Project-Based Learning Strategies

Project-based learning strategies involve students in exploring authentic problems. Solving real-world problems motivates students. Thus, one of the primary benefits is increasing student interest and valuing of learning.1 Project-based learning strategies are similar to experiential learning strategies but differ in that the focus is on developing a product or artifact that serves as evidence of the learning process.  Project-based learning activities provide opportunities for students to develop materials that show evidence of their engagement with issues raised in the course and, more practically, that may be adapted for their own courses in the future.

When using project-based learning strategies, the primary role of the teacher is to facilitate student learning through guidance and feedback at the outset, during the project’s execution, and after its completion. In addition to receiving teacher support and feedback, typically students will also use a variety of resources such as course readings, independent research, and interaction with peers to complete their projects. Projects may vary in length but often span across several weeks. 

One consideration in implementing projects in your pedagogy class is whether students will complete them alone or in groups.  Collaborative projects afford a variety of benefits many of which are discussed under interactive instructional strategies, however, independent projects provide students with opportunities to develop and demonstrate one of the primary goals of higher education - for students to think for themselves.2 This section will describe how you can implement independent student projects in your pedagogy class including having your pedagogy students develop a syllabus, a lesson plan, a classroom assessment, a teaching philosophy, and a teaching portfolio.  A description of how to implement and assess each of these activities is described in the sections below. 

Syllabus Development

Developing a course syllabus gives students the opportunity to apply much of the knowledge and skills they have gained while in your pedagogy class. Students might also be asked to create a narrative explanation of the syllabus that justifies their choices.  The course syllabus is a reflection of pedagogy students’ knowledge and beliefs about teaching as well as their ability to translate this into a “road map” that will guide their course.  More specifically, the course syllabus conveys an instructor’s beliefs and knowledge about teaching in the following ways:

  • Through its language and policies, a course syllabus is an expression of an instructor’s teaching identity.
  • The assignments, policies, class procedures, and all other elements of the syllabus should reflect an instructor’s philosophy of teaching.
  • Readings, planned class activities, and assignments outlined on a syllabus provide evidence of an instructor’s organizational ability and creativity.

To implement this activity in your pedagogy course, provide your graduate pedagogy students with information about how to develop a syllabus. Graduate students have seen many syllabi, but this does not mean they intuitively understand how to construct a syllabus. The biggest challenge many beginning instructors face is covering too much content in a single course.

Begin your discussion about syllabus design by reminding graduate students about the important parts of a syllabus: contract, schedule, policies, procedures, assignments, responsibilities, and expectations and visit Developing Your Syllabus.3 Remind students that the syllabus must include student learning outcomes. The following list includes tips that you may provide graduate student instructors to develop a syllabus for their undergraduate course:

  • Every syllabus should include:
    • how to contact the instructor,
    • office hours and location,
    • statement on students with disabilities,
    • course policies and procedures
    • student responsibilities and expectations.
    • More suggestions
  • An engaging course description gets students excited about the course and sets the tone for an instructor’s classroom persona (see also Teaching Identity).
  • Allow room for changes. An instructor might include one or two open or undetermined days to allow the class to catch up, if necessary, or should disclose the “schedule is subject to change.” Exam dates and deadlines for assignments should remain fixed (see UT Austin exam schedule). Instructors should avoid mid-semester changes to the syllabus and must provide students the most current version of the course syllabus.
  • Review and state course policies clearly on the syllabus. For example, is attendance required? If so, what is the penalty for multiple unexcused absences? (excused absences are those negotiated in advance or legitimate emergencies such as a death in one’s immediate family) What about tardiness? How will late assignments be received and graded? Instructors may want to adopt more direct language about extenuating circumstances (e.g., “More than six absences may result in failing the class.” or “Late papers will only be accepted with prior approval or due to documented emergencies.”). Instructors should avoid policies and procedures that are overly punitive (e.g., “Late papers will not be accepted in any circumstances”) as they can be discouraging to students. Instead, adopt language that is positive and offers alternatives for extenuating circumstances.
  • The structure of the class and assignments should allow students to build up, or scaffold, more complex ideas that build upon each other toward understanding, application, and achievement.4
  • Consider dividing the course into 3-5 units with an assignment or assessment activity at the end of each unit.
  • Indicate topics or concepts for a given day or week, so that students can have an idea of the rationale for instruction. A list of readings and assignments should be avoided, since it can be vague.
  • When scheduling assignments, instructors should be attentive to their own schedules and other commitments to allow sufficient time to grade students’ work and provide feedback in a timely manner.
  • The syllabus should clearly specify how students will be evaluated in a course and the grading distribution (e.g., exams, papers, lab reports, etc.).
  • A syllabus that is concise and direct communicates to students their responsibilities and your expectations for learning and instruction in a transparent, inviting manner.

