A Step-by-Step Guide to the Best Projects

Discover a project-based learning model that motivates students to pursue knowledge and drives academic achievement.

Discover a project-based learning model that motivates students to pursue knowledge and drives academic achievement.
Hunger Games book cover; three girls

One sophomore project at Manor New Tech High School was based on the best-selling novel The Hunger Games. Examples of how they incorporated English and world history standards into the project are below.

Credit: Zachary Fink

Manor New Technology High School in Manor, Texas, is a 100 percent project-based learning school. They are part of the New Tech Network of schools and their approach has yielded remarkable results, including a 98 percent graduation rate, with all of their graduates accepted to college.

The success of their PBL approach is largely attributable to the fact that their process is designed to stimulate student inquiry. Additionally, their process can be applied to any project in any subject, which means there is a consistent approach across grades and subjects at Manor.

We followed a sophomore world studies class through a three-week project called Controlling Factors, created by teaching partners Mary Mobley (English) and Michael Chambers (world history). They designed a project that capitalized on the wild popularity among their students of the best-selling novel The Hunger Games. Built on specific English and world history state standards, the project covered concepts including the pre-World War II global economic crisis, the rise of totalitarianism, and the societal moral dilemmas that world leaders at that time faced, and then had students draw parallels to similar fictional themes in the book.

Here is a breakdown of key steps, with some examples from Mobley and Chambers's project:

  1. State standards: Every project at Manor starts with the state standards, and every project's final assessment requires that students demonstrate their mastery of them. State standards are laid out in the rubric, and students should be able to tell you which ones they're covering in any given project.
    • Example: For Mobley and Chambers's project, world history standards included understanding the causes of the global depression, the response of governments to it, the rise of totalitarianism, and key world leaders in WWII. English language arts standards included analyzing moral dilemmas across cultures in works of fiction, making complex inferences from literature, and writing personal response essays.
  2. Critical Friends: Honest, two-way feedback and ongoing adjustments help Manor’s projects to continually improve. Both students and teachers participate in a peer review protocol they call Critical Friends. Before teachers launch a project, they often have a session with colleagues for feedback, especially on the academic rigor of the project. Similarly, before their final presentations, students often run Critical Friends to give each other feedback in the form of "I like…" and "I wonder…" statements and suggest next steps for improvement.
    • Example: Mobley and Chambers had a Critical Friends session with their department colleagues in which they received feedback on how to better integrate the two subjects. In this session, they also came up with the idea for the second part of the project, in which the students were broken up into districts and a ruling capital to simulate both the fictional and historical scenarios they were studying.
  3. Entry event: Teachers introduce each project with an entry event that serves several purposes: to hook the kids and get them engaged in the content, to provide an exemplar of what the teachers expect, and to introduce key vocabulary (such as people, events, and terminology) related to the targeted content to get the students thinking about what they'll need to know.
    • Example: For the Controlling Factors entry event, Mobley and Chambers created a newsreel that included terms like "Mussolini," "totalitarianism," "global depression," and "World War II" as breadcrumbs. A student might already know what totalitarianism and World War II are, but may not know who Mussolini was and how those terms are all connected.
  4. "Need-to-know" list: Keywords in the entry event should prompt students to identify new concepts they’ll need to learn and help them make connections to related content they already know. As a class, they agree on a shared list of need-to-knows, which they update individually throughout the project.
  5. Rubric: The rubric is an essential tool for maintaining transparency for students at Manor. Teachers carefully design rubrics to define all the desired learning outcomes for a project, including which state standards students are expected to master and how performance will be measured for each outcome. The rubric sets the standard for each project and is presented at the start so that students have clear goals to work toward.
  6. Group contract: Individual accountability is a critical component of successful PBL, and Manor students use group contracts to document expectations for each team member. Each project team writes a contract that clearly defines everyone's roles, responsibilities, and contributions to the project, and students are held to it. Students can be fired if they do not fulfill their part of the contract and must complete the project on their own, although this rarely happens at Manor.
  7. Research and collaboration: Once the project is launched, it is up to the students to work together to figure out what their final product is going to be and how they will acquire the knowledge they need to complete it. Teachers provide workshops to go over concepts depending on students' needs, and they have students run workshops for each other to reinforce their learning and build collaboration.
    • Example: Workshops for The Hunger Games project included student-led discussions about real moral dilemmas from events in history or fictional examples based on events in the book. They also had workshops on different totalitarian leaders and other world leaders during WWII.
  8. Assessment and adjustment: Throughout the process, teachers and students give and receive feedback and make adjustments accordingly. Teachers track student progress to make sure no student is falling behind. Depending on what they find, they might go back and do more scaffolding, quiz more, or provide additional workshops. "If I have a student who is almost done with an entire project and is not doing very well," says Mobley, "I really step back and wonder, 'Where was I this whole time? Why wasn't I paying more attention to the student's progress?'"
  9. Presentations: Public presentations are the common element to all projects at Manor, with up to 80 percent of them in front of an external audience. Verbal communication, public speaking, and other important nonacademic skills are honed in this process.
    • Example: Final presentations for Mobley and Chambers's project included a multimedia presentation with audience participation about a moral dilemma faced by Nazi concentration camp survivors and a skit dramatizing the moral decisions made by world leaders running up to the attack on Pearl Harbor.
  10. Final assessment: Because teachers take pains to observe student progress throughout the process, the final assessments tend to be relatively easy. The work up front on creating a clearly defined rubric that identifies multiple learning outcomes and criteria also helps considerably. As Mobley explains, "By the time students turn in their final work, they should know what grade they're going to get."
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This article originally published on 5/23/2012

