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How to End Projects on a High Note

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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My previous post focused on planning entry events for project-based learning so that projects launch with students' curiosity fully engaged. Today, let's focus on the other important bookend of a project. The culminating event is when students share the product or result of their investigation, receive feedback, and celebrate their learning.

Of course, plenty happens between kickoff and conclusion. Watch for more posts in Edutopia's Summer PD series that will address strategies for active learning and teacher facilitation throughout PBL.

The End in Mind

"Starting with the end in mind" is an oft-repeated refrain in project-based learning. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, co-authors of Understanding by Design, call this approach backward design. As Wiggins explains in an interview with Edutopia, backward design causes teachers to focus on important learning goals as they design projects. He elaborates:

"If you achieve your objective (with students), what does it look like? What's the evidence that they got it? What's the evidence that they can now do it, whatever the "it" is? So you have to think about how it's going to end up, what it's going to look like. And then that ripples back into your design, what activities will get you there? What teaching moves will get you there?"

At the culmination of a project, students demonstrate what they have learned with a product, performance, or presentation. Instead of taking a test that asks them to recall information, they are synthesizing ideas and building on what they've learned to create something new. This sets the stage for authentic assessment -- leading students to the "end" you've imagined at the start of the project.

One caveat: You may not know exactly how students will demonstrate their learning. The same project might yield student-made videos, public presentations, or artistic creations. Allow students room to make choices, as long as their choices align with the learning goals you have selected at the start.

As you consider options for final products and how you plan to assess them, think about your discipline. What sorts of products would you expect from a biologist, poet, physicist, or social scientist? What do professionals from these fields make, do, or perform? How is their work evaluated? The Coalition for Essential Schools suggests a wide range of products to jump-start your thinking.

Bring in the Outside World

Sharing final products with an audience brings students valuable feedback and an opportunity to reflect on what they have learned. It also adds to the real-world experience of PBL, connecting students with the world beyond the classroom.

Mike Reilly teaches ninth-graders in the interdisciplinary Center for Design and Technology at Lanier High School in Sugar Hill, Georgia. Working in a studio setting, his students produce a wide range of creative products to demonstrate their learning. Earlier this year, when it was time for them to share the results of a project that combined poetry and music, they had a surprise visit from someone who knows what excellence sounds like.

Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Montell Jordan (who recorded the #1 hit "This is How We Do It") sat down with students in the school's state-of-the-art music technology lab. "After listening, he offered compliments and constructive comments on each song," Reilly recalls on the CDAT blog. It takes effort to line up an expert willing to review student presentations, but Reilly saw firsthand the motivation that a "real" audience gave his students.

For another example of students sharing their final products with a community audience, watch the video Anatomy of a Project: Kinetic Conundrum, from Edutopia's Schools That Work series.

Prepare for Presentations

Presenting to an authentic audience is not only motivating for students, but can take learning deeper. When students present their work publicly, they find out what it's like to respond to challenging questions and to receive constructive critique. They also gain real-world experience in using their communication skills to get across ideas clearly and concisely.

Sometimes, students discover that their efforts lead to real action. Sixth-graders at Genesee Community Charter School, an Expeditionary Learning School in Rochester, New York, shared their research with the city council -- and got results. Their project was about urban renewal: how to revitalize the community by re-watering sections of the Erie Canal that once ran through the city center. Their advocacy played a role in kicking off a multimillion-dollar urban renewal effort. See samples of the students' final presentations in the Expeditionary Learning project gallery.

To make the most of these opportunities, make sure that audience members know what you're asking of them during a showcase event. The Buck Institute for Education provides an audience feedback form, along with other downloadable tools and resources, as part of a self-guided tutorial called, PBL Do-It-Yourself.

What responses have your students experienced at culminating events? How have you prepared both students and audiences to make the most of these events? Please share your examples and ideas.

More Resources

For more ideas about showcase events and other aspects of project-based learning, download the free Edutopia guide, Ten Tips for Assessing Project-Based Learning.

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SP's picture

Great article. Starting with the end in mind is exactly right. I would also suggest students follow a process in their PBL so they actually learn how to manage a project. They should choose a project coordinator, then do an outline, then break the work down into tasks, schedule meetings etc. When they're done they should also submit a Lessons Learned document to the teacher outlining what they've learned about the topic but also what they learned about PM.
I created a free site called which provides these templates and private social networks for students and teachers to collaborate and communicate more easily. It's really a tool which helps them learn (with a library of articles) and the right tools so they can actually do it.

Amy Erin Borovoy (aka VideoAmy)'s picture

We have lots of fun examples of great culminating events in Edutopia videos:

Elementary, field trip: Using Today's Technology Tools to Study Yesterday's

High school, presentation to a panel of outside experts: Developing Minds: Learning How to Rebuild a Town

Elementary, bringing the outside world in: Journey North: Children Practice Real Science by Monitoring Monarchs

There's more in the Edutopia Video Library!

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