Determine how you will assess your pedagogy students’ syllabi and provide them with this information prior to engaging in the task. Criteria for evaluation and guidelines for feedback might include:

  • Is anything about the syllabus unclear or confusing?
  • Is all necessary information included?
  • Is the course description clear and engaging? What does it communicate about the course and about the instructor?
  • Does the flow of the course schedule follow a discernible logic?
  • Is the level of reading/instructional material appropriate to the course?
  • Are required instructional materials the best choices? Do they include multiple perspectives?
  • Are students required to do an appropriate amount of work for a class of this level?
  • Are course assessments described in the syllabus appropriate methods of measuring student mastery of course content or skills? Would different kinds of assessments be more appropriate?
  • Do students have different ways to demonstrate mastery of course content and will a variety of instructional methods be used?
  • Are procedures clearly explained? Do they allow for an appropriate amount of flexibility?
  • To what degree does the syllabus suggest opportunities for student involvement/active learning?
  • Does the syllabus indicate ways in which technology will be used in the course? If so, will that technology serve the course objectives?
  • Does the syllabus provide students with appropriate resources for further learning?

You may also consider encouraging peer feedback by having students present their syllabi to the class.

Lesson Plan Development

Ask students in your pedagogy class to develop a lesson plan to show evidence of their ability to align teaching methods to learning objectives, to organize material, to meet students’ needs, and to demonstrate their ability to engage students.

Lesson planning usually begins with a set of three to five student-centered objectives that may or may not be shared with students. These objectives may focus on mastering content (“At the end of this class period, I want my students to know/understand X”), changing affect (“At the end of this period I want my students to feel X”), or may be process oriented (“At the end of this period I want my students to know how to X”).

Other elements of the plan include:

  • Information about the lesson’s connection to previously covered material and how students will be informed of the general plan for the class session.
  • Content to be covered.
  • Activities/methods that will be employed to facilitate student learning.  Instructional methods and in-class activities should be geared toward accomplishing learning objectives. Lesson plans should also include opportunities for student participation and/or questioning and should allow for rich discussions that arise.
  • Resources and materials needed (handouts, PowerPoint presentation, multimedia to be used such as images and film clips)
  • Information about the approximate amount of time to be allotted to each activity or each section of a presentation.
  • Out of class work
  • Information about assessment of the learning objectives for the lesson.
  • A summary of the lesson
  • A discussion of how to approach any out-of-class assignments
  • A preview of the next lesson.

Instructors are also encouraged to devise a system that allows them to record their reflections upon aspects of the class plan that worked well or need revision.  The lesson plan and reflection should be archived for future use.

Students in a pedagogy class might share lesson plans with other members of the class as a way to help students learn from each other’s plans and benefit from peer feedback. Pedagogy instructors should also provide feedback that is geared toward improving teaching effectiveness. Students may be asked to revise their lesson plans based on feedback for inclusion in a course portfolio.  When developing a rubric to evaluate graduate students’ lesson plans consider including the following criteria:

  • Are the instructor’s goals and objectives clearly stated and appropriate for a single class period?
  • Does the plan include a review of previous course material and gauge students’ current level of understanding on the topic?
  • Does the plan include an overview of material to be covered?
  • Are planned instructional methods and student activities appropriate to achieve the instructional objectives? Might other instructional activities be more appropriate?
  • Is timing specified and is the timing realistic?
  • Is flexibility built into the plan?
  • Is the amount and level of material to be covered appropriate for the course?
  • Does the plan provide opportunities for student participation?
  • Does the plan identify appropriate methods for gauging student understanding?
Classroom Assessment Development

Give student instructors in your pedagogy class the opportunity to create various classroom assessments. This gives them practice developing ways to measure student learning and/or course effectiveness. Such assessments may include exams, quizzes, and writing assignments. When developing a classroom assessment, pedagogy students should keep several general considerations in mind:

  • A test or any assessment can itself be a learning exercise.  Likewise, having your students develop a classroom assessment will likely be a learning experience as well.
  • Although tests can motivate students, instructors should avoid a situation where students are motivated solely by the desire to succeed on exams, rather than by the goal of learning.6
  • The format and content of any assessment should be correlated with the kinds of learning the instructor wants to assess.
  • McMullen-Pastrick and Gleason remind us that part of what makes an assessment effective is the extent to which students have been prepared for it.6 They indicate that “the relative importance of the course content needs to be stated routinely." An instructor should consider what is essential course content and what concepts inform practice, and should provide students with this information.

