4 Methods to Getting Beyond the Surface in Project-Based Learning

4 Methods to Getting Beyond the Surface in Project-Based Learning

Project-based learning is an incredibly effective method of instruction.

But, unlike traditional instruction, it’s also much harder to pull off. Educators in a variety of settings can be prone to implementing project-based learning improperly. When not executed well, students tend to just scratch the surface of a subject or simply waste time in the classroom. It happens when educators just tack on projects at the end of a traditional lesson, or don’t give enough time or structure for the students to actually learn through the process.

To avoid fluffy, surface-level projects, educators need to consider these 4 methodologies when implementing project-based learning.

Expose students to a subject multiple times

When you learn something new, it’s rare that you’ll remember and understand how to apply that knowledge after a single lecture or assignment.

The same principle applies to project-based learning. A single project can’t cover trigonometry or World War 2. Sometimes a project addresses academic standards, but the content of the project doesn’t really necessitate deeper thinking. It’s important to expose students to a topic multiple times through multiple projects or supplementary lessons.

It doesn’t even have to be the same exact method or project type every time. A student could apply a particular concept in math in different contexts and still learn and reinforce the same topic. In fact, through a method known as interleaving, this intentional context switching can even help the student learn and remember the subject even better.

Even if a student has demonstrated competency or completed an assessment, future projects they work on could periodically call back to that topic and cement it in their memory. At Sora Schools, we employ “retrievals”—small periodic assessments that call back to an academic topic or standard that keep the information fresh in their minds.

Make sure the project matters

Traditionally, projects in classrooms are just add-ons that the teacher throws in at the end of a unit or lesson. For example, having students take a test on the American Civil War and then making them do a project where they present on the ideological differences between the two sides of the conflict. It can be repetitive, it frankly wastes the student’s time, and it doesn’t actually teach the student through project-based learning.

Projects need to be fresh and different from the lesson or similar instruction. It’s fine if they learn the material through a secondary source like a video lesson, but they need to apply that knowledge during the project as their primary form of learning it. They not only pick up the other soft skills that come with PBL, but they actually get to feel rewarded from their work because it meaningfully taught them something—even more so if they had ownership in deciding the project topic, scope, and deadlines.

Challenge the student

Project-based learning typically fails to achieve its objective when it ends as an arts-and-crafts project. It’s fine to teach students basic academic material, but they’ll never really learn the subject unless it’s actually challenging. True learning happens by overcoming challenges and figuring out problems.

For example, don’t just assign a student or group of students to research greenhouse gases and how they affect the planet in terms of climate change. Get them to do a project where they have to devise a way to prevent or slow down the melting of the polar ice caps and defend their proposal. Even better, have them be a part of the decision making process initially. They might have some ideas for where they want to take the project—your role is to guide them and scaffold their learning. Ensure quality and progression, but give them more autonomy. That alone can also stretch their thinking and even make them more invested in the work, which is always a plus.

At Sora, our goal is to build our students up to practice world-class work. One such project students worked on was a real estate investment simulation. One of the mentors from our Mentor Network, a real estate investor, helped us conduct a project where students pretended to be analysts at a real estate investment fund of $3,000,000. In the project, they were in charge of deploying the money into real estate. They had to achieve a “good” internal rate of return (the scale of bad to good was defined by the mentor). During the project, they considered real factors like comparable rates of nearby real estate, rent, maintenance costs, utility costs, and more. They even searched actual housing values on Zillow and picked real properties for their investment fund. At the end of the project, they presented their proposals of various properties they recommended investing in and calculated IRRs for their selection. They were certainly challenged, but they learned a LOT more than they would have had they simply just read about the real estate market.

Create stages and checkpoints

Of course, without structure, projects would fall apart. That’s why it’s very important to create stages of a project—concept development, basic research into the subject and work, milestone creation, presentation, and reflection.

In our experience with project-based learning at Sora, students can get lost or take way too much time with their projects if not handled carefully. Projects should be chunked, and educators should check in on them periodically to ensure progress and also assess their knowledge and learnings. This can help enforce accountability and potentially get them even more excited about the project as they complete milestones and get closer to their goals. At the end, they can reflect on what they’ve learned and determine where they want to go from there, whether that be further exploring the topic or moving on.

And that’s it! Using these methods, whether you’re a teacher in the classroom, a school administrator, or an at-home educator for your kids, you can improve the effectiveness your project-based learning curriculum or even experiment with it if you haven’t tried it before.

If you’re interested in learning more about our online, project-based high school, please check our website and reach out to our team to learn more about how Sora can work for your student!

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