Wall-to-wall project-based learning: A conversation with biology teacher Kelley Yonce

December 31, 2010

This article explains the process of project-based learning (PBL) as it is practiced by Kelley Yonce, a high-school biology teacher who uses PBL throughout the school year. Concrete guidelines for a DNA project are included, as well as rubrics, assessment criteria, and other relevant documents.

At the mid-point of the 2008-09 academic year, according to the North Carolina Standard Course of Study, East Wake School of Integrated Technology biology teacher Kathleen (Kelley) Yonce needed to introduce her class of 20 sophomores to deoxyribonucleic acid, a.k.a. DNA.

An avowed project-based learning (PBL) teacher who creates 7-8 learning projects, one after another, each lasting between 1½ and 3½ weeks, throughout the school year, she consulted her usual sources of inspiration — Edutopia, the New Schools Project — but nothing struck her fancy. She considered modifying a project about genetically modified food she’d attempted the previous year but rejected the idea. “The kids didn’t care,” she says. “For PBL to work, students must be engaged. This doesn’t mean you must stick to subjects the kids already know. New stuff is perfectly okay as long as it grabs their attention.”

At home on a snow day watching television, Ms. Yonce saw a news item titled “Designer Babies” and knew she had her answer.

The key to successful project-based teaching, Ms. Yonce insists, is to create “real-life experiences” for the students, during which they exercise choice, voice opinions, and make decisions and — critically — their own mistakes. Her favorite technique is to “… give them jobs, make them employees. By acting out roles of people with careers, students realize somebody, somewhere actually uses the knowledge they’re expected to acquire. I don’t get the question, ‘Why do we need to know this?’ very much any more.”

For the DNA project, she cast her students in the roles of genetic counselors. In the “real world,” genetic counselors identify families at risk, investigate genetic problems present in families, interpret information about disorders or potential disorders, analyze inheritance patterns and risks of recurrence, and review available options with the families. For the DNA project, Ms. Yonce created fictional families and invented their genetic histories. The students, after gaining basic information about pedigrees, etc., were required to investigate the families’ problems, interpret their findings, perform risk analyses, and, finally, conduct genetic counseling interviews — face-to-face — with adult couples.

Although the academic emphasis placed on the particular elements of a project may change, each project follows the same general outline.

The “entry document”

This item introduces the project and provides the time-line. It might be a PowerPoint presentation, a speech by an expert, a video, etc. In the case of the DNA project, it was the “Designer Babies” news segment Ms. Yonce saw on television.

Ms. Yonce often creates an activity associated with the entry document. For this project, she showed her students the Center for Genetics and Society website and told them the organization sought input from students. She found free software and asked her students to blog about the ethical implications of genetically “made-to-order” babies.

The teams

“Teams of 3-4 students are best,” Ms. Yonce continues. Too much work is required of members in teams of two, and teams of more than four tend to become unruly.

Although some PBL teachers appoint team members, Ms. Yonce allows the students to choose their own teammates for the first project of the year. “They always pick their friends,” she admits, “but I like the lesson they inevitably learn: that their friends often are not the best work partners.” Ms. Yonce then mandates a change of one team member for each subsequent project throughout the year.

Some PBL teachers choose projects that feature defined roles like “artist” or “accountant” then either assign students to the roles or allow the students to choose the roles they prefer. Ms. Yonce, though, encourages all members of each team to learn all aspects of the project. “Otherwise you need to be extremely clever to ensure that all the kids learn all the material.”

Team leaders

Here, too, Ms. Yonce allows the students to decide who will lead each group, but cautions that the leadership component of PBL can be vexing.

Generally, kids who want to lead assume that the leader’s job is to do the most work. A leader’s true role, though, is to plan, organize, and supervise team activities; impose discipline; offer encouragement; delegate authority; and ensure workload equity, quality of work, and communication among team members.

“For most kids,” says Ms. Yonce, “this is brand new information.”

To help her fledgling “bosses,” she has developed a “leader sheet” — a log that lists various leadership responsibilities and requires the kids to “fill in the blanks” with specific information about how they address each issue. “Part of the leader’s grade,” Ms. Yonce explains, “depends on how well he or she keeps the log.”

