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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How to Get High-Quality Student Work in PBL

John Larmer

Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education

"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 that 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, you're doing more than an introduction. You should be saying, "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 professional adults, or use student-created examples from past years. So if students need to write, say, 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.

Here's another tip for clarifying high expectations. Depending on what kind of product the project requires, bring professional experts into 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 "Revision and Reflection." The Common Core State Standards emphasize the ability to give and receive feedback -- and use it to improve work -- in the ELA writing standards for grades 6-12. So make sure that 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 for 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. 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.

The following short video from Expeditionary Learning demonstrates the power of peer critique.

Of course, the teacher also must provide feedback and critique, so make sure that yours is based on clear quality criteria and arrives in 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. That can be especially true the first time you conduct a project, because it's easy to overlook how long it might take students to create high-quality products, whether those products are writing, live presentations, multimedia or digital. After your students get all that helpful feedback, they still need time to reflect and act on it, and to revise their work.

Maybe it's hard to imagine adding another few days to your project calendar. The need to "cover" content frequently causes 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 it done than doing it 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:

  • Students care about the issue, problem or topic of investigation because they see its relevance to their own lives. The answer to the project's driving question matters to them.
  • Students care about the fact that they are producing work for a public audience. It's not a just another instance of turning something in for the teacher, or another casual presentation in front of the class. Students will come to know that the quality of a product matters if they want to make an impact in the real world. They'll want to impress people and not be embarrassed when they share the results of the project, whether it's a live presentation of a solution to a community problem, the launch of a website they've created, or a demonstration of a product in front of its intended users.
  • Students feel a sense of authenticity when they collaborate with adult professionals, experts, parents or community members during a project. "We're working as these adults do," students will think, "and they don't do shoddy work." And those outside adults -- often more powerfully than words from a teacher -- can encourage students to do better work.

5. Do my classroom and my school cultivate a culture of quality?

In addition to the above, there's a less tangible but very important aspect of 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 an understanding of science. That's part of a classroom and school culture of quality. Excellence is celebrated and displayed on walls, in hallways, on websites, at public events. Teachers use portfolios to collect student work and share it with parents and the community on exhibition nights.

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 that allows them to 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.

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