Posted by: darcymullin | June 13, 2011

Project Based Learning – what did I learn?

This year I have really been focused on Project Based Learning in my Grade 4/5 class.  It has been a year of trial and error.  I have really been focused on stepping away and trying not to be the focal point of the class and get out-of-the-way of learning.  Upon reflection, it has been a really great year.  Here is a short summary of what I learned.

Students Still Need Structure

It may be a function of age – I teach Gr. 4/5 and they need structure.  John Hattie has spent more time studying learning than just about anyone and he argues that effective feedback MUST answer the following questions:

1.Where am I going? (What are the goals or Intended Learning?)
2.How am I going to get there? (What progress is being made toward the goal?)
3.Where to next? (What activities need to be undertaken to make better progress?)

I have found this to be true with PBL as well.  Without targets, the students, particularly younger ones can get lost reams of information available to them.

Students Are Easy to Engage

When giving a topic that is meaningful (to them) and students see the route to success, kids will work hard and be on task.  Why?  Because people want to be successful, students don’t wake up and say, “I’m going to suck today!”.  When they don’t have the tools, school can suck, but when they do school can be empowering.

Students Become Active in their Learning

When given clear targets and criteria, they can and will monitor their own learning and better yet, can provide feedback to their peers.  Which takes me to my next point:

I Have More Time

More time to facilitate, work with struggling learners, ask questions and facilitate learning.  Often kids were engaged and working together to the point that I was not needed.  This gave me the gift of time.  I could ask probing questions, push kids thinking act as facilitator. 

 Marks Don’t Matter

I made it all the way to June before I had a student ask me “is this an A?”.   The only reason it came up was because I brought it up (stoopid me).  Kids get excited about learning when it’s accessible to them and they will work hard because they want to.

They Learned – did they ever!

At the end of the year, I gave all the students a copy of the feedback I had given them on their summative assessments for the year.  I gave them a week to take any of the feedback and improve their work.  I figured if they have continued to learn about some of the topics throughout the year, they should have a chance to show me.  After all, I want their best work.  What amazed me was how much they remembered and how silly some of their errors seemed now and how quickly they were able to show me what they knew.  They remembered the projects better than I did.

I Have a Long Way to Go

While I couldn’t be happier with the way the year turned out, I realize that I can still do a better job.  I know learning is a process and next year I will apply what I learned and try to make it better, more accessible to the students.



  1. Congratulations Darcy. I agree when you say “students need structure” – absolutely. Out of curiosity, how did the students generate a topic – given the age group etc. How much autonomy were they given?
    It is so inspiring to hear how students truly do care about their learning, given the opportunity to do so!
    Congratulations again!

    • Hi Johnny, at this age, the topics were generated by me. At the end of the year I tried a project based solely on their interests within the realm of natural resources and it went nowhere. Not enough structure. Age had a role, at 9-10, they don’t have the reasoning skills, or for some literacy skills to navigate all the information at their disposal. Next year, I will spend time up front teaching the kids how to search on the Web. One of the other learnings I should have added.

      Thanks for the comments.

  2. “I gave all the students a copy of the feedback I had given them on their summative assessments for the year. I gave them a week to take any of the feedback and improve their work.” Best part of this great article and one that any teacher, regardless of their style can take away. If you need to give a mark at the end of the year why must it be an average or total of how a student was managing at each point along the way. If a student struggled at some point with concepts, work habits, presentation, what have you, but has progressed beyond the earlier struggles should s/he not be assessed at where s/he is at the end of the year? What is the value in “punishing” a student for problems that have since been overcome?

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment Shauna. A couple of years ago I came to the same conclusion. I knew kids had learned throughout the year, so why not give them a chance to show it. Actually, that’s how the marks thing came up. I told the kids if they could show me they learned, then I would go back in and change their report card marks from term 1 or term 2. That’s when one of the kids asked me what they needed to do for an A. I wish I hadn’t said anything…at least the student asked me personally and not in front of the class, so the idea didn’t really take. Funny, before that I don’t even think they knew the work they were completing was a major summative assessment.

  3. […] Project Based Learning – what did I learn? ( […]

  4. Good stuff there Darcy, you can teach my kids anytime. Except the French stuff.

  5. Darcy, thank you for this great reflection, I teach grades 3/4 and love PBL ideas, but worry a lot about structure too. I am hoping to set up something that is student driven but teacher guided. Good to know I am not alone 🙂

  6. […] Project Based Learning – what did I learn? ( […]

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