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Are Your Students Losing Interest in Your Project? Borrow Strategies from Science Classrooms!

“How do I get students to become more interested in projects?” My colleague Alicia recently gave a group of teachers an “Ask me anything” form during one of her coaching sessions, and this question stood out to me. Teachers of all content and grade levels can identify with this concern. My education journey began in the science classroom, and I think that we can use some processes and strategies from science education to strengthen student interest in all subject areas.

Let’s first define Project Based Learning by taking a look at the High Quality PBL criteria. Here are the six criteria that are used to define HQPBL (versus a traditional project you might do at the end of a unit):

  • Intellectual Challenge and Accomplishment

  • Authenticity

  • Public Product

  • Collaboration

  • Project Management

  • Reflection

I think you could argue for any one of the criteria being a factor for student interest, but in this blog, I would like to highlight the importance of Intellectual Challenge and Accomplishment, and Reflection. I believe that these two criteria most strongly create space for student voice and inquiry, which are keys to maintaining student engagement in Project Based Learning. We can borrow practices from science to strengthen both of these criteria to increase student interest.

Intellectual Challenge and Accomplishment is defined by the HQPBL Framework: “Students learn deeply, think critically, and strive for excellence.” The most effective pedagogy in science education starts with a phenomenon that captures student’s interests and inspires questions to understand it. A phenomenon is something that might intrigue us, and we refer to the primary phenomenon as the “anchoring phenomenon”. For example, students might explore this Google Earth Engine timelapse of the urban growth of Las Vegas (and how it impacts the water level in Lake Mead). The anchoring phenomenon causes them to ask questions about the causation, leading to an entire exploration of water usage and conservation.

By the way, the phenomenon-based approach should not be unique to science. We can use an anchoring phenomenon to launch a project in just about any subject: reviewing the shifts in literature as the culture of our country changes, finding patterns in mathematics, discovering new brushstroke techniques in art, and so on.

In science, we think of the entire unit as a storyline. Every phase of the learning includes conversations in which students design investigations in response to their questions and make sense of what they learn through thinking routines and guided discussions. Towards the end of the unit, students synthesize what they have discovered and propose solutions to the original anchoring phenomenon. This context for a unit may sound unique, but it can be applied to other subjects, and HQPBL is the perfect container! Let’s compare the storyline approach to the path of learning in PBL.

Here’s how we at Applied Coaching for Projects describe the Learning Experience in project based learning. As you can see, the experience begins with inquiry during the phase of launching a project. This is when you might introduce the anchoring phenomenon. From that point on, students engage in learning experiences, formative assessments, prototyping, and revision. All of these milestones are part of driving the inquiry cycles. Students regularly revisit their original questions as part of navigating and sensemaking before producing products that answer the original, challenging problem.

The middle part of the project is usually where students lose interest in a project. It is important that our students feel that they are actually leading the learning to maintain their engagement. If you feel like something is being done to you, you’re less likely to care, right?

Here are some suggestions to leverage Intellectual Challenge and Accomplishment for student interest:

  • Be intentional with the way you launch your project and the anchoring phenomenon you select. It should be strong enough to launch inquiry, hook student interest, and be complex enough to sustain curiosity.

  • Gather student questions in a place that is both visible and accessible to you and your learners. All of you should be able to look over at a glance to see the questions that were part of launching the inquiry process. This will continue to provide context to the learning.

  • Develop a set of "bread and butter" thinking routines to support your students in synthesizing information and determining the next steps. (Project Zero from HGSE has a terrific Toolkit!)

  • Plan for those facilitated discussions. The first few times, the conversation may wane. I love the discussion planning tool from OpenSciEd that can be adapted to encourage intentionality.

Reflection is defined by the HQPBL Framework: “Students reflect on their work and their learning throughout the project.” The key here is that reflection should be an ongoing process. Students should reflect on what they’re learning (content, process, skills) and how it impacts them. Reflection both makes for moments in which the learning becomes “sticky” and creates that space for student voice. Uncovering growth in yourself and using your voice to share it leads to greater interest in learning. (But don’t just take my word for it! Be sure to read this blog by Rachel Harcow!)

In science best practices, student reflection drives inquiry: sense-making (synthesizing learning after an exploration) and navigating from one learning experience to the next to keep the context of learning connected by revisiting their original questions and uncovering new ones. An example of a thinking routine for sensemaking is the "What, So What, Now What" process. Students reflect on what they learned (What). They discuss with a partner why that was important (So What). Then, the teacher facilitates a class discussion where students determine what comes next (Now What).

They also use their voices for reflection in order to catalyze the recognition of personal and community growth: describing their relationships with one another, understanding their own development in science and engineering practices, and determining the effectiveness of the norms they have created as a class - so they can be improved. (Here is an artifact of learners revisiting their norms together in a virtual space.) Students stay interested in science because they see themselves at every step of the learning. They're finding answers to their questions, and they see their own growth.

As with the examples I provided in the section on Intellectual Challenge and Accomplishment, we can use many of these same strategies to increase student interest in projects in other content areas. Let’s look back at the learning experience we defined earlier and identify ideal places for reflection. Since reflection is an opportunity to drive inquiry and create space for student voice, there will be many places in which students should be reflecting. In the image below, we’ve identified a few places where reflection might take place, and you will notice that (even though it’s not an exhaustive map) there’s a lot!

To use reflection to drive inquiry, your students should be reflecting on what they have learned after every learning event. This could be as simple as asking them to complete an exit ticket where they share one thing they are taking away from that day. They should also revisit their original questions and categorize those they have answered and still want to answer. As they move through an HQPBL experience, they will notice how many of their questions have been answered.

Here are some suggestions to leverage Reflection to create space for amplifying student voice:

  • Build in opportunities for them to reflect in teams on their personal growth at regular intervals - this is often most effective right after an opportunity to prototype and develop products.

  • Plan for places where you can solicit their opinions on the learning processes and use their thoughts to make shifts in class norms, routines, and procedures.

  • LISTEN and be responsive to what they share! We all hate when we feel that we are shouting into the wind. In fact, nothing alienates us faster than when we feel our voice doesn’t matter.

  • Use multiple modalities for reflection. Mix in individual reflection, small group, and large group.

  • Technology can provide platforms for students to reflect in multiple ways. Some of our favorite tools include Flipgrid, Google Forms, Jamboard, and Kahoot.

  • Not all reflection has to be shared. There will be times when you need to hear what your students are thinking, and other times it can build trust to allow them to keep their thoughts personal.

  • Don’t forget about reflection! School can be a hectic place for us as teachers. Make sure your learners get to experience it! Reflection is a key to student voice and metacognition.

While I’m suggesting that we pull some practices from science education, let’s remember that education is more of an art form than a science. It will take some practice to find the right balance of inquiry, student voice, and reflection. Above all else, the key to student learning is relationships. Be transparent with your students about your goals. Invite your students to join you on this journey by asking them for ideas and feedback. We’re here for that journey too. Let us know how it’s going and what you’ve learned!


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