration.

  • Boost high-stakes test scores.

  • Increase student motivation and engagement.

  • Teach real-world problem-solving.

  • Improve academic achievement.

  • Positively affect students’ attitudes toward learning.

  • Prepare learners for higher education.

  • Integrate knowing and doing.

  • Allow students to be mobile by offering them opportunities to learn in places besides the classroom or at home.

  • Show students that learning can take place anywhere, anytime.

  • Help students to become lifelong learners by requiring them to apply the knowledge they have learned to everyday or real-life problems.

  • Teach students that it is not enough to know information, but rather being able to use the information they have in a meaningful and productive way.

  • Create a learning atmosphere in which teachers coach student thinking and guide student review, allowing deeper levels of understanding.

  • Engage students as participants in a problem situation.

  • Organise lectures around a given holistic problem, enabling student learning in relevant and connected ways

Challenges of project-based learning

Some of the barriers to overcome when implementing project-based learning include the following:

  • Training teachers on how to implement PBL in the classroom and maintaining teacher energy levels from project to project.

  • Designing projects that both inspire and instruct students on common core standards.

  • Rethinking the old pedagogy of separating subjects so that skills are learned and honed holistically.

  • Finding classroom time to enthusiastically implement project-based learning amid test preparation and common core standards goals. 

  • It requires more time and takes away study time from other subjects.

  • It can sometimes be difficult for teachers who already have a way of doing things.

  • Being fair in assessment.

  • Building suitable project-based learning facilities in schools.

  • It might be challenging to implement project-based learning in some subjects – for example, subjects such as mathematics which is primarily skills-based at basic level.

Top tips for project-based learning

Give students a realistic problem or project. This achieves student buy-in and gets them excited about their project. If they can imagine encountering the problem that you have presented, they will be more interested in solving the problem. 

Make group work structured. Group students in sets of three to four with diversified skill levels so that each student has a defined role. 

Give multi-faceted assessments. Schedule multiple opportunities for students to revise their work and receive feedback through benchmarks, peer-grading, etc, so that work is monitored at several points throughout the project. Create benchmarks that focus on different aspects of the project so that students’ different roles are all highlighted.  

Participate in a professional network to support your efforts. Project-based learning does not just encourage collaboration among students, teachers and administrators can benefit as well. Constructive projects can take time to outline and create. Use the work and progress of your peers by using their successful assignments in your classroom. 

What teachers have told us

Teacher Steve Webb is clear on the benefits of project-based learning: “Using project-based learning allows me to focus teaching on a couple of really important skills for students’ development, such as leadership skills, collaborating productively, critical-thinking, communicating powerfully and completing projects effectively. This allows students to develop the life-skills that they need to be successful when moving on to university or the workplace.”

Fellow teacher Emma Jacobs adds: “Although it can be a challenging process, my students engage in learning more than ever and it is all down to better collaboration in classroom using project-based learning.”

  • Earnie Kramer is a director with Lightspeed Systems.

 


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