The rubric

This is the blueprint for the project — the detailed list of things to be done, knowledge to be acquired, etc.

Ms. Yonce strongly recommends waiting to give students the rubric until the second or third day of a project. “If you hand it out before you gain their interest, they obsess.”

This moment — when the students first confront the full scope of the project — is also, for Ms. Yonce, the most distressing of any project because, “I desperately want to pre-teach. By far the most difficult thing for me is not to jump in and help. Students should struggle,” she explains, “because out of their struggle comes their need to know.”

Ms. Yonce emphasizes one other point about the rubric: “I’m continually surprised at how short the kids’ attention spans are. When I first started project-based teaching, I assumed once the kids were introduced to a project, they would retain its basic outlines. I was wrong. You must re-read the rubric often, constantly remind them of the ‘big picture.’”

The project

During this phase, says Ms. Yonce, the students “build the product.” By following the rubric they learn — sneakily, obliquely, as members of teams, under the guise of playing parts — the lessons listed in the Standard Course of Study.

This is when Ms Yonce employs the full range of traditional teaching methods: labs, lectures, workshops, etc., delivering them as if they were employee training sessions. “The kids understand that to do a job — any job — workers must receive some kind of training. Explanatory sessions are always more effective when delivered on an ‘as-needed’ basis.”

For the DNA project, the students researched Gregor Mendel, learned the difference between mitosis and meiosis, participated in a laboratory session about hemophilia, practiced drawing pedigrees, etc.

One chronically tricky aspect of PBL, Ms. Yonce explains, is timing. Because teams set their own pace, some invariably finish before others. In anticipation, Ms. Yonce pre-loads “extra credit” into the rubric. Before teams even begin, members understand what constitutes “unsatisfactory,” “satisfactory,” or “advanced” completion of the unit.

The product

The culminating event for a project may be an oral presentation, a video, a demonstration, a physical model, etc. For the DNA project, the students came to school dressed “professionally” and each team conducted genetic counseling interviews with a number of adult couples.

Before the interviews, Ms. Yonce gave each adult a checklist containing questions about how the students conducted the interview, e.g.: Did the students introduce themselves? Did they review the family pedigrees? Did they explain “heterozygous”? Ms Yonce explains that one of her underlying goals is to help kids learn how to act authoritatively toward adults.


In a perfect world, Ms. Yonce would not test students who completed learning projects. “My kids, though, take standardized, end-of-course tests and I believe they need practice.” She remains unsure, however, whether the students benefit more from being tested before or after the culminating event. Testing beforehand prepares them for the event by reminding them of the important aspects of the interview. Testing afterward, though, takes advantage of the excitement of the face-to-face encounters. “They learn a lot from the interviews and so they bring more enthusiasm to the test.”


Ms. Yonce uses four grading criteria:

  • Oral presentation. This standard might better be styled “communication.” How well does the student explain and discuss what he/she has learned?
  • Content of the rubric. This most heavily weighted standard measures understanding of the Standard Course of Study material.
  • Professional skills. Based primarily on the team leader’s assessment, this standard reveals how well the student performed tasks, met deadlines, completed assignments, etc.
  • Collaboration. Based primarily on each student’s assessment of the other members of his/her group, this standard measures collegiality and cooperation.


“The DNA project was a great success,” Ms. Yonce reports. “The kids took an immediate interest, which surprised me a little, because you never know how they’re going to react.”

This uncertainty is why she cautions teachers who are considering PBL that, “You absolutely must be okay with messing up royally. You have much less control over what happens day-to-day than in a traditional classroom.”

Ms Yonce taught traditionally for five years before attempting PBL. Now, three years later, “I’m ‘wall-to-wall,’” she says. “I’m convinced PBL kids retain more information for a longer period of time than kids who are taught in traditional classrooms because they learn concepts instead of isolated facts and learn them in context instead of at random. PBL is less about memorizing and more about understanding.”

She concludes, “It’s important to remember that today’s kids need to learn lots of basic skills to succeed in life. The first time I told a class to ‘dress professionally,’ for example, a number of kids didn’t understand what I was talking about. Eventually I learned to say, ‘dress for church.’ The PBL method teaches not only book lessons but life lessons. I probably shouldn’t say this but I believe the most important thing I teach my students is how to communicate with other people.”


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