George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning

Making the Most of Synchronous Sessions in PBL

In planning project-based learning units, teachers can maximize students’ time together by focusing on collaboration and feedback.

October 22, 2020
Boy sitting at laptop speaking with teacher on video call.
LeoPatrizi / iStock

Many educators know how effective project-based learning (PBL) can be in supporting in-person, blended, and distance learning. But since student engagement can be challenging in distance learning and the model can be isolating, we need to consider various ways to provide student agency to bolster PBL.

While there are many strategies and ideas out there that can support transferring PBL to distance learning environments, synchronous sessions work particularly well because we can make authentic connections with students, as well as foster connections among students.

By thinking through exactly how synchronous sessions can advance PBL and engagement, we can zero in on how to effectively pair the two.

Reframe Synchronous Learning as a Resource

Unfortunately, in our rush to implement distance learning, we have often replicated in-person instruction in an online environment, rather than use distance learning as an opportunity to rethink how teaching and learning can occur. For example, I’ve seen teachers make the assumption that synchronous sessions must be whole group direct instruction. In fact, we know that there are many ways to provide direct instruction, such as videos and prerecorded mini-lectures.

This raises the question, “Do I need to use synchronous sessions for whole group instruction?” and its follow-up, “If not, what then?” The better approach is to consider synchronous time as a resource, not as a replication of whole class engagements. Then the question becomes “How can we use synchronous sessions as an instructional strategy or method to engage students in the PBL process?”

Outcomes and needs should be considered before making choices about the structure of synchronous time. Educators should take time to clarify the outcome, consider the use of a synchronous session as a resource to meet that outcome, and then consider the design of the session to meet that outcome.

Individual Conferences

Synchronous sessions are a natural fit for individual conferences.

SEL and self-management: Use synchronous sessions to check in on students’ well-being; that effort and connection will in turn support their overall work on a project. In addition, use tools that assess self-management and time management, such as an individual project work report. Tools like this can support students’ reflection on how they can be effective in their student-directed or asynchronous time on a project, as well as provide effective social and emotional support.

Conferring and feedback: As students create their individual products for a project, feedback from a teacher can be powerful. In addition, short one-on-one synchronous sessions offer an opportunity for teachers to check individual students’ understanding of content and to confer with them to find out what they know and do not know. From there, students can be supported with clear next steps in asynchronous (and sometimes synchronous) learning resources and feedback.

Small Team Meetings

Consider how you might have smaller group meetings to address the needs of students in synchronous time.

Team management issues: Often teams will run into problems working together. Whether constructing or revisiting a team contract or using a Making It Fair protocol, teachers can use synchronous sessions to facilitate student team work through problems or help teams plan their steps.

Small group instruction: As teachers check for understanding from formative assessments, they can provide just-in-time instruction to students on needed skills. Small groups offer an opportunity to extend thinking and provide enrichment for students who already know the material.

Peer critique: Small group consultancy protocols work well in synchronous sessions. A teacher might set up a series of smaller 30-minute synchronous sessions so that students can give and receive feedback. Don’t forget norms for critique so that all students can engage in the feedback process in safe and supportive ways.

Whole Class Meetings

Deploy synchronous learning to an entire class when it makes the most sense.

Public presentations: As a culminating event in a project, public presentations can include panel discussions, individual TED-style talks, or formal presentations. Synchronous sessions can support powerful ways for students to share and also respond to questions to create a dynamic culminating event. You can use breakout sessions to have smaller presentations in multiple virtual rooms as well.

Project launch and inquiry: Project launch is critical to a project—a key engagement piece for a project that can make or break momentum. Therefore, all students need to be involved. This is also where students generate questions about the project and about what they want and need to learn. Project launches can include videos, letters of request, and scenarios, all which can be done in synchronous sessions. Don’t forget to use breakout rooms for parts of the launch as well, especially for generating questions.

Whole group instruction: Of course students need whole class instruction in synchronous sessions, but it should not be the dominant use of time. Instead, teachers need to use the data they collect in asynchronous assignments and assessments, as well as synchronous check-ins, to see when whole group instruction is needed. Even then, the teacher will need to chunk demonstrations and models with breakout discussions and checks for understanding.

Synchronous sessions are a powerful learning resource, and they can be used intentionally to meet the needs of learners and the overall PBL process. Teachers can use their professional expertise and student data to inform their decisions on how to best employ the strategies above.

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  • Project-Based Learning
  • Inquiry-Based Learning
  • PBL Planning
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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