Thursday, 9 October 2014

Adding rigour to project-based learning

Giving constructive critiques is a significant way to ensure PBL projects are academically rigorous - but what is a critique, and how can you teach students to give one? Find out here.

Of the 8 essential elements of project-based learning, it’s 'reflection and review' that really adds rigour to the process. Students need plenty of structured opportunities throughout the project to give and receive feedback about the quality of their work-in-progress in order to make their final product the best it can be.

'Reflection and review' is really made up of two parts – multiple drafting and constructive critiques. Both components are inextricably interlinked. The student creates a draft, the teacher and peers provide a critique; the student then uses that constructive criticism to redraft, and the process continues over and over...

How many drafts your students complete depends on your time-frame. It’s important you schedule enough time when designing your project. At Matthew Moss High School, teachers timetable eight weeks for the cycle of drafting, critique and redrafting of their family tree project, and the result is some pretty spectacular work, as you can see…

Top, middle, bottom © Matthew Moss High School

Personalising assessment through multiple drafts

The Innovation Unit points out how valuable multiple drafting is for personalising assessment, "because they provide you with the means to assess, not only a student’s final product, but also the extent to which they have improved their work since the first draft."

Part of the assessment of the students’ final product should be how well they've used the feedback you and their peers have given to improve and refine it. This is especially beneficial for students with special educational needs and for students whose first language is not English. It’s also a valuable experience for the most able students, who might be less likely to accept criticism and may view it as a failure on their part. They need to see that accepting critiques is part of the process of improving themselves, and part of having a growth mindset.

Teaching students to give critiques

According to Monash University, a critique is not about being negative or derogatory, instead it's "a way of approaching other peoples' ideas - to question, to evaluate, to consider the accuracy and validity of ideas and information."

It’s a useful learning experience for students to critique each other’s work, rather than just handing it in to the teacher. It’s a good idea to schedule regular ‘critiquing sessions’, which will give pupils the chance to share their work and give feedback to others in a safe environment.

This will require students to be taught how to give a critique. Luckily, that’s not as intimidating as it sounds. The Innovation Unit and PBL expert Ron Berger give these three simple rules:
  1. Be kind – Realise that sharing work for critiques puts people in a vulnerable position. It’s easy to get carried away critiquing others’ work, but try and balance out criticisms with positives.
  2. Be specific – Describing something as ‘good’ doesn't cut it. Don’t be vague; pick out exactly what is good and why.
  3. Be helpful – A critique has to be more than saying what is strong or weak about a piece; it has to include how to go about improving the work.
One Edutopia blogger provides this worksheet which asks students to organise their critique comments according to each of these three rules. Definitely worth using, especially with beginners.

Modelling critiques

A good way to introduce critiquing is to critique a model piece of work as a class. That way, students will know the kinds of questions to ask themselves about a piece of work and the level of specificity they should be aiming for. 

Image: Frank Baron (The Guardian)
Help your class to understand what critiquing means by breaking it down into these simple two questions:
  • What is the product's purpose?
  • How well does it meet that purpose?

Other important questions to ask include:
  • What stands out about this piece?
  • What strengths do you see?
  • What suggestions would you offer for the next draft?

When evaluating a model piece of work, pick one relevant to the project you’re undertaking that demonstrates the standard you are expecting pupils to meet with their own products. If you don’t have any past students’ work, use a real-life product or piece. Even the professionals’ work can be improved!

Types of peer-assessment sessions

The Innovation Unit’s guide to PBL includes a list of four peer critique activities:

Gallery walk
Students display their drafts around the classroom. The class are then free to wander around the ‘gallery’ for around 20 minutes or so, making notes on post-its and sticking them to the drafts with positive points and suggestions for improvement. Probably better for more advanced critiquers, as students are pretty much left to their own devices here.

Dilemma protocol
Put students in groups of four. As them to share their draft and tell the others one thing they’re struggling with - their 'dilemma'. The rest of the group then discusses possible solutions. The important part of this approach is that the sharer stays silent for 6-7 minutes as the others converse, taking notes but not participating. After the time is up, the sharer rejoins the conversation to talk over suggestions they liked the sound of, taking the opportunity to ask for any clarification. This process is repeated until all group members have had the chance to pose a dilemma.

Workshop-style critique
Put students in groups of three and give them a list of questions about the product in hand. Students then take turns presenting their product to their group and discuss the questions as a way of improving their product. Each presentation plus feedback should last around 10-15 minutes.

Pair critique
Students work in pairs and spend 15-20 minutes really digging into a product and evaluating the work. The PBL guide suggests this type of critique session as a final critique before the product is turned in for final assessment.


For PBL newbies, as the Innovation Unit says, "it’s probably tempting to regard multiple draft [and] peer critique, as ‘advanced’ project methods – stuff to move on to once you’ve got the basics right... But these are the basics." Reflection and review is such a vital part of PBL. In fact, the process of multiple drafting and critiquing makes up a significant portion of that period between the entry event and the final presentation.

But it’s not the only important component of project-based learning. Picking the perfect final product is something you need to do right at the start of a project. You won’t be able to plan anything else until you know what your students are working towards. 

The next article in our PBL series will focus on choosing the best final product for your project and organising that all-important exhibition at the end. Watch this space!

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