This was my first semester using project-based learning (although I like to think of it as passion-based learning) in all my classes. I am an even bigger fan now than I was before (and that’s saying something, see Why Project-Based Learning? and Project-Based Learning and Teaching Writing). My professional writing students developed individual passion projects based on their career goals and my first year seminar classes participated in a service-learning project in which they shared their literacy and college experiences with middle school students as well as the life lessons that can be learned from comics (following our own exploration of the many layers, meanings, and messages of comics throughout the semester). Here are the three reasons that I believe in PBL and fervently argue for you to begin using it in your own classes.
PBL is authentic learning (and authentic writing). I cannot possibly teach my students everything they need to know in one semester. This has always been true, but when we talk about 21st century skills the task is even more daunting because we don’t know what tools and skills my students will need when they graduate (and that task becomes exponentially more challenging when applied to the secondary, middle, and elementary levels). I can, however, set my students on a trajectory to continue learning long after they leave my classroom and that is the power of PBL. No other form of education offers the lifelong learning advantages of PBL. We need to challenge our students to become life-long learners in the 21st century. PBL helps students learn skills and a mindset that they can apply to future tasks rather than complete inauthentic disposable assignments which rarely teach skills students successfully transfer to future tasks.
PBL is all about enthusiasm. My students are excited about their projects and I am excited to watch them unfold. When was the last time your students were excited about a disposable assignment? When was the last time your students shared a disposable assignment with someone outside the class? I have students tell me that their projects have “rocked their world” and changed their plans for the future and made them see the world in a new way. That is learning that makes me excited to go to work every day and excited about the future. This is why I teach.
PBL is supported by evidence. Decades of research supports the effectiveness of PBL, but rubrics, checkpoints, and assessments can be used to carefully track student progress on standards or learner outcomes for your individual class and program. I grade all my major assignments using Google forms which makes it super easy to look at overall performance as well as individual performance on each student learner outcome (SLO). Some of this data is simply for my own benefit, but some must be reported to my program or institution. When I see overwhelming evidence that students have met or mastered a SLO then I feel my use of PBL vindicated above and beyond the enjoyment and the learning I witnessed during the creation of their projects. The graph above indicates the final results of the assessment of my professional writing projects for the Fall 2014 semester. Overwhelmingly students demonstrated they could identify and describe a professional problem and design an appropriate response for a specific audience. While their ability to create a comprehensive, polished final product was somewhat lower by comparison, overall I was very pleased with their performance on these key measures. Similarly, I found overwhelming evidence in their projects and reflection papers that my FYS students could articulate ethical consequences of decisions or actions as well as apply knowledge and skills to new settings (both general education SLOs at my institution).
Using PBL is in your classes takes careful planning and structure, but it can be used at every level and every content area and the rewards can be tremendous. PBL has made me a better teacher and made my students better learners. If you want to see evidence of authentic, enthusiastic learning then give PBL a try. Together we can make worksheets and other disposable assignments extinct in education.