To implement this activity in your pedagogy course, you will first want to introduce your students to strategies for developing good assessments. The Becoming a College Teacher assessment module provides an overview of how to construct various assessment and item types. Have your pedagogy students read this module or present information to them about how to construct assessments. 

After sharing information about assessment development, test your students’ skill at creating assessments. To help reinforce their learning in your course, consider having pedagogy students create an assessment that covers material in your pedagogy course. For example, students might create a quiz on one week’s readings or they might construct an essay assignment or research paper assignment that addresses material covered in your pedagogy course so far. Alternatively, you can have your pedagogy students develop an assessment for a class they hope to teach in the future. These documents can become the basis for a useful discussion on assessment. They can also serve as a useful review of course material and they can alert you to any misunderstandings.

The extent to which students have mastered the skills necessary to create an effective classroom assessment may be difficult to evaluate if this assessment is for a class that is not familiar to you, the pedagogy professor. Therefore, you might consider requiring a narrative statement alongside the assessment that explains why particular formats were used and why particular questions were asked.

To evaluate (and perhaps assign a grade to) a pedagogy student’s assessment, develop a set of criteria, or a rubric, to use as the basis for your evaluation. Examinations are the most common assessment forms across a variety of disciplines and therefore we have included here some useful criteria to employ in evaluating them:

  • Does the assessment address the instructor’s stated learning objectives for the course? Have all content areas been adequately covered?
  • Are instructions clear? Is the layout of the assessment directions and/or the assessment easy to follow?
  • Does the assessment employ a variety of formats to elicit different kinds of knowledge and skills? Do questions emphasize facts and information, or do they emphasize concepts and encourage higher-order thinking? When facts and information are tested, are these significant or trivial facts or information?
  • Does the assessment provide guidelines on how much time students should spend on each item? Is the time allotted for the test as a whole reasonable for the amount of material tested? (A good rule of thumb for multiple-choice assessments is to allot two minutes per item.)
  • Are items constructed to be of appropriate difficulty? Are there a range of items that would challenge advance learners but also measure basic knowledge or skills?
  • For multiple-choice questions:
  • Are any questions open to misinterpretation?
  • Does the stem clearly state the problem?
  • Are all distractors plausible?
  • Is there a clear correct answer or is there potential for more than one correct answer?
  • For essay or short-answer questions:
  • Are choices limited? (Cashin warns that it is almost impossible to create two or three essay questions of equal difficulty, which may penalize students who choose the more challenging question.7 Bean argues that when students are given a lot of choices, they can waste time getting started and then get thrown off by fears that they have made the wrong choice).8
  • Does each item ask students to address a well-defined question or problem, or are multiple questions or explanations supplied? Bean suggests that too many questions or discursive commentary can make students feel overwhelmed, and often tends to produce a series of disjoined answers rather than one unified essay or short answer.8
  • Does the question call for thesis-governed writing?

You can evaluate your students using the rubric you develop, but it may also be beneficial to give your pedagogy students practice in evaluation and grading by anonymously distributing the assessments and asking other students to critique and score  them. Once the assessments with student-assigned grades and comments are returned, this information can become the basis for a discussion about grading and how to provide useful feedback.

Teaching Philosophy Statement

Asking students to develop a teaching philosophy can be a valuable and important exercise in a pedagogy course because it encourages future and beginning instructors to reflect upon their own beliefs and practices and it can serve as the draft of a document that they may later include with job applications. If pedagogy students are asked early in the course to formulate an initial statement, they can be asked to revise that statement at the end of the course to demonstrate the ways in which course readings, discussions, and activities influence their thinking about teaching.

To formulate a statement of teaching philosophy, instructors must begin by examining their own beliefs.  One way to do this is by asking students to respond to prompts about teaching beliefs.  Another way to begin the reflection process is to ask students to recall outstanding and ineffective teachers they had. What was it about these teachers’ classes that did or did not help them learn?

