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Signposts to guide project-based learning

By Suzie Boss
January 22, 2014
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When you're engaged in project-based learning, a good project often feels like a journey. It has a timeline with clear starting and ending points. There's a sense of anticipation as students and teachers embark on an inquiry experience together.

Advance planning is a good idea, yet we know there may be surprises and side trips ahead that will take us places we haven't imagined. By the end, we will have created enduring memories about our shared PBL adventure.

At the ISTE Virtual Conference, colleague Jane Krauss and I discussed signposts to help you make the most of the learning opportunities PBL offers. Just as highway signs help you get where you want to go, project signposts keep learning on course so students will arrive at a deeper understanding of the material. Here are some signposts to help guide your PBL journey:

Invite feedback.

This is a signpost you and your students should encounter multiple times during a project. It's not enough to provide feedback at the end, when students share their final products. Instead, plan for feedback opportunities across the arc of the project.

What does feedback look like in PBL? Tools for feedback can vary widely, from low-tech (teacher observations, team logs or exit tickets at the end of class) to technology-enabled (blog comments or video conferences with content experts). Feedback can come from fellow students and teachers, from "outsiders" such as community members, or from self-assessments.

Whatever form feedback takes, makes sure it's timely, specific and helpful. Build time into your project calendar so students can use the feedback to improve their products.

Think as experts do.

Create opportunities for students to step into the role of expert and apply specific problem-solving strategies. During a project that involves interpreting the past, for example, students will need to look through the lens of a historian. For a project that involves unfolding events, they may need to think like journalists. Other projects may benefit from knowing how to use the scientific method or being able to analyze data through computational thinking or statistics.

At the planning stage, consider the expert roles that may be required. Then think about how you're going to help students understand those roles and the specific thinking strategies that go with them. If you're not sure how an ethicist, botanist, technologist or folk historian thinks about the world, think about how you might enlist expert advice from outside the classroom.

Which signposts help you keep learning on track in PBL? Share your comments or questions here, and join us for the virtual conversation in February.

Suzie Boss is an education technology writer and author of the ISTE book Reinventing Project-Based Learning. Connect with her on Twitter via @suzieboss.