Why I love project-based learning

I love project-based learning. Why? Because my students do. Some of my favourite projects are the Biology 30 projects due at semester’s end. These aren’t the only projects we create throughout the semester; we also create a number of digital products too. However, these tend to be the most intricate and hands on.

For the past week, my students have been sharing their projects.  My students don’t give their presentation at the front of the room, although that’s an important skill to learn too. Instead, we sit in a circle and share. I’ve found doing it this way creates more interaction between my students than presenting at the front of the room.

The topic for this particular project was body systems.  My students were to create a project on any system in the body– a really broad topic, I know.  I do that on purpose.  In class, over the past two months, we’ve studied 5 different systems, but students aren’t limited solely to those.  Often students are interested in things we don’t have time to explore in class. This project allows them to do so.

One of my students created a Monopoly-type boardgame based on the nervous system. Each of the different properties represented a different aspect of the nervous system.  Additionally, the Community Chest & Chance cards also contained many facts about the system, in addition to the usual penalties or rewards.

But the best part of his presentation, to me, was when he stated, “I really enjoyed doing this.  It was a lot of fun — a ton of work, but a lot of fun.”  And that’s why I love project-based learning.  It allows my students to really focus on, and learn deeply about, things they’re interested in, which often causes them to work hard, enjoy the process of learning, and produces a great deal of satisfaction once they are finished.

Another student researched and created a model of the knee.  She has knee problems, and as an athlete, she experiences the real pain of these problems quite frequently.   During her presentation, she showed the parts of the knee affected, informed the class how these problems affect her, and possible treatments and surgical options.  It took her hours to create the knee from Plasticine. This is the second reason I love PBL, it often becomes personal for my students, allowing them to understand more about themselves or others they are close to.

A third student created two cakes — each depicted the brain. The brain with large portions of yellow, shows a healthy, functioning brain. The brain that is predominantly blue shows the functionality of a brain struggling with depression. Wow. I was shocked to see the difference.  And this is one of the reasons PBL can be powerful.  It allows students and teachers to see what might often be taught as vague, abstract concepts.

This particular student chose this topic because her family has been deeply and painfully affected by depression.  She wants to understand it better.  This project was meaningful far beyond the knowledge she acquired.

We also learned about hip replacements. One of my student’s has a father who is a doctor. She was curious about how hip replacements work, and through his contacts, he was able to procure the actual implements that are used in a hip replacement. How many people actually get to see what those look like? Which is the final reason I love PBL — I learn a ton from my students, and it allows my students to experience the reality that they have knowledge to offer to those around them.  The PBL classroom allows students to learn from each other, as well as me.

My student created a playdough version of the pelvis & hip bones to show how hip replacements fit.  And then, during her presentation, spared none of the gory details of the surgical process.  Trust me, it was readily apparent by the looks on my students faces who might be successful at pursuing a medical career and who will likely steer clear of it. The detail of the process was truly amazing.  During these presentations I’m often surprised by the amount of learning that occurs and the enthusiasm my students have towards it.

While some teachers may wonder about the merits of PBL, I’m sold.  My students learn much more in an inquiry classroom, than they did when we had a traditional one. It allows them to have a say in what they learn and how they present their knowledge. Every semester I’m impressed by the hard work and energy my students pour into their projects. It’s not enough for students to learn a bunch of disconnected facts, they need to be able to synthesis them into a large whole and create something from what they’ve learned. Often they’ll connect them to their lives in ways we could never have imagined.

I love PBL and so do my students; and that makes all the difference.

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About shelleywright

I love education & learning, which likely explains why I'm a teacher. My areas are ELA, Sr. sciences, and technology. My classroom is best described as a student-centred, tech embedded pbl/inquiry learning environment. I am currently a PhD student in the area of Curriculum and Instruction. My focus is play-based learning in high school, and it's impact on brain development.
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20 Responses to Why I love project-based learning

  1. Kevin Piers says:

    Hey Shelly,
    Thanks for these ideas. I am in the midst of teaching a grade 10 biology class at Jakarta International School and I have plans to take the leap (or maybe I should call it tentative “toe-dips” into the pool) into a few projects . I am going to have them make newscasts using iMovie outlining new technologies using stem cells, and then by the end of the semester I hope to have them create interactive online case studies (ala the House style of problem solving). Of course if you have any experience with such things and suggestions for avoiding pitfalls, I am all ears. It is a bit of a stretch for me but I have enjoyed your blog and find your ideas and enthusiasm refreshing, encouraging, and inspirational.
    Thanks again,
    Kevin Piers
    (displaced Canadian in Jakarta)

    • Thanks for your kind words. I love the iMovie idea! I might need to steal that sometime:) In Biology, we ‘ve also done case studies. My kids love it! I’ve never seen kids so intent on solving a problem; at times it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop because they were researching madly!