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Comments (17)

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President and CEO of Urians of Bayugan International, Inc. (U.B.I.)

Great! I want this to be

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Great! I want this to be shared to our U.B.I. scholars in Urians of Bayugan International, Inc - UBI of Bayugan, Agusan del sur so that they will learn more by doing projects by themselves.

Managing Editor and Producer

Thank you for the helpful

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Thank you for the helpful additional info, Chris! Excellent to get it straight from the classroom.

Missing the Instruction

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Mariko had a nice reply to your comment and I wanted to add that your view is a common question from people looking in at a PBL classroom. Whole group instruction does (and should) occur, small group instruction is even more prevalent, and individual research is on going. PBL is just good teaching practices all rolled into a thing we call PBL. There are daily formative or summative assessments, daily reflection pieces, and peer critiques going on continuously, as well. PBL is HARD to do properly. But when the students and the teacher both understand the process, it is incredibly rewarding for both teacher and student.

Managing Editor and Producer

That is an excellent

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That is an excellent question, Nathan. Depending on what strategy we are focusing on, sometimes we're not able to show as much of the details of classroom instruction in lieu of capturing details about the strategy. In the case of Manor, students learn the content through a variety of methods, almost all of those you listed. At the start of each project, they identify "need to knows" on both a class and individual level, and students are responsible for their list. They find the information through independent research, sharing info with each other, group workshops, and occasionally traditional teacher instruction. The teachers generally use the students as a gauge for when this is appropriate. If they are getting feedback from several students indicating difficulty with a subject, or if they want to make sure everyone is on the right track, then they will give direct instruction to the class. Otherwise, they serve as guides and a resource, and let students take on the responsibility of how they will obtain and learn the information. Hope that helps, thanks for the insightful question.

High School Science Teacher

Methods of instruction

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While watching all of the videos posted at Edutopia as well as other sites, one part that always seems to be missing is the instruction. All of the videos focus on a bit of teacher collaboration, student performance assessments; but the instruction is always left out. Is the instruction traditional but not shown, or are the students on their own to find information? That is the missing piece for me. Do they get choice in how they want to learn the content, is there a list of "to do's", or is direct instruction happening and the students work as the instruction takes place? Am I missing something. Thanks

Managing Editor and Producer

Re: Martin Richards "I train educators..."

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Hi Martin - Those are great questions. One general guideline is that all projects should involve some kind of problem (usually framed as an essential question) and this serves as a kind of beacon for the project so that all aspects eventually lead back to addressing this question/problem. Conversely, however, not all problems are projects. You want to be sure that the problem is multi-faceted enough that you can build a robust and rigorous project around it with multiple learning outcomes. Steven Zipkes, the principal at Manor New Tech, recommends that the length of a project be justified by the amount of content covered. You may also find the evidence-based recommendations in this article helpful in planning your projects: http://www.edutopia.org/pbl-research-evidence-based-components

5th grade/ ITC candidate

Digital Storytelling project

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Digital Storytelling: Creating a Photo Novel

