• Jeffrey Hinton

PBL project design essentials: Investigate, design, execute & assess (IDEA)

“No research without action, no action without research” ~Kurt Lewin"

Research is what I'm doing when I don't know what I'm doing." ~Wernher von

Braun"Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose." ~Zora Neale Hurston


The first step in PBL research is to fully understand the problem, as indicated in the driving question. Students should examine the issue from various perspectives and points of view to gain a deep understanding of the issue. It may be beneficial at this early research stage for teams to solicit experts in the community to get the big picture. To begin their research, teams should brainstorm the following:

1. What do they already know about the topic or problem? In other words, students should think about their prior knowledge of history, context, timeline, geography, and key individuals involved in the subject. This is where diverse viewpoints can help you think about the topic from multiple angles and perspectives.

2. What do they need to know to address the driving question? Based upon an analysis of their prior knowledge, have students think about what they will need to learn to move forward in the project. What are the gaps in students’ knowledge? What might they be overlooking or taking for granted? Knowing what you don’t know can be difficult, but it is good practice in metacognition.

3. Students should then engage in preliminary research to understand the “big picture” before delving into the specifics of the issue. Students should use their textbooks, Wikipedia, Google searches, and their school or local libraries to understand their topic.

4. Once students have a solid understanding of their topic, they will need to adjust it so that it is appropriate in terms of scope and availability of source material. In other words, the topic should not be so broad that it lacks sufficient depth. But not so narrow that it is hyper-focused. In other words, the topic should be “Goldilocks” just right.

Research Question. Next, students should create a research question. A research question is simply the question that the research will attempt to answer through an analysis of the data collected. The research question is in response to the PBL's driving question and will help students create a roadmap for their research while assisting them in focusing their efforts. According to George Mason University, the research question should have the following characteristics:

· Clear. It is specific enough that the audience will understand it without needing additional information.

· Focused. It is narrow enough that it can be appropriately treated in the time allotted to the project.

· Concise. It is thorough without being too wordy.

· Complex. It cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. Synthesis and analysis of research data will be required to answer the question correctly.

· Arguable. potential answers must be points upon which two reasonable people may disagree, not a fact.

Examples of research questions

What effect does daily use of Instagram have on the attention span of users under 16 years of age?

What are the most effective communication strategies for increasing voter turnout among people under 30 in Las Vegas?

How have economic, political, and social factors affected patterns of homelessness in Las Vegas over the past ten years?

The Research Plan. The next step in the investigation is for students to create a research plan. A research plan is an overview of how the investigation is to be carried out. Research plans should contain the following:

· Introduction- introduce the topic, provide context and background, and state the problem or issue to be researched and your research question.

· Research objectives- are questions that students should be able to answer after the research is complete.

· Timeline- students should create a timeline of their research working backward from the project's due date. Students should give themselves plenty of time as it usually takes longer than expected to complete.

· Resources- This is where students will list their primary sources of information, including books, websites, and personal interviews. If students are going to conduct interviews, they must consider whom they will interview and prepare in advance interview questions. If students are interviewing nonfamily members or people they do not know, they should be chaperoned by a responsible adult. For safety purposes, the team should always conduct interviews and not with individual students.

Conducting the research. After the students have created a research plan, they must consider the logistical realities of their project. Students should brainstorm possible sources of information such as books, academic literature, documentaries, websites, field research, and potential interview subjects. Students will usually start with the most obvious sources of information first, such as those found using simple Google searches. However, don’t assume your students know how to perform Google searches beyond the basics effectively. You might want to teach them How to Google Like a Pro. Teachers must challenge students to dig deeper and go beyond what is most convenient. The power of PBL is that it requires students to address problems and issues found in the real world authentically. As important as digital literacy, students should be encouraged to conduct research that requires them to interact with the real world beyond their computer screens. Interacting with the community can be a valuable lesson as they learn how to communicate effectively, build relationships, and learn about things beyond their immediate experience.

As students begin collecting research sources, they must vet the source material to determine its credibility and reliability. Some questions students should ask of their sources include:

· Is this source relevant to my research?

· What is the relationship of this source to other sources? Does it agree or disagree (corroboration)?

· Is the author of the source reputable and authoritative?

· Was the source created by a legitimate individual, organization, or publisher?

· Is the information well-written and logical?

· Is the source up to date?

· Is the source free of bias and impartial?

Students must understand that research is an iterative process that is never wholly done but must be finalized at some point for the sake of the PBL timeline. In other words, students should continue to research, refine, and improve their understanding of their topic for as long as possible. Students will complete their research only after they are satisfied that they have thoroughly answered their research questions and that new information corroborates their current understandings.

Design, execute and assess the project

After the students have concluded their research and have sufficiently answered their research questions, it is time to design, execute, and assess the project.

