Part 3: Scheduling for Growth
Formative feedback in project-based learning should be like a visit to the doctor rather than an autopsy. The point is to help the patient live a better life, not determine what went wrong once the patient is already dead. When scheduling, that means you’ll have to build in time to review the projects and provide formative feedback and also provide time for students to receive that feedback, ask any questions they might have about it, and incorporate it in revising and iterating their projects. Your combined efforts might still not result in a perfect outcome, but you can certainly ensure projects don’t die a horrible death that could have been prevented.
Dividing the project into phases can help fit at least a few conversations with students about their product and their process at landmark moments. Let’s return to the water cycle museum exhibit example from the previous post. In a nutshell, students will research the water cycle (beyond the basic diagram the teacher shared) to find out what factors can speed it up, slow it down, interrupt it, or otherwise damage it in any way. Using the information they gather, students will design and build an interactive museum display that makes visitors aware of the effects human actions have on the environment.
The overall project can be divided into five phases.
- Project launch: students and teachers agree upon the goals and quality standards for the project as discussed in the previous post.
- Preliminary stage: students gather information about factors that affect the flow of water in the cycle and what the effects may be if the flow is interrupted. They consider the audience they’re trying to reach and then generate ideas about how to communicate through an interactive exhibit that encourages the audience to learn and act. Students present sketches, prototypes, or outlines. At this stage, the teacher evaluates the quality of the information and the feasibility of the project. If the project is not challenging enough, or if the project is too ambitious, the teacher can help students make adjustments and help identify resources they can use.
- Execution: Students build their museum exhibit, code devices, and prepare informational signs as needed. At this stage, the teacher and students evaluate the product according to the standards agreed upon at the start of the project. The students adjust their work plans to ensure any problems are addressed.
- Final details and preparation for presentation: Students finalize their exhibits and share it with their peers and outside guests. Once again, the teacher and students evaluate the product and planned presentation according to the standards agreed upon from the start and address any shortcomings.
- Presentation, revision, and reflection: After sharing with an audience and the teacher, students get one more opportunity to refine their product, if possible, and to reflect upon their product and performance.
This plan sets up at least three opportunities for the teacher to give students feedback prior to the final presentation. If teachers need a certain number of grades in the grade book during an extended project, this provides a workable solution. However, as I have said in previous posts, feedback is more than a grade. Giving the students a grade without providing actionable feedback does not ensure that the project will be successful or that students will learn at all. This is why each of the feedback opportunities in the above list is presented as a joint activity. Teachers and students evaluate the projects together and decide what actions should be taken.
While this is an improvement over the “assign, wait, and grade after the due date” model, there are still many opportunities for projects to go off the rails between the phases. Having more frequent informal evaluation and feedback sessions built into the project solves this issue. It also keeps work moving along and helps students stay on task. If students are meeting regularly with their teacher to go over their work, they are more likely to work gradually and avoid procrastination.
Setting a rotating schedule for reviewing student projects works well to support these informal sessions. This image shows how a teacher with five groups of students working on a project can meet regularly with every group rather than meeting only at the project milestones I described above. Of course, each teacher’s schedule might look different depending on how often the class meets, especially in middle and high school.
Meetings don’t have to be long at all. A few minutes is enough to have a conversation about the project, discussing how it has progressed from the previous meeting. This should be enough to determine how students have responded to previously received feedback, and to discover whether any problems require special attention. Of course, all these conversations must focus on specific recommendations and accomplishments since the purpose is to help students close the gap between the current state of the project and the established goals.
This represents a pretty large number of conversations that generate many comments and suggestions. In the next post I’ll introduce a framework for having feedback conversations as well as ideas for documenting these conversations.