Leslie Rule, who created the term “digital storytelling” describes it as ”the modern expression of the ancient art of storytelling. Digital stories derive their power by weaving images, music, narrative and voice together, thereby giving deep dimension and vivid color to characters, situations, experiences, and insights (Rule, 2010).”
Digital story telling is not a new concept to those who use technology regularly in the classroom. But for those who don’t, this is written especially for you. It is an incredibly effective tool for students to retell or summarize what they learned and actually have an enjoyable experience while doing it. Students who may avoid participating in class now have the ability to use these new forms of communications to make themselves heard (Driscoll, 2007). And in the end, they create a project that they are proud of and are more than willing to share. And with today’s technology it can be shared instantly and be a part of their academic record for time to come.
The project is a fairly simple one by technology standards and it can be accomplished from start to finish with minimal teacher input, but results in maximum student output. Tool used are common ones and most students will be familiar with their use. Those who aren’t can learn from a partner or from a quick teacher tutorial.
Students will recreate a story, scene or historical event by taking a digital photograph, editing it and then creating a comic book style setting box and speech or thought bubbles. The final project can be shared as a hard copy graphic novel type presentation or as part of a slide show like power point or using a web tool like Animoto.
Students need to have completed their content knowledge prior to beginning. For example, students should finish reading a novel or completing a history unit of study. Students will need to write a brief summary and then storyboard it. A storyboard looks like a simplified comic book with a quick sketch or even stick figure drawing of what the scene will look like.
The next step is having the students create a tableau (a ‘scene’) and take a picture of it. Using costumes can help, but is not necessary. It is the next part, using the pictures, that is the true test of using technology.
After printing the picture students can cut out the figures and then find an appropriate background onto which students will glue the figures. Students can scan the picture and then drop it into Microsoft Word where they can use the drawing tools to add setting boxes and dialogue or thought bubbles. They can use these in a slide show or create PDFs easily. They will look something like this.

Students can also take the picture and cut it out electronically using Photoshop, Pixie or another photo editing tool. They can copy and paste a background and then copy and paste the figures on top of it. Afterwards, like the old school method, they can choose how they want to display their final product. They can lay it out electronically and print it like a comic or make it part of a slide show.
The slide show can work well also if students write a script and have different student play the characters as the slide show is shown. Special effects and music can create a movie for a presentation to other classes, parents or a Social Studies night atmosphere.
From personal experience I can attest to the power of digital storytelling. It is proven practice and can help promote outside of the box thinking from some students or might be the perfect accommodation for others who are less likely to be able to summarize or report back their acquisition of the requisite content knowledge. Students who may avoid participating in class now have the ability to use these new forms of communications to make themselves heard (Driscoll, 2007). Digital storytelling is a very powerful and real means of communicating and is another effective tool in the teacher arsenal.

Driscoll, K. (2007). Collaboration in today’s classrooms: New web tools change the game. Multimedia & Internet@Schools, 14(3), 9-12. Retrieved October 25, 2012 from ProQuest Educational Journals. DOI: 229765023

Rule, L. (2010). Digital storytelling: Never has storytelling been so easy or powerful. Knowledge Quest, 38(4), 56-57. Retrieved December 2, 2012 from ProQuest Educational Journals.DOI: 609381695

Secondary Teacher,Arizona

I really agree with your

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I really agree with your statement.
when students do problems they learn the concept more deeply than a Projet based learning

I train educators to use a coaching approach in their teaching practice

Problem or Project?

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It's good to read here that PBL and PrBL are being used at different schools. As with many other methodology choices making the right choice is dynamic, it moves!

What indicators have been found that could be used to guide the choice of PBL and PrBL at the start? Are there clues in the subject matter, the way of thinking that's needed? Or the students, and the skills they bring to the start of the course? Early indicators would make the teachers choice better informed.

HS Mathematics and MS/HS Pre-Engineering teacher, from South Louisiana

PrBL for Math :)

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Chris -
I fully agree that problem-based learning is usually better than project-based learning for mathematics. For some areas (especially geometry and statistics), we found that PBL is great for critical thinking and application of skill-based knowledge, but for conceptual development of many higher-level mathematical principles and processes, problem-based learning is better.

After our school became a New Tech School in 2005, we started this discussion with Megan and others at New Tech - we were using Core Plus Mathematics at the time. It has problems at the end of each lesson that are more challenging than many of the projects I encountered through New Tech observations and resources.

So, I was very happy when I found out last year that New Tech was encouraging teachers to use either PBL or PrBL in their math classes depending upon the content - so much so that I joined their PrBL course for teachers last fall! :) It was enlightening - I hope there is something similar again this year - I find that collaborative planning and reflective teaching are two of the best ways to improve our teaching.

I'll be looking for you in the NTN groups! I enjoyed reading your comments.

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