As a project-based learning (PBL) teacher, I always looked for more efficient and effective ways to keep my learners compellingly engaged with the content from the start to the end of projects. There’s no secret that sparking and sustaining student engagement is a major concern.
The tricky part is twofold: (1) designing a project that allows every student in the class to see their interests reflected in the curriculum and (2) implementing a straightforward process that every student can see clearly to navigate.
We all know that our students don’t always think alike or share the same interests. That’s why I encourage teachers to make space for at least one interest project (a semester for two to three weeks tops), allowing students to dive deeply into a topic of their choosing. A five-step process that balances rigor with engagement can smooth the way.
For example, students concerned with their local environment may be compelled to engage in work that explores the causes of a problem and work with others to develop sustainable solutions (e.g., land restoration or habitat conservation). Similarly, kids who care about gaming, music, the arts, social media, or a social cause can also engage in the content they care about through a process that propels them toward making conditions better for themselves and others.
Here’s a five-step engagement process and planner that students can use to capture pertinent information during projects.
5 Steps to Spark and Sustain Engagement in PBL
Step 1: Begin with a compelling hook. A compelling hook must be well-planned to spark student interest and engagement at the start of projects and produce the following deliverables:
- Make connection(s) between students and the work they’ll be doing. Introducing a guest speaker, impact data, statistics, and exploration of their interest topic serves well for this purpose.
- Unpack the driving question (DQ). DQs remind students about what they aim to achieve in the project. Teachers should spend some time helping them unpack what the DQ means and what they aim to accomplish by answering it. For example: How do we, as artificial intelligence specialists, develop an AI-powered solution addressing the unique needs of a client, or how can we use multimedia effectively to demonstrate the role of photosynthesis to plant health? Kids can assist with composing their own DQs with these scaffolds: How do we, as _____, create _____ about _____? How can we, as _____, design _____ to _____?
- Create a set of student-generated questions. Typically, teachers develop sets of essential questions for students to answer in their unit plans—in PBL, the students create a list of questions they want to answer.
- Form teams. Team assignments need to be carried out with structure and purpose to set students up for successful collaboration.
Step 2: Explore major concept(s). In this step, students must be clear about the concept(s) within the chosen topic they’ll be exploring—it helps when the exploration steps are outlined for them.
Exploration in this context involves learning about problems. Students will work on creating a solution(s) to at least one of those problems later in step 4. Here’s a two-step straightforward exploration process that students can work through.
- Identify the main concepts in the DQ by selecting nouns essential to the meaning and answering the question (e.g., photosynthesis, AI-powered solution).
- Learn the major concepts in and out and the problems they help solve. Also, identify factors that may prevent success. Given their new knowledge about the concept, students can then identify a problem or an entity that needs assistance.
Step 3: Learn from an expert. Now that students know the problem they want to solve, they can learn from experts in the field. Students can begin by identifying experts from their local community associated with organizations or businesses dedicated to solving similar problems. Once they’ve identified possible prospects, teachers should vet their choices, then make initial contact with the experts, and invite them to the classroom. Virtual correspondence is an excellent option if finding local experts proves difficult.
Step 4: Develop a solution that matters. With the help of experts, students can now begin conjuring up solutions to the problem they want to solve. It’s important to reinforce in this step that their solutions should matter to them and, therefore, to others who want to achieve something similar.
Leveraging experts’ knowledge exposes students to the systems, tools, and frameworks they use in their work. Students must understand that someone else should be inspired by and able to replicate their solutions.
Examples of making their solutions accessible to others may come in the product they create—such as how-to videos, step-by-step instructions, and making the solution matter through a call to action (CTA). A CTA can underpin a speech or piece of writing or come in a slogan that encourages people to take action about a problem or important cause. Some examples of solutions that kids can develop and map out for others may include:
- Outlining the coding process during app development
- Creating meal plans and workout routines
- Inviting others to recycle
- Reducing digital footprint
- Using blockchain technology
- Conducting a song composition
- Playing an instrument
- Designing a piece of clothing
- Developing a marketing campaign
Step 5: Explain the solution publicly. In this step, it’s now time for students to deliver a message to an authentic audience by explaining their solutions via a public product. The public product is the culminating event at the end of a project that serves as an opportunity for students to showcase their learning.
Solutions must matter to others, so choose the audience carefully—such as community members, other youth (peers, students, etc.), industry experts, local politicians, parents, and school and district administrators. This step is a powerful culmination of the engagement process in PBL because students become motivated to put their best polish on work they know others will view and, most important, benefit from.
The important thing for your students to consider is being intentional about what they want to share about their learning so that the audience understands and receives it well.