After engaging students in some activities to uncover their beliefs about teaching and learning, provide your pedagogy students with some information about how to construct a teaching philosophy. There are a variety of suggested models for teaching philosophy statements. The University of Minnesota’s Center for Teaching and Learning provides a set of guidelines and a template for formulating a statement of teaching philosophy.9 They suggest instructors begin by asking themselves a series of questions about their conception of learning, their conception of teaching, their goals for students, the specific strategies they would consider employing to reach their goals (e.g., lecturing, group work, role playing, etc.), their ideas about mentoring and interacting with students, and how you assess student learning. They should also illustrate the answer to these questions with specific examples of how these things play out in your classroom. The final portion of the teaching philosophy should include a discussion of their professional growth and a plan for continued development.

In moving from generating ideas to crafting a statement, Montell recommends, first, that instructors think carefully about the context for which their statement is being created (if for a job dossier rather than simply for a course in pedagogy, for instance, they should research the specific requirements of each particular job and the place of teaching at that institution).10 She also emphasizes that any generalizations be supported by specific examples from teaching.  Further, statements should be short and to the point, well written, grounded in your discipline, demonstrate humility and respect for students, show that the instructor values research and finds ways of integrating teaching and research, and that they be authentic, showing something of who the instructor really is.

Lang suggests that instructors writing a statement of teaching philosophy “begin with the end” in terms of the skills or content that students will hopefully master by the end of his or her course.11 He also suggests that instructors differentiate their goals for different kinds of courses (e.g., general education courses versus small seminars catering to majors). It may also be helpful to share published teaching philosophy statements with your students. For example, the University of Minnesota Center for Teaching and Learning and Miller provide some sample teaching philosophies from various disciplines.9,12

After your pedagogy students have submitted their teaching philosophy statements provide them with feedback. This should include specific, written feedback on their statement; however, you may also provide them with feedback using an existing rubric. The Center for Research on Teaching and Learning at the University of Michigan and the University of Minnesota Center for Teaching and Learning offer rubrics that can be used for evaluating a statement of teaching philosophy.9,13

Teaching Portfolio

A pedagogy course may culminate in students’ creation of a teaching portfolio that can document the development of their reflection upon and mastery of the knowledge and skills required for college teaching. While useful in itself as a record of work and growth in a pedagogy course, this portfolio can also become the basis for a professional teaching portfolio, which is increasingly used by college and university hiring committees as well as promotion and tenure committees.

Researchers suggest including three types of materials in a teaching portfolio including:12,14,15

1.     Information from self including any of the following:

  • statement of teaching responsibilities
  • statement of teaching philosophy
  • discussion of teaching methods used
  • reflection upon teaching products included (e.g., a narrative discussion of the rationale behind a syllabus or teaching assessment, reflections upon teaching evaluations, etc.)
  • discussion of steps instructor has taken to evaluate and improve teaching
  • discussion of curricular transformations (i.e., how teaching has changed or developed over time)
  • discussion of work mentoring, advising, or supervising student theses or other student research, and publications related to teaching.

2.     Information from others including any of the following:

a.     student evaluations

b.     peer observations

c.     statements from colleagues who have observed out-of-class activities related to teaching such as curricular development or instructional research

d.     honors, awards, or other recognition of teaching

e.     invitations to speak on topics related to teaching

f.      video footage of teaching

g.     letters from former students.

3.     Teaching products including:

a.     course syllabi

b.     exams or other assessments

c.     assignments or other documents used in courses

d.     student work with instructors’ comments (instructors need to ascertain permission from students before including their work in a portfolio). 

These materials should be carefully selected, concise, and clearly organized. Encourage your pedagogy students to develop a table of contents to make the materials easy to peruse. Usually a reflective statement (broken into several paragraphs) precedes other documents, which are organized in some coherent fashion, often as separate appendices. To illustrate how others have organized their teaching portfolios, share published examples with your students (See examples of teaching portfolios – example 1; example 2; example 3).

Pedagogy students who have not yet had experience in the classroom will be limited in the kinds of materials they are able to include in a teaching portfolio, but much of the work produce in a pedagogy class can be included (with revisions where appropriate).  They can also include reflective narratives and evaluation data in the form of comments from peers and the course instructor. Materials from the course that might be part of a teaching portfolio include:

  • Statement of teaching philosophy. Instructor might ask students to write a version at the beginning of the class and at the end of the class, and then include a reflection on how and why their philosophy of teaching changed as a result of the class.
  • Syllabus, with narrative statement explaining rationale for syllabus elements as well as course goals and objective and other aspects of the course that might not be described in the syllabus.
  • Lesson plan (with reflective statement).
  • Course assessment (with reflective statement).
  • Examples of any other materials created (e.g., a role playing scenario, case study, or formal or informal writing assignment created for course).
  • Examples of pieces from a reading notebook, with commentary on personal views about instructional methods, learning theory, dealing with difficult students, or other material discussed in course readings.
  • A discussion of ways the pedagogy student intends to integrate technology in teaching.
  • Instructor and peer observations of micro-teaching presentation.

