three students talking in library

The public products students create to demonstrate mastery of learning need to be well-planned and explained clearly at the start of a project.

The longer I work in supporting teachers and students in Project Based Learning, the more convinced I become of the importance of ensuring this, because it really improves the quality of student work.

The PBLWorks Project Planner follows researched-informed best practices in instructional planning and design. Many educators might recognize it as a PBL version of Backward Planning that shares many similarities to the work of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in Understanding by Design

Understanding by Design asks teachers to plan in three stages. In stage 1, teachers plan for the learning goals or outcomes of the project by asking themselves, What will students know and be able to do at the end of the unit? In stage 2 teachers determine evidence of learning by asking the question, How will students show mastery of the goals/outcomes identified in Stage 1? Stage 3 is planning how students will master the content - it’s where the learning experiences and activities are identified.

This process is called backwards planning because you start at the end result (What should students know and be able to do at the end of this unit?), and then plan backwards from there to the beginning of the unit. Traditionally, many teachers (myself included when I first began teaching!) started planning from the beginning of the unit with the learning activities, and then created the summative assessment of learning at the end based on the learning activities done throughout the unit.

Generally, most of the educators I work with are able to complete project planning around learning goals fairly easily by using their state or district standards. (Writing the driving question for the project can be challenging. See this blog for more on how to write a DQ).

Figuring out the public product (Stage 2 - with the public product being the summative assessment in UbD language) can be tricky: Should all students produce the same thing? Or should students have some choice in what they produce? For teachers who are just starting out in PBL, the project may have products that are pre-designed by the teacher. Starting out this way is an easier entry point for those who are new to PBL. As students and teachers become more used to learning in a PBL classroom, the product could be co-defined by students and teachers. 

How do you make sure the project’s public product is high-quality? Here are five suggestions.

1.    Be clear about what your learning goals are (key content and success skills), and how those learning goals are demonstrated in the product. If you can’t clearly describe what DONE looks like, your students will have a really hard time meeting the project expectations. Not all products have to look the same, but they should all meet an expected set of criteria that students know and understand from the very beginning of a project. It's a good idea to draw the criteria directly from standards or curriculum guides. When planning the product, make sure  it's designed in a way that requires students to demonstrate they have met your learning goals. Also consider whether you need more than one product to assess all your major learning goals. For example, you may want to require an individual written product along with a team-created presentation.

2.    Use rubrics, not checklists. While checklists are great for to-do lists, they don’t help students with determining quality. (Something to keep in mind: your rubric might really be a checklist if it has a lot of “must include at least 3 ____”. That’s measuring quantity, not quality or level of proficiency, as a rubric should.) Check out this blog by my fellow PBLWorks National Faculty member Angela Marzilli - she has some great tips about writing rubrics!

3.    Make the public product yourself as part of your planning process. Use your rubric as you complete your example product, and ask yourself if the rubric fosters rigor and quality. In other words, what would the bare minimum look like if the "at standard" criteria were followed? Would it still require kids to show mastery of the learning goals?

4.    During the project launch, ask the students to use the rubric to evaluate an exemplar product. The example product could be the one you created, examples you find from professionals or outside sources, or pieces of student work (if you’ve done the project before and saved some samples).

5.    Use project milestones (part of our PBLWorks Project Planner) to help support student inquiry and feedback cycles. At some (or many!) of these milestones, use the rubrics you’ve created to help students grow in their learning and guide the creation of their public product as a part of the learning process. Having students measure their progress along the way with the rubric (or parts of the rubric as formative checks on their learning), will help to ensure that they are engaged in Project Based Learning and aren’t just “doing a project”.

In short, it’s about alignment between learning goals, the driving question, and the public product.

The alignment has to be clear and understood by students at the very beginning of a project; it can’t be something that is decided week five of a six-week project. It’s just not fair to kids, and you likely won’t get consistently high-quality student work for the public products. When you have this alignment and expectations, the quality of both the process and products are much more likely to live up to the expectations and aspirations that you had for your project when you first began planning!

Kiffany Lychock, National Faculty – West
As the Director of Educational Innovation for the Boulder Valley School District, Kiffany supports the implementation of Innovative Teaching and Learning Practices and Innovative Learning Environments. She is a passionate advocate for Project Based Learning, equity, and building strong school climates and cultures. Her past educational experiences include high school classroom teacher, instructional coach, ed tech specialist, and Director of Professional Development.