a closeup of overhead projector in dark room

The guest lecturer came in… and we were bored to tears. 

This was the scene in my U.S. History class. What I thought was going to be a riveting lecture on the post-Civil War Reconstruction era nearly put me to sleep, along with my students. It also went way off of what our project focus was… which was reparations and colonization. 

How did I let this happen? 

In my new-teacher zeal to be as authentic as possible, I thought it would be good to bring in a local professor for a lecture. (I realize now that it would have been more authentic to have someone from a historical society come in, or even for students to visit buildings still in existence that were built by slaves.) In my failed attempt to be “real world,” we did not get the full impact of what a guest expert can bring to a project. This taught me that while it can be very useful to bring in outside guests to sustain the inquiry in projects, if the experience is unmanaged and poorly planned it can lead to a disaster.  As teachers, we do not have ANY time to waste, and we certainly want to maintain good community relationships by not wasting the time of guests!

Here are a few tips to get the most out of your expert classroom visit: 

Communicate ahead of time about how to speak to the audience

  • Communicate with your guest about who they will be speaking to. Many industry professionals and college professors are used to delivering PowerPoint presentations to adults and can totally miss the mark with younger students.
  • Explain to them that you have limited time and they will need to focus on the items most germane to your project. I recommend giving them your rubric, project information sheet, or even a list of topics you would like for them to cover.
  • I would even consider giving presenters a facilitation “application,” if you will, where you ask them beforehand to send you an agenda of their presentation. This way you as the teacher can give some suggestions on how to break up the time, with student discussions or hands-on activities. 

Encourage hands-on activities

  • Presentations are more engaging when guests bring something they can go over and leave with students—a handout, a flyer, a map, a blueprint—or when they do an actual activity.
  • Before and as experts are presenting, students should generate questions for the presenter. You could even scaffold this by giving students a Depth of Knowledge or Blooms Taxonomy Question Starter chart to help.
  • Right after the presentation is a perfect opportunity to have students refer back to their “Need to Know” list of questions. What can we cross off our list after this presentation? What new questions do we have?  

Fold them into the project

  • Since Gold Standard PBL includes a public product, guests should not be relegated to just making presentations. Have experts judge final projects; hearing from someone actually in the field can be eye-opening for students!
  • Before your project begins, think about who uses this information or does this kind of work in real life. Start researching local groups and organizations that may be interested in attending the final presentation. For example, for the PBL Works “Bridge the Gap” project, it may be useful to ask local psychologists, or school counselors to come in and view student survival guides based on their research of adolescent psychology.
  • Arrange for guests to hold small group conferences with teams, where they can provide critique to help with revision.
  • If they can’t be there in person, ask experts to pre-record their segment and turn it into a station in the classroom. 

Arm them with support

  • Experts should receive the project information sheet and any rubrics you plan to use.
  • Don’t abandon guests as they are working with your students, stay nearby if facilitation is needed and to help clear up any misunderstandings. 

I learned my lesson from the project I mentioned earlier. In a more recent project, I had actual lawyers come in and coach students on cross examination strategies for a mock trial. They returned for the final trial and were blown away by how students improved from the coaching in their execution of the final product. 

Using local experts is a surefire way to prompt inquiry with students. Working with experts makes learning “real” and inspires students to think about their project more deeply. Guests may cause students to question what they have discovered so far, often digging deeper into an aspect of the presentation that they feel enriches their work. Managing guests’ interactions with your students through planning and support will ensure that they add significant value to your students’ projects.