Project-Based Learning (PBL)

5 Tips for Giving Students Choice That Leads to Student Voice

July 11, 2016 Updated July 8, 2016

“Why can’t you just tell me what to do?!”  Giving students choice when doing project based assessments isn’t anything new, but often times giving students choice leads to student and teacher frustration.  Students beg for examples; they want you to pick an idea for them. And it is all we teachers can do to keep ourselves from rescuing them from their mire of indecision.  

Students want to express themselves.  Students want to be creative.  They want to show us who they are and what they care about. They want to feel they have a voice in the classroom and in their world.  The problem is that we don’t often spend enough time teaching students differing ways to help them express what they know.  

Think of those non-native speakers in your classroom.  They struggle daily to show their understanding because their vocabulary is so limited.  Much like a language learner, our students are limited in their ability to express themselves when they haven’t had exposure to skills and tools that will help them create.  It is our job to teach our students not just the content, but also the “vocabulary” that will enable them to express themselves creatively.

Here are five tips for creating projects that incorporate student choice and lead to student voice:

1. Scaffold the skills of various types of projects throughout the semester.  Whether we want to admit it or not, we are limited by the skills and knowledge that we lack.  When wanting students to “think outside the box” they can only go as far as their skills and knowledge can take them.  Students aren’t going to think of a screencast as a product if they haven’t seen one or created one before.  Students won’t think to create a robot using an Arduino if they haven’t been exposed to making and coding.

Keeping your end-of-unit goal in mind, design lessons that teach the content, but also teach the skills that will enable a child to create an amazing project.  Have them do a short 30-second screencast to define a key term at the start of unit.  Have students use an Arduino to control lights, sounds, or sensors during a Science unit on Circuits or Electricity.  This allows the students to feel comfortable choosing a medium in which to design a project.  If students are given the opportunity to acquire knowledge and skills through low stakes activities, then they will be more likely or more able to use their knowledge and skills for larger high stakes projects.

2. Make the rubric and requirements for the project explicit, yet open. If the rubric is too specific, all of your students are going to create the same identical project.  Again, sometimes it is not the student’s lack of creativity that gets in the way, it is the teacher’s who has limited the possibilities with their rubric.

The rubric should:

  • evaluate the unit objectives but allow for students to use various mediums to show their understanding of the topic.  This can be a difficult task when using a common rubric to grade an essay vs. grade an art installation.
  • speak to the stated objectives or learning outcomes that you were targeting.  These would be both skills and knowledge based.  If it is a group project, you might even want to include objectives for encouraging positive student collaboration.
  • allow for student reflection. Have the students explain to you, as a part of the grade, how their end product meets the objectives of the unit.  For example, the student might have to explain how their Playmobil diorama shows to what extent Germany is to blame for World War I. The reflection piece is often the thing we let go by the wayside due to time constraints, but this is another opportunity for students to have a voice in their learning.

3. Give encouragement and support along the way.  Think of the design studio model.  In a studio, there would be many coaches and experts giving you feedback on your design.  So too, should your classroom provide opportunities for small group discussions about the design of their individual projects.

Students need an opportunity to talk about the process, what is working, and what isn’t.  This helps students feel like collaborators in a bigger project.  It also helps students refine their thinking and also think of new possibilities.  We all know that a great design is not the first design.  A great design has many iterations.

4. Adjust, bend, and let it flow.  Be true to the learning outcomes you are seeking from your students, but also know when to bend on requirements that will lead the student to deeper understanding.

Go back to your design studio model.  You may have designed this really amazing project prompt for your students.   Then, as you begin to see your design put into action, you see a better way of doing things.  Be open to changing tacks.

Your students may also have ideas for how to better show their learning.  As your students work in this kind of studio environment they will feel empowered to speak up about their ideas and help with your curricular designs.  They will realize they have a great voice in their own educational outcomes.

5. Share their work with the world. Rushton Hurley says, “If students are sharing their work with the world, they want it to be good.  If they’re just sharing with you, they want it to be good enough.”  

An artist doesn’t create masterworks to hang in their bedroom closet.  An artist creates masterworks to share his or her point of view with the world.  So why would our students create a project that only the teacher will see?  They want to voice their point of view with a larger audience.

Give students the opportunity to create projects that, after they are marked, won’t go directly into the black hole of their lockers, or worse...the garbage bin.  Whether it is the possibility of going viral, or the possibility of being part of real social change, when students share their work with a public audience, the quality of their work increases.

It can be as simple as a student posting their infographic on Twitter or their screencast on Facebook.  Have students create their own websites where they curate their own portfolio of work.  Create a classroom blog for students to post work to share with other classrooms around the world.  Create a space in your classroom for students to engage in discussion and/or comment on each other's work.

The point is that students should realize that the work they do is important.  Real world work doesn’t sit on a teacher’s desk, it should live out there for all to see.  By giving students opportunities to share their work with the world, work that they have had a voice in designing, students become more excited about showing their learning.  

By giving students time to practice skills on low stakes assignments, we provide them with experiences that will expand their means of expression. Creating open ended projects, where students are encouraged and guided, gives learners an opportunity to advocate for themselves on how to best demonstrate their knowledge.  It allows students to illustrate their understanding at a much deeper level than could be done on a more restrictive test.  And it enables our students to share their knowledge and understanding with an authentic audience beyond the classroom.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Student Voice
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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