by John Larmer
Editor in Chief
“I thought the project was going well… but by the end, I felt that the work my students produced was not as good as I imagined it would be. I was a little embarrassed and almost wanted to dial back the audience’s expectations on the night of the presentations!”
This is a common concern of teachers who are new to Project Based Learning. Things can appear to be going smoothly; students have been engaged by the project, they've been learning content and skills, they've been busy and meeting deadlines… but their thinking is not as in-depth and their final products not as polished as they should be. If this is your experience, it’s time to ask yourself some questions:
1. Did I use rubrics and exemplars to help students understand the quality of work expected?
Simply telling students that you want them to do high-quality work is not enough, nor is giving them a checklist that tracks completion, not quality. Most PBL teachers know they need rubrics in order to assess the complex products and performance tasks typically seen in projects. But rubrics should also be used throughout a project as a tool for guiding students as they work. Introduce rubrics near the beginning, when students hear about (or help decide) what the major products of the project will be. Actually, it's more than an introduction; it's “get to know it well,” so don't just point out a rubric you’ve created and say, “Here’s how you’ll be assessed.” Have students either (a) practice using the rubric several times or (b) co-create a rubric and then practice using it.
To have students practice using a rubric, find some exemplars of the kind of work required in the project. You could find real-world examples made by adult professionals, or use student-created examples from past years. For example, if students need to write a scientific report after an investigation, show them one – on a different topic, to prevent direct copying. If they need to build a museum-style display, take them to a museum or visit its website. If the product is a presentation, a designed artifact, or a work of art, show videos, photos, or physical examples. Have students use the rubric to assess the quality of the exemplars and debate their decisions until the class arrives at a consensus and is “calibrated” on the criteria.
Another tip for clarifying high expectations: Depending on what kind of product the project requires, bring experts in to class, or visit them in person or online, to hear about the criteria used to judge the quality of a similar product in their work. For example, have an engineer describe how she defends the mathematical models used in a proposal for a new construction project, or have a sculptor explain how he puts together a proposal for a piece of public art.
2. Did my project include effective formative assessment?
One of the 8 Essential Elements of PBL is “Critique and Revision.” The Common Core State Standards emphasize the ability to give and receive feedback – and use it to improve work – in the ELA Writing standards from grade 6 through 12. So make sure you teach students how to play a role in the formative assessment process and provide them with regular opportunities to do so. Your project calendar should have several checkpoints on it when formative assessment can happen.
Teach students how to use critique protocols (such as Critical Friends, Gallery Walks, design charrettes) that emphasize what Ron Berger calls “kind, specific, and helpful” feedback. (See a short video demonstrating the power of peer critique.) Make sure students use rubrics or other established criteria as the basis for giving critique. To help emphasize its importance, include the ability to give and receive feedback – and use it – in your grading and reporting system.
Of course, the teacher also must provide feedback and critique, so make sure yours is based on clear quality criteria and arrives in a timely fashion. That latter point can be tricky; if 35 rough drafts arrive on your desk all at once it’s going to take some time to review them. Peer critique can help lighten the load, and so can the use of other adults acting as project mentors and experts. Also consider setting staggered checkpoint dates for different student teams.
3. Did students have enough time to revise and polish their work?
Sometimes lower-than-hoped-for quality is simply a matter of time – as in, not enough of it. Especially the first time you conduct a project, it’s easy to overlook how long it might take students to create high-quality products, whether it’s writing, live presentations, or multimedia and digital products. After they get all that helpful feedback, they're going to need time to reflect and act on it and revise their work.
Maybe it’s hard to imagine adding another few days to your project calendar. The need to “cover” content frequently causes a tension in PBL. So you may have to weigh the trade-offs and make a choice: do I want the highest-quality work, or is there some other level I can accept? (A word of reassurance: the more you use PBL in your teaching, the better you’ll become at finding the sweet spot between time and quality.)
4. Did the project feel authentic enough to motivate students – did they care?
For many students, school assignments are more about getting them done than doing them well. That attitude may transfer to project work at first. But PBL is based on the belief that schooling should be different. A project should increase students’ motivation to learn and produce quality work because:
5. Does my classroom – and my school – cultivate a culture of quality?
In addition to the above, there’s a less tangible but very important aspect to getting students to do high-quality work: culture. Through the stated and unstated beliefs promoted by adults, and the structures and rituals of a classroom – or more effectively, throughout a school – students get the message: we do good work here.
If you ever get a chance to visit High Tech High or one of its sister schools in San Diego, the first thing you might notice is the student work displayed all over the building – works of art, pieces of writing, inventions demonstrating understanding of science. That’s part of a culture of quality in a classroom and school; excellence is celebrated and on display, on walls, in hallways, on websites, at public events. Portfolios are used to collect student work and exhibition nights share it with parents and the community.
Another way to make the message of quality concrete is to arrive at a shared understanding of and commitment to high standards across classrooms, departments, and grade levels. Teachers should engage in professional development in which they examine student work together and discuss how to improve it in a project. Adopt the same PBL rubrics whenever possible, such as those describing a quality demonstration of the 21st century competencies of critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity.
Talk as a school staff about how to promote commonly-held classroom norms that encourage students to take risks, be persistent, value feedback, and expect much of themselves and their peers. As Ron Berger says in his seminal book, An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students (Heinemann 2003), “when students expect excellence out of each other and hold each other to high standards, you’d be amazed what can happen in a school.” For more of Ron’s thoughts on how and why schools should focus on quality over quantity, see his essay “Beautiful Work” at bie.org.
Hangout with BIE: Guiding Students to High Quality Work
John Larmer and Dayna Laur talk about how teachers can help guide students to produce high quality work.