All paths lead to ‘Project Design’

The design process of projects in Project-Based Learning is crucial in any attempt to improve student learning via the implementation of contemporary learning pedagogies. The first victory for teachers in the implementation of PBL is definitely increased student engagement (often just a result from increased teacher engagement). However, to achieve sustained improvements in student learning a focus on precision and consistency in the essential elements is required. Michael McDowell in his blog post “3 Ingredients for Authentic PBL” provides a valuable insight into the issue of measuring the impact of PBL on improving student learning. Michael refers to the research of John Hattie that found the overall effect size of PBL is at .15. However, when students are learning more complex knowledge and skills this increases to an effect size of .68.

So what is the difference?

The difference is that some projects are designed to engage students as the primary focus and often fail to address sustained inquiry and the achievement of academic rigour. For teachers embarking on their PBL journey they spend considerable time on making the project ‘authentic’ and generating appropriate ‘adult connections’. Don’t get me wrong these are needed, but if they are the only elements your project is addressing then this will ultimately promote surface learning and limit the overall effectiveness of student learning. So what should you do differently?

Creating quality projects

I have always found Steinberg’s 6 As for project design as a good starting point for creating quality projects (See the adaption by the New Tech Network). Each pillar provides a good point of reference for teachers in their attempt to change the way they teach and how students learn. However, the areas that have the most influence on student learning are the core pillars shown in my quality project flowchart below.


It recognises that all pillars are essential, but the identified pillars in blue have the greatest impact on student learning. I agree with Michael McDowell in his blog that states clarity, challenge and culture are the key ingredients to improve student learning through PBL. The marriage of a deeper understanding of these ingredients with a sustained focus on the core pillars can ultimately improve the design of your projects.

So if you are starting your PBL journey what insights do you need to know to ensure that you create quality projects for your students.

  • Academic Rigour – The key to academic rigour is to ensure that students are constantly challenged throughout the project. Furthermore, student learning should always be supported with appropriate scaffolds that meet the students at their point of need. All of this just seems like good teaching practice. However, teachers need to constantly gather appropriate assessment data from students and provide targeted instructional interventions to improve student learning and performance. Not all students will have the same needs, which increases the complexity in a collaborative environment. However, within a student centered environment there are greater opportunities to provide workshop interventions for students and even mastery learning can provide some good insights to promoting academic rigour. Make sure that you don’t sit back in wonder and awe of the increased student engagement in your projects, collect data, assess learning and extend understanding.
  • Apply Content and Skills – If the learning that students undertake during the project is not applied to the end product, then it is not Project-Based Learning. This can be an easy mistake to make. However, you can bridge this gap by ensuring that the need to know list drives and provides clarity to the learning intentions throughout the duration of all learning opportunities in the project.
  • Assessment – Ensuring that you have multiple opportunities for ‘formative assessment’ within the project is important to ensure that academic rigour can be sustained. Try to avoid making formative assessment formal and ensure there are a range of opportunities at the point of student need. Co-constructing success criteria’s with students will provide a great opportunity for students to gain a deeper understanding of what success looks like in the project. Dylan Wiliam provides some great practical examples of formative assessment that can be utilised in your project.
  • Active choices – This is where a culture that is focused on learning is fostered. This aspect may take time to develop. However, by building in metacognitive structures to your project that allow students to reflect and make informed choices regarding their learning pathway will ultimately have an increased impact on student learning. I know easier said than done! But an appropriate next step could be building in visible thinking routines into your project pathway.

All paths lead to ‘Project Design’

Don’t be too hard on yourself if don’t always address all aspects of the 6 A’s, they are only a guide. The key is to make sure that you are always trying to move beyond engagement to developing greater clarity, supporting challenge and promoting culture. Finally, all improvements start and end with the effectiveness of your project design.

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