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Steve Haberlin is a Ph.D student at the University of South Florida, where he also works as a teaching assistant, supervising and teaching pre-service teachers. Steve holds a master's degree in...
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Secrets of Great Classroom Projects

During my decade of teaching, most of my time was spent working with gifted children, trying to find ways to enrich and challenge them academically and intellectually. I found that project-based learning, in its many forms, was a surefire way to meet that need. I experimented with all kinds of approaches (community-service projects, research-based, interest-based, problem-solving), and in my travels, narrowed down some principles and insights to effectively using projects with students. In this blog, I’d like to share some of those gems with you. But before I do, I’d like to advocate a bit for projects. I think projects when properly designed can meet the academic goals of teachers and students. Projects are also what students remember most. I can still remember in fourth-grade using little army men toys to re-create a battle scene we learned about in social studies. But, as teachers, we must creatively find the time for projects (often, projects get pushed aside until the last few weeks of school, when standardized testing is done). Consider weaving projects into reading, social studies, math, and also creating interdisciplinary units. Projects are another way to satisfy parent involvement goals at your school since the students can share their projects via PowerPoints, posters, and oral presentations. Now, for my tips.

Provide Choice

Give students choice in selecting topics for projects. This creates the motivation to sustain the project. Not too many choices (think of how you feel when you open a menu with too many food choices). Maybe two or three. For instance, if the project is a language arts research-based initiative involving readings about Civil Rights leaders. Perhaps the students could choose between several high-profile leaders or perhaps one lesser known leader. Then, the students can share what they learned with each other, comparing notes for differences and similarities. Providing some level of choice instills a sense of ownership in the project and will eliminate potential lack of motivation issues down the road.

Map It Out

Most students require an outline, something to follow, when engaging in a project. There are many templates out there. Models such as the Independent Investigation Method can provide an outline, which you can tweak to fit your students’ needs. The scope of the project (mini-research projects can work well) will determine the length and depth of the plan. When facilitating long-term projects, I always had students consider the following questions when planning:

 1) What is the goal/purpose of the project (in one to two sentences)?

 2) Why do you want to do the project?

 3) Who is your target audience?

 4) What product/shape will your project take?

 5) What resources will you need?

 6) What is the timeline for your project?

 7) What specific steps will you take to complete the project?

 8) How will you assess/measure success with your project?

You can have students write out these answers or map them out on a poster board. Then, I would advise conferencing with students to go over their answers and address any concerns.

Teach Them the Skills

When tackling projects, students are going to inevitably require new skills. Teachers must provide training if students are going to grow and become successful. Perhaps students require typing skills to write up reports and results from data—allow them time to engage in online typing games. Projects may also require interviewing others, which can be learned through modeling, videos, etc. You don’t have to do everything yourself. I have asked guest speakers such as journalists from local newspapers, parents with technology jobs, business owners, and others to visit my classroom and help train students in the skills they need.

Utilize Talents

Teach students to work from their talents when completing projects, especially when it involves group projects. For instance, if a project involves research, writing, and designing a website, have the students consider who enjoys what types of activities and who can effectively produce certain tasks. If a child excels at technology, then help them understand that he or she should serve as the lead on the website creation tasks. It’s not that the student is the only one designing the website, but he or she is the expert who can teach others how to do it and serve as a model in that area. Projects also seem to be higher quality when students put their talents to work.

Real-World Audience

The best way I have found to increase motivation during projects is to tie them to an actual audience. For instance, when my students were investigating a perceived “lack of respect” around campus, their ultimate goal was to share their research findings and recommendations with a panel of stakeholders (teachers, school administrators, parents). This motivated them to produce high-quality work, to rehearse, and to do their homework. Yes, it’s one thing to work for a grade—but try having students work for change, work to impress, convince, persuade a roomful of adults. It’s a whole other matter.

Provide Authentic Feedback

To improve, students require authentic feedback, similar to what adults receive on the job. They need to know what works and where they need to improve their performance the next time around. The University of Connecticut has produced a free template for guiding feedback on these type of projects. After the completion of a project, I would conference with students and ask them several questions: how did you think the project went? What are you most proud of? What would you change? What was most challenging during the process and how can you overcome those obstacles next time? Did the project have the kind of impact that you hoped? Why or why not? These questions get students to focus on the process—not on something they did wrong per se, but the process itself and how it can be improved.

Projects excite and inspire students. Planned correctly, they can cover many academic skills and subjects in a truly engaging, meaningful manner. Start by providing students with some choices in the types of projects and topics they will work on, help them formulate a plan, offer training opportunities, tie that plan to presenting work to an authentic audience, and provide realistic feedback that helps them grow. Then, step back and watch the magic happen.


Steve Haberlin is a graduate assistant and Ph.D. student at the University of South Florida and an educator with 10 years of experience.