Design the project. The power of PBL is that it puts the students at the center of their learning. Students working in small collaborative teams decide how they will interpret the driving question. Students choose how they are going to conduct research and collect data. And when they have sufficiently answered the driving question, they decide how they will communicate their findings. In some cases, the teacher may outline the type of final product the students are to create. Or the teacher may allow the students to have carte blanche when deciding how to present their findings. In either scenario, the teacher must provide students with the grading rubric before the PBL begins so that students understand how they will be assessed before the final submission. More advanced PBL students can create their grading rubric. Several websites provide excellent PBL rubrics, including my.pblworks.org and magnifylearningin.org . Popular PBL final projects include:

· Website

· Poster board or trifold board

· 3D model

· Documentary video

· Illustration/photography

· Report

Students should prototype their final products to know exactly what they want to build. This is beneficial because it will save students time and money if they create something that requires them to purchase supplies and materials. A prototype can be as simple as a scale drawing or other rough representation of the final product. Provide students the opportunity to give others feedback on their prototypes to help them improve their final product.

Execute. Once students have settled on a design for their final product, it is time to put their plans into action and build it. Before the execution phase, the teacher must decide if they will allow in-class time for doing the project or require students to assemble their projects outside of school. It is crucial, however, that teachers consider issues of equity and understand that not all students have the resources of time, money, and transportation at their disposal. If students are going to work on their project in school, it is helpful to have a makerspace stocked with art and craft supplies, tools, technology, and whatever else students will need to construct their final products. Check out the Makerspace Playbook for more great makerspace ideas. Donorchoose.org is an excellent way to fund your makerspace.

What I have learned. When I first started doing PBL, I looked forward to the final project turn-in day with great anticipation. Seeing the wonderful projects that students spent countless hours researching, designing, and building was so much fun. Most of the projects looked terrific. Students created realistic dioramas, 3-D models, and tri-fold boards. Some of the students went all out designing their projects with lights, stencils, professional-looking matting, and printed materials. One thing that I soon realized, however, was that students were confusing visual appeal with high-quality content and spent more time focusing on how their final projects looked rather than their substance. I also realized that there was an issue of equity in that not all students have the resources to build fancy-looking projects. Presentation is important, but it is not everything, and it is important to stress to students that they will be assessed based on content. In addition, you should provide students an alternative to constructing a physical project with a project created using free digital tools such as those found in the Google Workspace for Education, like Docs, Sheets, Slides, and Forms. Cost should never be a barrier to participation in PBL.

Assess. Assessing the PBL final project is a complex task. Teachers must objectively evaluate the degree to which students meet content standards and project objectives fairly and equitably that maintain rigor for all learners. Before the final submission, it might be helpful to demonstrate to students how to use the rubric by modeling the evaluation process using an exemplar. This way, students can see the thought process of assessing their work. In addition to evaluating their projects, have students evaluate classmates' projects. Having students assess their projects before turning them in can be very informative. Not only will they know precisely how they will be evaluated, but they will be able to improve their projects before the final submission.

Other assessment considerations. In addition to assessing student work using a project rubric, teachers could interview collaborative teams as part of the assessment process. This is an excellent way to provide students with instant feedback and an opportunity to practice and hone their public speaking and communication skills. To hold students individually accountable in PBL, teachers could place greater weight on individual work and contributions than the cumulative group final product. Additionally, students in collaborative teams could perform peer evaluations of each other using a peer evaluation grading rubric. Remember, not everything needs to be graded, the final project included! The PBL process is much more important than the outcome. Besides, there should be plenty of other summative assessments in the PBL project, not just the final product. Finally, students should have the opportunity to self-assess and reflect on their performance in the PBL process. My PBL

Public Audience

The final step in the PBL process is to provide students with a public audience to showcase their efforts. Public audiences will inherently raise the stakes as students want to put their best foot forward, especially if they present their projects to adults outside the classroom. Students will derive a sense of purpose in knowing that their projects are important to others and that they matter to people in the “real world.” In addition, when students present to a public audience, they develop a sense of connectedness to their community, a key component of social and emotional learning.

The public audience does not need to be a huge event. Instead, it is perfectly fine to start small by presenting to other classes, teachers, administrators, families, and community members. However, the audience should be as authentic as possible, meaning that audience members should be connected in some way to the project’s focus. For example, if students have completed a project about water conservation, it would be helpful to have audience members from the local water authority or other adults familiar with water policy and conservation. In addition, the public audience should be able to interact with the students by asking questions and providing feedback. It may be beneficial to create an audience feedback form to help them provide focused feedback to students and teachers.

f you found the information in this blog post useful, please check out my latest book, An Education for the 21st Century: A Handbook for Teachers

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