How To Make Project-Based Learning Easier For You And Your Students

Project-based learning was introduced in schools in the 1980s. Despite its existence for over 40 years and its reputation as one of the most effective learning methods, its widespread adoption has been limited. The reasons for this vary: some schools, initially eager to implement it, find it overly complex and require more time and resources than they can afford. Others attempt it but struggle as both teachers and students face unexpected challenges. Traditionally, a shift back to the conventional question-and-answer model of education was the fallback. However, the rise of AI technologies, including tools like ChatGPT that can effortlessly provide answers to direct questions, challenges this old paradigm. AI’s transformative impact on education necessitates a reassessment and redesign of teaching methods. Project-based learning, therefore, stands out as a relevant and promising approach. The critical question now is: how can we simplify the adoption of project-based learning for teachers and students alike?

PBL Pain Points

Research has shown that the PBL pain points can be divided into three categories: content, instruction and skills. In terms of content, in order to be successful in a PBL environment, students need to have sufficient knowledge of the content and specific skills to explore information. Forced to take on new responsibilities for their learning that they have never had before, learning can prove particularly difficult for learners when it comes to applying metacognitive strategies. PBL often leaves students on their own to explore and figure out problems with minimal guidance from instructors. Evidence has shown that PBL presents a challenge to learners as the introduction of vague problems may generate a heavy load on students’ working memory due to their lack of proper schemas to integrate new information with their prior knowledge. Furthermore, this means that students need to be aware of what knowledge gaps they have in order to understand what information they need to learn. 

In terms of instruction, the main challenges for teachers are similar to those faced by students and relate to problems adapting to new teaching methods and facilitation of group work. Teachers are forced to re-examine their pedagogical views as the ideology behind PBL conflicts with deep seated teacher beliefs. Many teachers believe that PBL lacks in breadth of information and that they were unable to cover as much material as a traditional lecture-based style. They are also not always provided with clear and specific guidelines on how scaffolding can be used to achieve successful learning. If success is not immediate, it is common for teachers to give up on PBL and return to a teaching style they are familiar and comfortable with. 

A major setback to successful implementation of PBL in the classroom is a lack of student skills needed to successfully complete a PBL unit. Students are not prepared to be self-directed learners. Many students don’t have the basic skills required to take control of the learning process and engage in the inquiry process that is required in PBL. Basic research proves to be a challenge to many students because they are unsure of where to find information and how to determine if the information is valid. Group work is one of the most significant challenges faced by learners undertaking PBL. Free riding by group members, unequal division of labor and some students’ poor attendance leads to resentment between students when teachers are not providing a framework for ensuring equal contribution from students. Furthermore, a lack of experience and understanding of the value of collaborative work, are important factors impeding successful collaboration, which are mostly attributed to lack of prior training.

The Most Challenging Parts Of PBL

The process of project-based learning starts when students either get a driving question they need to investigate from their teacher or when they come up with one as a result of an interest that they develop while learning about a specific topic or encountering a phenomena. The next step could either involve asking lots of good questions or conducting research about their topic of investigation. This is where students can stumble because they just have no clue how to do research that aligns with their project needs or because they lack metacognitive strategies to come up with the right set of questions. 

Most of the problems investigated in a project-based learning scenario are interdisciplinary. We rarely encounter real problems that relate to one discipline. So, when students are trying to figure out what is absolutely necessary for them to investigate in order to answer that driving question, identifying all the disciplines that relate to their problem could be quite challenging. 

As mentioned earlier, research can make or break how successful a project can end up being. Students need to know how to conduct research on the internet, find out what is a valid source, which resources can be relied on and which ones have an agenda they try to promote. Once they have a few good sources, they need the capacity to navigate ambiguity, triangulate knowledge, question the established wisdom of our time, not just reproduce it.  All these can be challenging tasks that can discourage students from the get go.

The Project Topic Advisor

These challenges became much easier for students to handle by using a tool like OpenAI’s ChatGPT. However, the secret sauce of getting the right type of help is in the prompt that students provide to the chatbot. Prompts that fail to cover all project requirements may not lead to the correct outcome. That is why the launch of OpenAI’s GPTs is such a game changing development that allows creating custom ChatGPTs geared towards a specific purpose and that are called GPTs.

The Project Topic Advisor provides clarity about the question they need to solve, the topics they need to investigate to solve it and which resources they can rely on to research it. Students can immediately embark on executing the project, feeling confident that they are being led in the right direction to solve the driving question. That can be a great relief for students because it can save them many false attempts to find the correct path to accomplish their goal.    

Other AI Tools That Can Help

After figuring out the driving question, the topics that need to be investigated and the right resources to study, students are on their way to form teams, divide the work amongst team members and make a plan for reaching their goal. Throughout this entire process, students collaborate by conducting regular team meetings to follow up on each other’s work and making sure that all their efforts lead towards the project goal they set for themselves. 

One of the most important things in a team project is the ability to manage tasks, prioritize them and follow up on task completion. In the past, well managed teams used the calendar to schedule the tasks of the entire project, but many times got confused how to prioritize tasks and synchronize tasks for all team members. AI builds the entire schedule for the team by synchronizing tasks based on task priorities and it makes following up on task completion much easier. One such AI powered application is Motion, which focuses on project management, helping students keep track of all the tasks they still have to complete. By tweaking each task priority, the student will be telling the AI engine when it should land on the calendar and how to place the other tasks around it.

Up until the advent of AI, student meeting conversations were usually lost. AI changed all that and there are AI transcription apps that can turn voice into text, letting students browse it later. This can help students be more present in their meetings and, at the same time, be able to thoroughly analyze the transcription later. One such transcription app is Fireflies, which can transcribe all student meetings, tracking the conversation topics along the way. It has its own bot called Fred that can handle summarizing the meeting’s contents, generating text, and searching through the history to meet students’ queries.

Once students finish their project, they can further use AI to create a presentation based on their final essay. Many AI tools can create a presentation based only on a topic. Of course, that will not require student work at all. That is not what I am recommending here. Students can use to input their text, choose the total number of slides, and let do the heavy lifting of transforming the text into visually appealing slides. Once students have a professionally crafted presentation, they can then use a different AI tool to coach them to present their presentation in front of the class. PowerPoint Speaker Coach feature is specifically designed to evaluate various aspects of a presentation, including pacing, pitch, use of filler words, and other common speaking habits. It allows students to practice in private, and the feedback provided can help identify areas for improvement.

All these tools can make teachers’ and students’ lives much easier. Making the shift to project-based learning can become much less threatening and can guarantee that students are engaged in a student-centered deep learning that can keep them engaged throughout the duration of the project.