How to Put the Rigor in Project-Based Learning

Tips from a one-time skeptic turned teacher-leader.

Tips from a one-time skeptic turned teacher-leader.
Girl looking through magnifying glass; teacher

A Whitfield Career Academy student (left) studies fingerprints as part of a forensic science project. Eric White (right), one of the Academy's teachers, enjoys a laugh during collaborative planning time with his colleagues.

Credit: Grace Rubenstein


It took some convincing. At first blush, Eric White -- social studies teacher at Whitfield Career Academy in northwest Georgia and the unofficial evangelist of project-based learning in the Whitfield County School District -- wasn't sold on project-based learning. He had heard the stories about PBL being "warm, fuzzy, snuggly learning in which Johnny glues some Wikipedia information to a poster and gets a grade." But visits to High Tech High and an in-depth look into the rigorous approach to PBL there turned him into a die-hard proponent and highly successful practitioner.

Here are White's top tips for implementing projects that engage and reward students while deepening their learning and enhancing their ability to retain valuable knowledge:

CPR: Critique, Presentations, Reflections

  • Critique: White and his teaching partner, Lindsey Ott, routinely pause in mid-project to allow time for four or five student-to-student critiques before they accept any student work. Critiques by peers are especially important in PBL. White and Ott often require students to get two of them on each writing assignment before turning it in. Following the advice of educator, author, and PBL expert Ron Berger, they emphasize that all feedback should be "positive, helpful, and specific." The teachers review the filled-out peer-critique forms before reading the assignment. If the critiques are too soft, White tells the students, "Your 'critiquers' haven't done you justice, so go back to them and have that conversation again."
  • Presentations: White emphasizes that a key concern with PBL is making sure that all presentations are substantive and leverage core knowledge and academic disciplines. For instance, when White and Ott's students did a historical and literary analysis of a popular song, they had to research the historical context and make an argument in favor of their chosen song before starting. After they presented their completed projects, the students had to make a second presentation on what they had achieved and learned. Peers and the teacher also critiqued this presentation.
  • Reflections: Students always write a five-paragraph reflection on their project work. Students quickly learn that "if you're not reading and writing, it's not a project," White says. "We want to make sure they're writing at every stage of the project, even if it's observations about how they're doing their work."

Design an Exciting Entry Activity

White and Ott think of the introductory activity for each project as the key opportunity to capture students' interest and engage their passions. To start the song project, they had students pull out their iPods, listen to the tune that was most meaningful to them, and write about it. Before starting a unit on debating, the students staged a quick debate -- complete with opening statements and rebuttals -- about who would make a better presidential candidate, Johnny Knoxville of Jackass or Snooki from Jersey Shore. White says that creating this type of relevant, engaging hook in the beginning "keeps them reeled in as we move along."

Craft a Strong Driving Question

As White likes to say to his students, "Tell me something I can't Google." He and Ott frame each project with a driving question that aims to push kids deeper into the content. The question should prompt students to go beyond the acquisition of facts into application and analysis. And it should be open-ended enough that it has no single answer so that the process of getting to an answer is more important than the answer itself. The driving question for the song project was, "How does music affect us and how does it reflect societies and cultures?"

Be an Anthropologist

The only way to design entry activities and projects that excite students is to know what students care about. White approaches the task like an anthropologist, observing the students, noting what kids are talking about, and listening closely to their conversations. The classes perform team-building exercises and develop comfort and familiarity through peer critiques on small, low-stakes assignments. He also asks students to write about "a talent you have that you don't get to use in school." This provides the teachers with topical hooks to enhance student engagement in the project learning, and it lets the students know the teachers care about their passions and not just their grades.

Keep Tests in Their Place

Traditional tests do enable teachers to measure whether students are grasping the material they need to know. That's why White and Ott use them as complements to projects. Projects count for 50 percent of a student's final grade, while tests and smaller daily assignments each count for 25 percent. What matters most of all, says White, is how the students "apply the knowledge they gain in the context of the projects."

This article originally published on 4/11/2011

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