April 26, 2016 by

Three Tips for More Engaging PBL Projects

Student Engagement: Strengthening the Desire to Learn

By Andrew Miller

Student Engagement: Strengthening the Desire to LearnProject-based learning (PBL) is a powerful tool to promote student engagement. It allows students to investigate real-world challenges and problems and create high-quality work for authentic audiences. It allows students to work collaboratively and individually to learn the content and skills they need to be “future ready.” Books by John Larmer and Suzie Boss are great tools to get started designing these high quality projects, and educators can reinvent projects of the past to make sure they are truly engaging. Here are three tips to consider as you design and redesign PBL projects for your students to make them even more engaging and focused on learning.

Allow for Failure

In my Arias Publication Freedom to Fail, I give many tips and advocate for the power of failure as a learning experience. Many PBL projects focus on real-world design challenges, and just like in the real world, designers fail. In fact, many intentionally fail quickly to learn. As educators, we, too, can allow for failure in our projects. We can tell students upfront that they will learn and design high-quality products, and it will be ok to “get it wrong.” Students will be more likely to take risks and innovate—and then engage to learn more material.

Set Up Flexible Classroom Spaces

The classroom environment should communicate a message of collaboration and innovation for PBL. We should experiment with different spaces so collaboration is natural and easy. PBL is a great way to individualize learning, and different seating arrangements like standing desks and bean bags can allow the space to be personalized based on what students are doing in the project. Students can move in a fluid fashion and receive feedback from their peers, revise their work, or get direct instruction from their teacher as necessary. 

Provide Opportunities for Student Voice and Choice

This is crucial to any PBL project. There should always be an element of choice in what students produce, who they work with, and how they work. This will look different depending on age, time of year, experience with PBL, etc. We know our students, and, therefore, can make great decisions around voice and choice. However, we should also trust our students. We might be hesitant to give them choice, but we know there are many ways to do so (e.g., time, place, products, and people). We can jigsaw content and allow students to choose their team members, the products they want to produce, when they will share benchmarks and final products, where they want to work in and outside of the classroom, etc. The possibilities for voice and choice in PBL are endless, and we should embrace these choices to empower students and create better student engagement.

There are many ways to revise and improve PBL projects to make them more relevant and authentic. Educators should take part in this revision process to create engaging experiences that encourage student learning.

Click here for more ASCD resources to help create classrooms that spur curiosity, creativity, and connection.

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Andrew Miller is the author of the ASCD Arias publication Freedom to Fail: How do I foster risk-taking and innovation in my classroom? He is on the national faculty for the Buck Institute for Education, an organization specializing in 21st century project-based learning. Miller is also an ASCD Faculty member, providing expertise in a variety of professional development needs, and a regular blogger for Edutopia. Connect with Miller on Twitter @betamiller.