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Don't Feed Your Students Chocolate Cake Projects!

All projects are not designed equally.  The goal of a project in project based learning is learning not simply engagement.  Yes, engagement is important, but it is not the sole focus of design.


I think every teacher has had a day where s/he just wants to make it to the final bell.   So, we design an activity that we know will engage the students even if we know it is not addressing our course objectives.   But, in designing long-term projects, we can't just choose one that the students like or one that always goes smoothly.  


The message to teachers who are thinking about going the way of PBL or are currently practicing PBL is simple, "We cannot be feeding our students chocolate cake for projects!"  In the end, our projects should be engaging to all students, but that is not where we start. We want student choice and voice, but we want them to have choice among options that are educationally sound and relevant.  We want creativity and collaboration, but it needs to be focused on an activity that addresses significant content standards.  So, what makes a good project and how should a teacher go about designing one?

As I have taken my my baby steps into PBL, I  have found be greatest resource to be the Buck Institute for Education (BIE).  They have a wide variety of of resources for any educator to use as a guide to begin the journey into PBL.  BIE are currently in the process of defining what Gold Standard PBL looks like.  Before going any further, I highly recommend reading Gold Standard PBL: A Progress Report & Request for Critique by John R. Mergendoller.  I will be using it to frame how I have designed my 1st major project in the AP Physics 1 (a new course being offered this year).   Within the article, there is a fantastic visual diagram that should serve as a guide for any teacher attempting to design a project based unit for instruction.






Key Student Learning Goals

When designing a project based unit of instruction, the teacher does not start with the idea for an engaging project. The teacher must first dig for the gold and start at the center of the hexagon -- the key standards and goals. The specific project I will be discussing is for our momentum unit.

Specific Content Standards  

Teachers need to know their specific standards and these standards need to be written in student friendly language. The specific content standards I am dealing with are from my momentum unit.  There are a total of 4 content standards that are framed as I can statements.  The project created by the students must be able to show mastery of all of the objectives.  If one can not be demonstrated via the project, it would need to be covered in a separate assessment.  For example, the project my students are doing doesn't have an experimental design component.  This part of the objectives is being assessed in the lab work within the unit but not necessarily a part of the final project.

Non-content Standards

The non-content standards in my course include Common Core Literacy Standards and 21st Century Skills as defined by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.  The literacy skills I am focusing on for this project are informative writing (W2), writing for a purpose (W4), and using technology to produce and publish work (W6).   The 21st Century Skills that I am choosing to focus on (and focus on for many projects) include creativity, collaboration, communication, creativity, media literacy, and ITC (information, communications, and technology) literacy.  Some of these skills may seem to be immeasurable, but the Buck Institute has generated some great rubrics to help teachers measure these non-content standards

Key Project Design Features

The second level of project design is where the teacher actually focuses on what the project is and its design components from the student perspective.  

Challenging problems or question

The diving question for our momentum project reads as follows:

How does understanding momentum relate to a given profession?  Create an instructional video intended for professionals being trained in this area to better understand their work by understanding the law of conservation of momentum.


This project requires students to first understand the law of conservation of momentum and apply it to distinct types of interactions. Then, students need to find examples of interactions that relate to a specific field of study and be able to teach these to others in their own words with realistic calculations.

Authenticity and Public Product

Authenticity comes into play in a couple of different ways. First, students are creating a video with an authentic audience in mind. This video is to be created with a voice that speaks to professionals within a specific field of study. Second, students will need to choose authentic data to create realistic examples to present in their videos. Students will not be allowed to choose random numbers for their calculations. Finally, the use of iMovie as the creation tool and publishing the videos to YouTube give the added level of authenticity and a public audience. In the future, it is my hope to be able to identify professionals in these fields with whom students would be able to share these products with. Once I get the range of topics for the projects, I believe I could start reaching out to the community for experts who could serve as an audience.

Student Voice & Choice

The key part of this product that allows for student choice and voice is that students can choose what field of study they are delving focusing on. A student's personal interest will help increase engagement and make the product more meaningful. In addition, the students are not being given a template for their video, so groups have more options in the overall design of the video.


Critique and Revision and Reflection

The time for critique in a project should not only be on the due date. Critiquing should be occurring throughout the whole project and help drive revision. In this project, I will be conferencing on a daily basis to look at group products to determine where they are doing well and on what components I feel they are missing the mark. In addition, at these conferences, we will discuss where the group is in the process and where they are going. Reflection will occur daily as the groups considers where they are and where they are going. But, at the end of the project, students will do more in depth reflection as they view other projects, consider how theirs compares, and determining what they would have done differently. Since this is their first project in this class, there will a significant need to determine as a group and as a class what went well, what didn't, and what we need to do to refine the process to make it more beneficial and efficient moving forward.


Project Based Teacher Practices

The outer ring of the hexagon are the teacher responsibilities. Before the project specifically, we are dealing with align, design, and creating appropriate scaffolds. As we conclude our first project, I will be able to address this circle as a whole from my perspective and reflect on my own practices.

Until then, here is a copy of the rubric for the project. I have appropriate some language from the great rubrics at the Buck Institute for evaluating 21st Century Skills.








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