a teacher helping a student in the classroom

Teachers may sometimes be tempted to compromise on rigor during the execution of a project.

Imagine: You spend time in the summer designing a great project. You made it authentic, planned an engaging entry event, aligned it to standards, and now are ready to start. 

Then….well, teacher reality sets in. 

Grades are due, students are absent, random assemblies pop up, inclement weather caused delays and wow...that beautiful project you planned is looking harder and harder to bring to life. Right before – or even after – you launch the project, you panic a little and decide it to scale it back, to make it seem more do-able and save time. Unfortunately, this often means you’re scaling back on the rigor.

At this critical juncture in the life of your project, one of several things can happen:

  1. The project becomes VERY narrow in focus. The learning goals are diminished as the teacher veers away from the original standards targeted and focuses only on less important standards. For example, if the important standards are around informational writing and citing evidence, a teacher may choose to focus the project topic, grading, and feedback only on paragraph structure and punctuation.

    This may appear to be easier and less risky for the teacher in the short run; after all, they may not want to risk the possibility of diminished test scores. However, the goal of our projects is to use PBL as the main course in teaching core content! 

  2. The project does not have a presentation. The public product is scrapped. Students simply turn in their project work for a grade. This is detrimental because it takes away the authenticity and accountability aspects of the product and makes students feel that PBL is meaningless. It also takes away some of (or a lot of!) the motivation to produce high-quality work.

  3. The rubric for project products is altered to only very basic requirements. Essentially, the rubric becomes a “checklist” and students can figure out exactly what they need to do in order to receive the grade they want, instead of thinking more deeply. 

Decreasing the rigor of projects may seem like a short-term fix and we may not realize this is happening.

It is critically important that we maintain high standards in our projects EVEN when we feel that we have run out of time to implement it effectively. 

This is very important from an equity perspective: Students of color are 3x less likely to receive on-grade-level work than their White counterparts. Too often, teachers may feel that continuing a project is “too much” for diverse learners and will “water down” requirements of the project. 

Here are some ways to maintain the rigor of projects for all students: 

  1. Have a content rubric. When planning a project, create a content rubric based on the standards targeted for the project. These can be as simple as “I can” statements. 

  2. Have students check the rubric frequently. Build in actual rubric checks daily, where teams need to read the rubric and determine what they know and need to know or what tasks they need to complete during project work time. 

  3. Embed assessment often. Traditional assessments like quizzes, essays, tests can still have a place in PBL. Use the data from those assessments to differentiate instruction for students during project work time. For example, if some students are struggling with identifying claims and evidence, and this is a skill they need for their final project, host a mini workshop on that topic for those students. 

  4. Get feedback from a peer. Midway through your project, have a colleague observe your student work products or the classroom. Ask for feedback as to whether students are meeting the standards of the project. 

  5. Don’t give up the presentations. Make them shorter, if you need to fit them onto a tighter calendar. Or make them easier to set up, for example by having an outside guest visit the classroom instead of having students go somewhere else to present.

Sometimes decreasing the rigor of a project can happen in very subtle ways.

As teachers we may begin to conflate differentiation with lowering the standards and that is NOT helpful for our students. Instead we must find a way to continue to hold students to high standards by providing appropriate scaffolds and support where necessary. 

Shayla Adams-Stafford, National Faculty
Shayla is an instructional coach in Washington D.C. and has served as a history and government teacher for the past nine years. Shayla is a National Board Certified Teacher and has been recognized by the White House for her achievements in Project Based Learning.