      I think toe-dips are an excellent way to get kids used to doing things differently. It’s as much of an adaptation for them as for you, maybe even moreso because it usually requires them to do more work than a traditional classroom. Enjoy learning with your kids!

      • Kevin Piers says:

        Thanks Shelley. I am curious as to how you did your case studies. I am thinkng about having them do it more as a flow chart in Keynote where they present the user with options which are hyperlinked to other pages in the Keynote presentation or to websites/videos/pictures and the like. Like I said, this could be a “fun disaster” but I am anxious to try it. Any ideas or pitfalls to avoid would be much appreciated. I am sure you have seen this before, but just in case, here is a great case study resource:

        http://sciencecases.lib.buffalo.edu/cs/

        All the best,
        Kevin

  2. Rayleen says:

    Fabulous Shelley! Have you videoed any of the process? I would love to see what it looks like. I also was wondering, what does your formative and summative assessment look like for PBL?

    • Great question! For our formative assessment, we use a rubric that students have either created, or sometimes one that already exists but we’ve adapted to our purpose. This way, students are well aware of the criteria being assessed.

      For me, the summative assessment is the really crucial part. Depending on the class or student, we use journals, blogs, or reflection papers, regularly throughout the project. It allows me, and my students, to see their growth in understanding, metacognition and collaborative skills. It also allows me to figure out where my students are struggling and tailor instruction to those needs. One of my favourite things is Marzano’s 4 pt. student self-assessment rubric. It allows for me students to visually see their progress throughout a unit.

      I have to admit, since moving to formative assessment, I use a lot less summative assessment. Yet, the marks that are summative tend to be higher and be more accurate to their learning and ability.

  3. Dayna Laur says:

    Shelly –

    I enjoy reading about your PBL experiences. Have you thought about taking this a step further, however? Perhaps instead of just sharing their projects with each other, the students could have a more formal public audience. While it is apparent that your students put forth a lot of effort, were engaged in the project, and took pride in what they accomplished, I wonder how much more authentic it would have been to have an audience outside of their classroom peers. It sounds like what you have them do would be fabulous for a Critical Friends Protocol in order for them to receive feedback for further reflection and revision.

    For the eight essential elements of project based learning, please see http://www.bie.org/about/what_is_pbl/

    Keep up the good work and continue to share.

    Thanks,
    Dayna Laur
    BIE National Faculty

    • Thanks for the link. I’m going to push back on this idea a bit. While I think large audiences are important, I’m reticent to believe that one is required for something to qualify as PBL. Over the past year this class has also created a Holocaust museum that was open to a large public beyond our school, as well as a social media campaign that hundreds of people have seen.

      But I think if my kids had to always perform so publicly they would quickly tire of PBL. I also don’t think it reflects real life. I tend to have to present to a group of my peers much more often than I do a large public audience. But I think both are important skills to learn. Thanks for sharing!

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  6. Rodd Lucier says:

    I love a few things things about your PBL experience. While we have the traditional 3 R’s, you’ve also addressed at least 3 others. Each topic was uniquely represented, resulting in a ‘Range of Responses’. Students selected topics that fit with their personal interests, ensuring the learning was ‘Relevant’. Students shared their work in circles, leading to learning in ‘Relationship’ with co-learners.

    • Thanks, Rodd. I’d never actually thought of it that way. One of the most important things I’ve learned is the importance of choice to my students. It always amazes me how diverse the projects are, and each year I always learn something new.

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  10. petchamon says:

    The Biology model examples reminded me of an incident from a similar project done about 30 years ago that illustrates another reason I love PBL. Middle school students were presenting two anatomically correct models they’d made to illustrate body systems, and the unthinkable happened. The male model suddenly lost his masculinity, whereupon a 7th grade girl calmly restored the missing part with no sign of discomfort or embarrassment. Another reason I love PBL: the deep commitment and ownership students feel for their work is unparalleled in other forms of learning.

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  12. Sarah Powley says:

    I just discovered your entry! Your students’ work makes me smile. I love PBL, too–for all the reasons you detailed. Since you also teach English, you might be interested in a PBL writing project my students did for several years, described on my blog under Unsung Heroes (in the cloud tag).

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