After your pedagogy students have developed their teaching portfolios, provide them with feedback. Through acknowledging that evaluating teaching portfolios is inherently subjective, offers the following requirements for using portfolios to evaluate teaching effectiveness (or, here, mastery of material in a pedagogy course):14

  • Accessibility: material should be easy to follow and easy to go through.
  • Relevance: Items included should be selected on the basis of whether they provide evidence of effective teaching (or of learning about teaching). Pedagogy instructors are advised to have a certain page limit for portfolios to ensure that students include the most relevant materials and also to ensure that the portfolio does not become unwieldy.
  • Standardization: To promote fairness in evaluating the portfolios of different students, instructors might consider requiring a standard set of items to be included in the portfolio.  You might also allow some flexibility.  Researchers remind those evaluating portfolios that there are many ways of being an effective teacher.14 Therefore it is important to allow for individuality and differences in the portfolios. Be especially attentive to disciplinary differences if students in the class come from different departments.

To evaluate portfolios, a rubric can be created with some of the following components:14

  • Course design
  • Teaching Methodology (innovativeness, appropriateness)
  • Content knowledge
  • Evidence of growth
  • Evidence of attention to giving useful feedback (to peers, students, etc.)
References: 

(1) Blumenfeld, P.C., Soloway, E., Marx, R.W., Krajcik, J.S., Guzdial, M., & Palincsar, A., (1991). Motivating project-based learning: Sustaining the doing, supporting the learning. Educational Psychologist, 26(3 & 4), 369-398.

(2) Percy, K. A. & Salter, F. W. (1976). Student and staff perceptions and "the pursuit of excellence" in British higher education. Higher Education, 5, 457--473.

(3) Grunert Obrien, J., Mills, B., & Cohen, M. (2008). The course syllabus: A Learning centered approach. (2nd Ed.) San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

(4) Filene, P. (2005). The joy of teaching: A practical guide for new college instructors. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

(5) Penn State. (2009). Lesson planning. Retrieved from http://www.personal.psu.edu/scs15/idweb/lessonplanning.htm

(6) McMullen- Pastrick, M. & Gleason, M. (1986). Examinations: Accentuating the positive. College Teaching, 34, 135-139.

(7) Cashin, W. (1987). Improving essay tests. IDEA Paper No. 17. Manhattan, KS: Kansas State University Center for Faculty Evaluation and Development.

(8) Bean, John C. (1996). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking and active learning in the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

(9) Center for Teaching and Learning, University of Minnesota. (n.d.) Writing Your Teaching Philosophy. Retrieved from http://www1.umn.edu/ohr/prod/groups/ohr/@pub/@ohr/documents/asset/ohr_78221.pdf

(10) Montell, G. (March 27, 2003). “How to Write a Statement of Teaching Philosophy.”  The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from , http://chronicle.com/article/How-to-Write-a-Statement-of/45133/

(11) Lang, J. M. (August 29, 2010) Four Steps to a Memorable Teaching Philosophy. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/5-Steps-to-a-Memorable/124199/

(12) Miller, J. (n.d.) Examples of Graduate Student Teaching Philosophy Statements. Writing Support Center, University of Western Ontario. Retrieved from www.uwo.ca/tsc/pdf/GradStudent_TPhil_examples.pdf

(13) Center for Research on Teaching and Learning, University of Michigan. (n.d.) The Teaching Philosophy/Teaching Statement. Retrieved from http://www.crlt.umich.edu/tstrategies/tstpts.php

(14) Seldin, P., Miller, J. E., and Seldin, C. (2010). The teaching portfolio: A practical guide to improved performance and promotion/tenure decisions. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

(15) Rodriguez-Farrar, H. (2006). The teaching portfolio: A handbook for faculty, teaching assistants, and teaching fellows. Providence, RI: The Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, Brown University. Retrieved from www.brown.edu/Administration/Sheridan_Center/docs/teach_port.pdf