Raising the Bar for Student Work in PBL: 3 Tips and Tools to Get Started

Many of my early projects followed a repetitive and unfulfilling path. The project would begin with a bang and generally included lots of excitement and commitment. But, by the end of the journey, the momentum had waned and only a whimper of enthusiasm remained. This was most evident when I reviewed the major products that students produced and presented. Much of the student work had potential, but rarely did it reach the levels I had envisioned. I felt pretty exhausted by this cycle, and it made me wonder:

  • How can I maintain commitment toward high-quality work with students throughout the entire project?
  • How can I build structures and develop systems to ensure projects don’t end with disappointment? 

After having enough of this repeating scenario, I discovered a few approaches and developed a few tools that increased the quality of student work while shifting the culture of my classroom. 


3 Tips to Raise the Bar for Student Work in PBL:


Tip #1: Focus on Wet Clay Feedback

When providing feedback on student work, one rule rings true: do it early and often. This approach not only results in better work, but it also fosters student motivation and a growth mindset. Nothing can drain a student’s drive more than being asked to make major revisions after they’ve already committed an extensive amount of time toward their product.


The bottom line is that students need early opportunities to reflect upon their progress and establish revisions for growth. When feedback is provided when the clay is still wet, the work can take shape much easier than breaking the mold and starting over.


Free Tool: Reflection & Revision Template for Students

Use this tool to support reflection and a growth mindset as students revise and refine their products.


Tip #2: Critique the Critique

I love using peer critique for a variety of reasons. It can build a culture of high quality work in the classroom, and it truly warms my heart to see students mutually invest in each other. In a classroom that embraces peer critique, students are obligated and empowered to help everyone succeed. But, with that empowerment comes accountability. If valuable class time is being used for peer critique, the quality of that feedback must also be up for review. 


My first few attempts at peer critique were a complete waste of time. I tried using a variety of critique strategies, thinking that those opportunities for peer feedback would improve the work and make my job more efficient when my turn came. I could not have been more wrong. Most of the feedback was general and did little to push the work forward. After a few disappointing rounds only seeing phrases like “great job” and “looks good to me,” I decided to jump off the treadmill of half-hearted peer critique and offer support. 


This support started with students reviewing and evaluating low, medium, and high-quality models of student feedback. Then, each class collaboratively created a “Critique Do’s & Don’ts” chart to offer visual reminders during peer critique sessions. This investment in time to recalibrate their understanding around peer critique paid off as students became much more specific and intentional about what they were saying and writing to each other.


Oh, and one more thing… 

Armed with this new understanding, be ready for students to call you out on your critique pitfalls. Mine wasted no time with reminding me of all the times I simply wrote, “excellent” on their papers, and they had the evidence to prove it. Accountability works both ways.


Free Tool: Peer Critique Template for Students

Use this tool to support students with providing high quality peer critique that goes beyond just general comments.


Tip #3: Provide Prep for Presentations & Embrace “The Cringe”

Even if students create high-quality products for their projects, the overall impact of the work can fall flat if it isn’t presented well to their audience. Presentation day in my class used to be a scattering of unpredictability. Some students and teams would arrive well-prepared while others basically “winged it” until they eventually ran out of things to say. My approach to presentations favored those that already had presentation skills while offering little support for those who were still learning how to effectively communicate their learning. 


Exhausted and frustrated from lackluster presentation days, I decided to develop a tool (see below) that would help my students prepare for the major components of their presentation while providing chances to practice their communication skills in advance. As a former football coach, I’ve always been a fan of using “game film” to review and assess progress, so I included a section in the tool that required students to link practice presentation videos and a self-assessment of their performance. While students were initially a little apprehensive about that section, their reflections confirmed that they recognized how helpful it was. To quote one of my former students, “It can feel cringey to watch yourself on video, but I’d cringe at myself now than have my audience cringe at me later.” That comment eventually turned into our class mantra around presentation prep: Embrace the Cringe!


Free Tool: Presentation Prepper Template for Students

Use this tool to support students with planning for dynamic and high quality presentations.


The Final Word

High-quality student work shouldn’t happen by chance; it should happen by design. With that in mind, consider how you redesign your project process as you seek to raise the bar for student work in PBL.

About the author: Eric White is a passionate educator who, above all else, is devoted to student and teacher empowerment. Eric currently provides PBL professional development and coaching for school districts on a full-time basis. He previously served as a PBL Instructional Coach and Lead Teacher of Project-Based Learning at the secondary level. Eric has deep experience with PBL and has led multiple school-within-a-school PBL programs in Georgia and South Carolina. The programs have received recognition that includes being highlighted by Edutopia in their “Schools That Work” series for Project-Based Learning accomplishments.


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