The Six “A”s of PBL Project Design

June 8, 2016
Visit Andrew Larson at Magnify Learning!

Visit Andrew Larson at Magnify Learning!

What makes a project truly great? Every year brings new project adventures with students, and sometimes we really nail it. Some projects are near misses, and others are abject flops. When it comes time to deconstruct project successes and failures, it is nice to have something upon which to look back, just to see if all of our grand visions materialized.

The most meaningful data, of course, is student feedback and reflection. We make sure that we always have a share- out at the end where students share “likes”, “wonders”, and “next steps” (i.e. what should be done to make this project fly better next year?)  Also, though, for those of you that like lists, there is one!

The authoritative guide to “must haves” has long been Adria Steinberg’s  Six “A”s Rubric. No matter the experience level of the instructor, this rubric should be a guiding light for building a project.  I love it because it’s simple. Below are the Six “A”s and some examples and tips for putting them to work for you and your students in a PBL project.

1. Authenticity. Is the problem being addressed real and of relevance to the students? Is the final product something that will have value that stretches beyond the classroom? One of the cornerstone projects in our Biology I course is a melanoma awareness campaign. Everyone has been touched by cancer, and teens need to be cognizant of skin cancer risks in particular. We use this very relevant topic to learn about DNA, the cell cycle and the dangers of excessive exposure to sunlight. Students create social media campaigns to get the word out to their teenage peers about the importance of sunscreen and sun safety in advance of Spring Break and the beach season. While this topic is inherently authentic, it all hit home for our students when one of them actually developed melanoma and required invasive surgery to remove cancerous cells.

Even something as “normal” as a mock trial puts students in very authentic situations as jurors, witnesses, lawyers and judges, especially if the mock trial takes place in an actual courtroom. I’m always surprised at how nervous and excited students get on trial day, just because we are in a real courtroom! An authentic setting can really go a long way to give kids that feeling and create a lasting impact on their learning.

2. Academic Rigor. One of the keys to doing PBL with fidelity is creating situations and product requirements that require deep content knowledge. One could argue that the project described above wouldn’t really require the detailed knowledge of the underlying processes that lead to cancer, and they’d be right; after all, a person with good marketing or graphic design skills would likely communicate more effectively, and to a wider audience, than someone with just pure scientific know-how.

There are various approaches to ensuring rigor in projects. One is to require that students present their content knowledge to experts as a quality check before any product is sent out of the classroom. This is pretty easy to justify from a rational, logical point of view, and students are receptive to the seriousness of that requirement. Another strategy is to have the work/ product be created directly for professionals. When my class prepared their data for a phylloplane yeast biodiversity survey with our Purdue University community partners, the expectation was that they would present their results in a scientific paper because that is the expectation of the profession.  That implicitly added rigor, because that format requires deep content knowledge. In physics classes at my school, students have to pass an intense practical exam on electrical wiring before they can go out into the field to rewire homes in need. Creating benchmarks that motivate, set a high bar, and are authentic bolster the rigor of projects.

3. Applied Learning. To me, this is the one “A” where PBL shines. In a traditional setting, students may or may not be asked to apply what they have learned to the solving of an authentic problem.  They may never know or see why the quadratic equation is valuable or why using conversational Spanish can save a life. Academic standards are the minimum competencies and often do not require application of content.

In our Geometry/ Introduction to Engineering and Design, students designed and presented a rainwater collection system for our school garden. They had to apply their knowledge of triangles and angles as well as surface area and volume to build a prototype within tight budgetary constraints. Today, the final stages of the design that was selected (a shed with a rainwater collection system) are being finished—a partnership between students, instructors and community partners (the contractors and materials salespersons.)

4. Active Exploration. Every U.S. History class in the country studies World War II, but how many construct their understanding of that event by interviewing and documenting the experiences of veterans? In PBL, this type of constructivist approach, when done alongside of quality instruction, helps students see the depth of events and phenomena that they would not otherwise get in traditional delivery.

In science classes, labs are implicit to what we do. I’ve been guilty (especially in my past life as a traditional teacher) of having students go through the motions with labs and experiments without knowing why or what the “so what” really is. In PBL projects, traditional labs and activities still exist, but they take on a deeper significance as we intentionally apply the results of those experiments to the larger project context.

5. Adult Relationships. There is a difference between a guest speaker and a community partner. While both can and should be given a platform to speak about their real- world work, a community partner lends their expertise to students that need it in order to solve their problem. My experience is that most community partners actually prefer this approach because it’s more fun for them, and more valuable for the students. At the beginning of a project, students should meet or at least be made aware of their community partners and their roles. Throughout the project, at least once but preferably more than once, community partners should be actively communicating with students as they work towards solutions or final products. Finally, community partners should be invited to evaluate final products (especially when the product is explicitly created for them.)

In the mock trial project mentioned above, a local lawyer (and former student) provided workshops on courtroom proceedings for all of the courtroom roles. He pressed students to communicate with clarity and to ask the right types of questions. When trial day came, he was there to observe and offer feedback at the end. The kids loved the experience and there is no doubt that he has inspired the argumentative types to give the legal profession serious consideration.

6. Assessment. The yardsticks against which student work should be evaluated should come from academic standards, first and foremost. However, professionals in the fields of interest can provide 100% real feedback in terms of what is actually expected in board room presentations and performance evaluations. While I don’t recommend that a community partner be given the authority to assign grades, they should provide the feedback to students in their content accuracy, quality of product, professionalism, and presentation skills. It’s also important that the big assessments are supported by smaller, incremental assessments (which we call benchmarks.) These are crucial for students to know if they are on the right track and for you to feel confident that they are prepared for the final, larger- stakes presentations. Assessments can (and often should) be traditional in format, but not exclusively so.

One question we don’t get very often: “Why are we learning this?” The best thing PBL does is take the mystery out of learning. Students are much more likely to understand the reasons for the things we do if we use The Six As as a framework for our projects. Ideally, hit all six of them. If you don’t, give yourself a break and talk to your students about what could be done differently. Take their reflection seriously and keep striving for “all A’s.”

This blog originally appeared on Magnify Learning.

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