student sitting around a desk

One of the most common features of any PBL project is group work. Even if the product is individual, there should always be some form of group work within the project to give students the ability to receive critique and revision, to share resources and think deeper about what they’re learning, and to practice and develop the 21st century skill of collaboration. Not only should they be able to work as a group during the project, they should also find time to work as a group but independent and absent any direct instruction by the teacher. This can be a daunting challenge for even experienced classroom practitioners as they may not know how to scaffold a gradual release for their students or may have concerns about specific students in their class being able to work without derailing an entire group.

One of the easiest ways to structure work is to provide roles for students during the project. There are many different ways to construct these roles, so before you launch your project you may want to consider which best describes your project design:

  1. Do you want your students to complete tasks based on static, unchanging roles?
  2. Do they need the ability to be more dynamic day to day with their roles, or think of roles as task-based?

Whichever way you structure roles in the context of your project, they generally fall in one of these two categories, and each has specific advantages/disadvantages:

Static Roles

In this system, students always have the same job or role, so there is very little chance for misunderstanding or confusion even if the student happens to be absent for a day or two or miss the initial phases of the project. Static roles are particularly useful in longer, more investigative projects or for short group discussions where you want these discussions to be carried on in a certain way. For example, a science teacher I work with always displays the same group roles for every lab on the board and then mixes them up by divvying out cards playing cards where each suit corresponds to a specific role. These roles include an explainer, a recorder, the timekeeper, and the materials manager. This approach provides a strongly defined foundation for lab work. This system forms a foundation for the culture of her classroom and after the first few attempts her students are well aware of what the expectations are for lab and group tasks once the playing cards come out. As a result, there is very little wandering or off task behavior during her projects.

The danger with static roles is they must be well thought out and must have some sort of job during the entire part of the project. For example, if you were doing a project that required video recording, and you had a student whose role was to be the camera person, what do they do after the project has been recorded and moved onto the editing phase? In a situation like this, more dynamic, task-based roles may be more appropriate.

Dynamic Roles

With this model, groups start off each work period by filling out a task list and assigning specific jobs to each person. A teacher can ask for this task list at any time in order to learn exactly who is doing what in each group. At the end of each work period, students sign off that their task has either been completed, or they write down the next step that they need to complete in order to finish the assignment the next time they work on it. In this model students will take on multiple roles in each project depending on what has to be done during a given work period. It also gives students a chance to experience different roles and practice different skills throughout the project.

An added bonus to this approach is the paper trail that is left behind. Task lists are very helpful in providing information for the teacher as to the effectiveness of the group over a long period of time or for students when they reflect on the project process at the end.

The danger with dynamic groups is that it is the responsibility of the students to divide the work up evenly, and sometimes they may need more coaching and guidance for this to happen before it becomes automatic. Also, since each group is free to find their own path to the end product, this form of role-creation can result in a chaotic classroom.

Hybrid Approach

If neither of the above seems like the right fit, don’t worry, there is also a third option that combines aspects of the other two. Some students will be given static roles that do not change, while others will be given dynamic roles where their job or responsibilities change throughout the course of the project. This helps support learners who excel or need an additional challenge while scaffolding for learners who need the more consistent checks that are provided by dynamic grouping.

For example, I have my students complete a constitution project where they run their own mock campaign for president, where certain students take on a management role. One student actually takes on the role of party chairperson and essentially keeps the rest of the class on task and working by checking in and providing coaching. This student keeps their role the entire time while other students move between roles based on the goals of the project. This system works well in the context of the project, but it is important to think about the best way of introducing this model to the class so that those with static roles aren’t seen as superior.     

If you’re not sure what approach to roles is best for your project, consider these questions before you launch.

  • What are the different phases of your project?
  • In order for your students to complete your project, what kinds of things will they all need to do?
  • What roles or responsibilities could best encapsulate the steps?
  • Is one of these roles more key, more crucial to completion of the project than the others? (It may be helpful to give groups a heads-up about this, in case someone is interested in taking more of a leadership role while others would like to just simply be a part of the group work)
  • What 21st century skills will each role require?
  • Would a tool for reflection help your students?
James Fester, Lead National Faculty - North
James is Lead National Faculty at PBLWorks. He delivers professional development services to teachers and leaders across the country.