For the past three years I have been experimenting with Project-Based Learning (PBL) in my pedagogy seminars at the University of Augsburg, Germany. Here are some tips if you are thinking of employing such an approach in your classroom. I should preface this by saying that in my experience PBL at university works best in seminars (rather than lecture hall lessons) with student groups of up to 30 students.
1. Define what PBL means to you
The leading source for PBL resources and ideas (primarily for K-12 contexts) is the Buck Institute for Education (BIE). Certainly their model for PBL is the most rigorously planned and tested available and their website is a treasure-trove of free resources. An essential text for any educator interested in PBL is their recently-published Setting the Standard for Project-Based Learning. Another important introduction is William Bender’s Project-Based Learning: Differentiating Instruction for the 21st Century. If you are in the Environmental Sciences or Medicine department you may wish to consider Problem-Based Learning (PrBL); Problem-Based Learning: An Inquiry Approach by John Barell is a good starting point to figure out your preferred methodological approach.
What all PBL models have in common is that they are based on:
- Addressing a real-world concern or problem. This will act as a powerful “hook” for the project.
- A Driving Question which frames the parameters of the Inquiry.
- Teamwork which allows students to develop important 21st century skills or “soft skills” such as leadership, communication, setting realistic targets and managing deadlines etc.
- Sustained, structured and documented research phases. Students will have a minimum of two research phases punctuated by self and peer evaluation and instructor feedback.
- Student voice and choice are essential elements of PBL. Students will have a say in defining the direction of the project by forming their own personal research questions and by assisting the instructor in defining what are acceptable outcomes and what they will look like.
- A final evaluation of work, including in-depth reflection, peer and self evaluation.
- A public and authentic presentation of final outcomes or artefacts.
2. Know your learning outcomes
3. Build a Team
- Establishing physical trust
- Establishing emotional trust
- Developing collaborative skills and attitudes.
I have written about how to effectively structure high-quality collaboration here.
4. Include an Authentic Audience in the Planning Phase
In this case because a medical professional has helped define the Guiding Question and that question is based on a real-world problem or situation from a hospital context, the instructor will have no problem hooking the interest of his students or motivating them to personalise and research the topic. By including this professional at the outset of the project, when the students again meet him or colleagues with their outcomes, a relationship (and hopefully a networking opportunity) has been established and there is an ideal circularity to the project.
5. Include Student Voice and Choice
6. Promote deep thinking from the outset
7. Front-Load Key Information
8. Consider a Peer Instruction Approach for Mini-Lessons
- Teach a mini-lesson
- Pose essential questions about the topic
- Have students think about the answer
- Have students respond using clickers (iPhones with the Poll Everywhere or Socrative App would be ideal)
- Have students discuss their answer with a peer
- Have students respond once more using clickers
- Reveal the answer and explain if necessary