PBL Planning

Learning by Doing: A Teacher Transitions Into PBL

For a successful PBL unit, set clear goals, over plan, make students accountable, give concrete deadlines, share rubrics in advance, and reflect on your methods.
photo of three young women working on a project together
Photo credit: Tulane Public Relations via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

I have been a high school English teacher for 15 years. Every year, I try to do something a little different because I like learning from the process. After teaching AP Literature for a while, I became an AP Reader. Then, I presented at a national conference. I feel that I need to grow and develop every year. By the time I read Julius Caesar aloud in class for the 55th time, it was time for a change. That's why my new school was a project-based learning school.

The First Try

To be honest, I had not heard the term PBL until the job interview. I went through a week of in-depth training and met with some veteran PBL teachers. The idea sounded great in theory -- creating projects that helped students learn educational concepts. The first unit that I created taught the basic elements of writing through analyzing advertising campaigns. Students selected a product, determined the target audience, and then had to rebrand the product and create an advertisement directed at a new target audience. I spent a lot of time putting the unit together, and I thought it was pretty good.

I wish I could say that it went well, but it did not. I tried to embrace the idea of exploration and let the project grow organically. I wanted the students to discover things for themselves. I floated around the room to answer specific questions about the assignment, and I worked to make sure that students were on task. Some finished the assignment pretty quickly, but others were still in the early stages when the project was nearly due. For their presentations, I got a friend who works in marketing to come in and provide feedback for their finished commercials (the authentic audience component of PBL). Out of 12 groups, only two were able to present by the end of the period, and they were scrambling to get their presentation together at the last minute. I felt like a failure.

The next day, the students and I had a pretty good dialogue about the process. Many said that they felt embarrassed because they were not ready to present. It turned into a real teachable moment for both my students and myself. Many of them said that they felt overwhelmed by the assignment because it was so broad. I realized that I had made some judgmental errors as well. This productive discussion made me realize that I had learned a lot from that first project.

6 Lessons Learned

My school is on the 4x4 block, so I made the following changes in January, and I am happy to say that the projects became a lot better. Here are the lessons that I learned.

1. Set clear goals.

In order to be successful, the students have to know what is expected of them. If you can, save projects from previous units to model your expectations.

2. Over plan.

One of the great things about PBL is that it has differentiated instruction built into it. Students move at their own pace and ask questions when they don't understand something. The second time I assigned this project, I also had my students read an outside novel for homework. Those who finished tasks early could then read or work on something else instead of hanging out and distracting others.

3. Make students accountable for their time.

I had students share their work with me through Google Docs so that I could see their progress on a daily basis. One group didn't want to use the school-issued laptops, so I took pictures of their handwritten documents with my phone. One way or another, I was able to see progress every day.

4. Give concrete deadlines for products.

This helps make a project seem like a goal that can be accomplished. I added steps to be completed by the end of each day. When every step was completed, the project was done. My students knew what deliverables were due each and every day.

5. Share rubrics in advance.

Rubrics help give your students insight into the design of the project. This helps them understand what they should be taking away from the experience. For example, when my students had to write essays about their projects, they were kind of lost. They were summarizing instead of analyzing, so my second rubric listed terms and devices that I wanted to see in their essays.

6. Reflect on what you are doing.

One reason why the project went smoothly the second time was because I took notes about the positives and the negatives the first time that we did the project. Reflection and bouncing ideas off your peers can help solve problems before they arise.

As I stated earlier, I grow and develop each year. I am interested to hear of any additional practices or tips that other PBL teachers maybe utilizing as well. Let me know what works in your classroom!