Monday, November 16, 2009

Project Based Learning in 3 Steps

An Instructional Designers "Cheat Sheet" for Designing Project Based Learning
Four blog posts ago I set out on a long strange trip to dissect project based learning in a corporate environment. Along the way I have received some great comments on this blog and through Twitter with insight and examples of how to take advantage of project based learning. For the last post of the Project Based Learning series I'm going to boil down the key points of the four posts and the comments I received into a "cheat sheet" for instructional designers getting started with project based learning. This "Cheat Sheet" is designed to be used as a job aid summarizing the project based learning design process and does not include all of the details you may be looking for. For more information please click on the links throughout the post or in the "More Information" section.

What is PBL and why should I care?
Based off the name "Project Based Learning", it's not so tough to figure out that it's all about learning through the development of a project. Although it is simple to understand the premise of Project Based Learning I believe there is a lack of resources available because many instructional designers are designing it but don't realize there is a name and method to it. So, what is PBL anyway? The textbook definition provided by the Buck Institute for Education in the "Project Based Learning Handbook" described PBL with the quote below:
A systematic teaching method that engages students in learning knowledge and skills through an extended inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed products and tasks.
In my opinion it's a flexible term that boils down to scaffolding a lesson so that learners construct their own solutions through the development of projects rather than being told what the solution is through formal instruction. Project based learning's focus on the learner constructing their own solutions using available resources is what makes it ideal for the corporate world. In the workplace, employees don't have their training facilitator there to give a lecture any time they come across a problem they don't know how to solve so it is important that employees learn to use available resources to solve the problem on their own. Project based learning achieves what a lecture cannot by providing the opportunity for the learner to practice using the necessary resources so that when they do come across a problem they are prepared to solve it on their own.

Step 1: Dream up the Big Idea

Before you can begin constructing the driving question you need to develop the "Big Idea" that the project will be based on. This is where you need to be creative and dream up an idea or theme for the project that is intriguing, complex, problematic, and most importantly requires the learner to demonstrate the outcomes of the instructional objectives being taught in the lesson. When it comes to project based lessons in corporate environments it's best to come up with a big idea or theme based off of problems that the learners face in the workplace. A big idea that matches what people do in their daily work makes it easy to design a project based lesson that will improve the learners performance on the job. A great way to stay focused on authentic concerns is to enroll the help of learners in the brainstorming process. Engaging the learners in the process of developing the big idea not only makes it easier to develop a "real world" concern, but it also ensures the learners "buy in" on the lesson.

Step 2: Develop the Driving Question
Once you have the big idea or theme for your project based lesson you are ready to develop the driving question. In this step you will be taking the big idea you dreamed up in step 1 and forming that into a realistic scenario requiring the learner to demonstrate the performance described in the instructional objectives. A great way to capture the "big idea" into the form of a problem is to present it as a realistic scenario that learners come across in the workplace. Think about what is going to happen on the job that will trigger the performance being taught and capture that in the form of a question or multiple questions. The driving question does not have to be told in a storyline but a good story is a great way to engage the learner while communicating the driving question(s) and guidelines of the project. Once you have an idea of what your driving question is going to be, ask yourself the questions below before committing to your final draft of the driving question(s):
  • Is it open ended?
  • Is it challenging?
  • Is it realistic?
  • Is it complex?
  • Does it require a performance or project?
  • Is it consistent with instructional objectives?
If you can answer yes to the questions above then your driving question may be ready to put into action. Once you have polished your driving question you are well on your way to a quality project based lesson.

Step 3: Design the Assessment
The project based learning design process concludes by developing a plan to assess whether learners are able to demonstrate the instructional objectives you set out for to begin with by completing one or more projects. You could say that this step puts the "Project" in "Project Based Learning." I consider this to be the most important part of the design process because it is where you evaluate whether the lesson was successful or not. The best practices described below will help you ensure a successful project based learning assessment.
  • Demonstrates Objectives - A great way of ensuring that the assessments demonstrate the objectives is to design an assessment where learners complete the actual task or project that they will be required to complete on the job.
  • Scaffolded Assesments - Scaffolding the project so that it builds up to a final assessment that represents a blend of all the content covered in the project ensures that the learners have improved over time and achieved the instructional objectives.
  • Able to Score - Some of the greatest assessments for project based learning can also be the most difficult to assess. A great way of overcoming this obstacle is to create a rubric to use as a scoring guide. A well written rubric not only helps the facilitator score the assessment but it also helps the learner understand what is expected of them and serves as a guide for their project.
More Information:
As mentioned earlier, this post is only a summary of the design process. The links below will take you to more information regarding each step of the PBL design process.
  • Buck Institute for Education. (2003) Project Based Learning: A guide to standards focused project based learning. Novato, CA: Buck Institute for Education.

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