Sustaining student engagement throughout a project-based learning (PBL) unit is a common challenge for classroom practitioners. When a project begins, engagement starts off high, thanks to the natural curiosity provoked by a project launch that includes elements like interesting questions or multimedia resources, as well as the interest that comes with a fresh endeavor.
However, this honeymoon period doesn’t last long as students begin to realize that project work requires effort. This sometimes leads to a drop in interest and engagement, at least until a few days before the conclusion of the project, when students scramble to put the finishing touches on their work ahead of the due date. Outside of the beginning and end, the middle portions of a project can sometimes feel like a struggle, which is why the middle of a PBL project is often called “the messy middle,” because maintaining student interest is a challenge even for experienced PBL teachers.
This gradual slide into the messy middle isn’t inevitable. There are several strategies that teachers can employ to reinvigorate student interest and reengage them with the project process, including one I call the surprise, rehook, engage (SRE) method.
STEP 1: SURPRISE
Classroom norms, routines, and predictable structures often form the backbone of highly effective PBL classrooms, so it may seem counterintuitive to break them, but that’s just what I’m advising you to do. When you see your students struggling to stay engaged with whatever part of the project they’re working on, it’s time to recapture their interest. The surest way to do that is to do something outside of the norm in your classroom. The more consistent you are with your classroom expectations and routines, the more surprised your students will be when you abandon them, and it’s this surprise factor that will help bring them back onto the project path.
Surprise is a biological response to an unexpected stimulus, something that our primitive ancestors needed to survive the dangers that filled the harsh primeval world they lived in. This natural alarm system is still buried deep in our reptilian brains, forcing us to pay attention when a squirrel runs across the road in front of our car or when a psychotic killer bursts out of a closet during our favorite scary movie.
If you surprise your students, they will be biologically compelled to focus on you, granting you their attention once again. There are many things that you can do to capitalize on the power of surprise: changing the physical layout of the classroom, introducing a new protocol or process, teaching a lesson embedded with multimedia resources, or even arriving to class dressed in a costume or equipped with tactical learning resources or artifacts. If it’s something they’re not used to seeing in your room, all the better, but once you capture their attention, you need to move to the second part of the strategy quickly because the power of surprise dissipates over time.
Step 2: Rehook
PBL promotes rigorous problem-solving and critical thinking when done well, but these kinds of processes can tax even the most dedicated student over time, causing them to disengage or give up when they’ve reached their limit and left the zone of proximal development. Student disengagement or lackluster performance can sometimes indicate that they’ve just hit their limit, and the antidote could be helping to rebuild their confidence by granting them an easy win.
Once you’ve rehooked your students’ attention, possibly by leveraging the power of surprise, you will immediately want to move into an activity or structured lesson designed to be accessible and easy to understand. Providing your students with an academic win can help rebuild sapped confidence and reengage them with the project path.
There are all sorts of activities you can employ that have a light academic load but are still valuable to learning; a review game, a choice-based stations activity, a highly structured discussion, or a simple partner activity are all good candidates. One approach I recommend considering is the visible thinking routines championed by Harvard’s Project Zero. These highly scaffolded academic processes are universal in their accessibility, meaning that they work just as well for kindergartners as they do for MIT graduate students. Whatever activity you choose, make sure that it acts as a bridge back to the project path you originally laid out in your project plan.
Step 3: Engage
While reengagement strategies often prove fruitful, there are no silver bullets in education, and as such, it’s important to make sure that you have more than one reengagement strategy at the ready. If your attempts to reengage your students with confidence-building tasks don’t work, another option that can be used either in its place or directly after is a questioning activity. Questions fuel the inquiry processes that help drive the self-directed learning in a project-based classroom, and if your students ever run out of questions or wonder about the relevance of the ones they’ve already brainstormed, it may be time to refresh their lists.
To do this, you’ll want to relaunch the project—but on a small scale so that you don’t lose much time. Facilitate a new entry event that provokes curiosity or gets students thinking about what comes next, and then move quickly into a question-formulation process to refresh the avenues of inquiry open to them. Again, this should be able to be completed in a single instructional period or hour; a method such as a gallery walk, a question formulation (QFT) protocol, or a short small group discussion will get you what you need without a lot of delay.
So, the next time you feel your class straying from your carefully designed project path and slipping into the valley of the messy middle, remember the SRE strategy as a way to get them back on track quickly and effectively.