Characteristics of Well-Designed Project-Based Units

There are many kinds of projects implemented in classrooms. Effective projects balance the level of student control with teacher-planned structure that guides and focuses student work. The characteristics below help define effective project-based units.

Students are at the center of the learning process.
Well designed project-based units engage students in open-ended, authentic tasks. Compelling project tasks empower students to make decisions and apply their interests and passions to culminating products and performances. Students learn through inquiry and have some control over decisions about how they complete project tasks. The teacher takes on the role of a facilitator or coach. Students often work in collaborative groups, assuming roles that make best use of their individual talents.

Projects focus on important learning objectives that are aligned with standards.
Good projects are developed around core curricular concepts that address national or local standards. The project has clear objectives that align with standards and focus on what students should know as a result of their learning. With a focus on objectives, the teacher defines appropriate demonstrations of learning in an assessment plan and organizes learning activities and instruction. Project work culminates in student products and performance tasks such as persuasive presentations and informational newsletters that demonstrate understanding of content standards and learning objectives.

Projects are driven by Curriculum-Framing Questions.
Questions keep projects focused on important learning. Students are introduced to a project with questions that pose big and enduring ideas that cross many disciplines. They are challenged to dig deeper with subject-specific content questions that focus on standards and objectives. There are three types of Curriculum-Framing Questions: Essential, Unit, and Content Questions. Essential Questions are broad and open-ended questions that address big ideas and enduring concepts. They often cross disciplines and help students see how subjects are related. Unit Questions are tied directly to the project and support investigation into the Essential Question. Unit Questions help demonstrate how well students understand the core concepts of the project. Content Questions are more fact-based and align to identified standards and objectives.

Projects involve on-going and multiple types of assessment.
Clear expectations are defined at the beginning of a project and are revisited with multiple checks for understanding using varied assessment methods. Students have models and guidelines for high quality work and know what is expected of them from the beginning of the project. Opportunities for reflection, feedback, and adjustment are embedded in the project.

The project has real-world connections.
Projects are relevant to students’ lives and may involve community or outside experts who provide a context for learning. Students may present their learning to an authentic audience, connect with community resources, tap into experts in the field of study, or communicate through technology.

Students demonstrate knowledge through a product or performance.
Projects typically culminate with students demonstrating their learning through presentations, written documents, constructed displays, proposals, or even simulated events such as a mock trial. These final products allow for student expression and ownership of learning.

Technology supports and enhances student learning.
Students have access to different types of technology, which are used to support the development of thinking skills, content expertise, and creation of final products. With the help of technology, students have more control over final results and an opportunity to personalize products. Students can reach beyond the walls of the classroom by collaborating with distant classes through email and self-made Web sites, or presenting their learning through multimedia.

Thinking skills are integral to project work.
Project work supports the development of both metacognitive and cognitive thinking skills such as collaboration, self-monitoring, analysis of data, and evaluation of information. Throughout the project, Curriculum-Framing Questions challenge students to think and make connections to concepts that matter in the real world.

Instructional strategies are varied and support multiple learning styles. Instructional strategies create a richer learning environment and promote higher- order thinking. A range of instructional strategies ensures that the curricular material is accessible to all students and provides opportunities for every student to succeed. Instruction may include the use of different cooperative grouping strategies, graphic organizers, and teacher and peer feedback.