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Engagement - 5 Ways To Avoid The "Valley of Death" in PBL

Any teacher who has had any experience with project-based learning knows that a huge aspect of engaging and coaching is keeping your students engaged throughout the entirety of a project. PBL practitioners also know this is no easy task, and one that many teachers, especially those new to PBL struggle with.

The flow of a project is a lot like the flow of an overnight backpacking trips. At the beginning, you're excited, the scenery is beautiful and interesting, you feel good, and the weariness and monotony that comes with time on the trail has not yet set it. But as the days go by, the things you encounter become a little bit more common, the backpack seems heavier than it did the day before, sleeping on rocks in the cold has began to take its toll.

Eventually all these little annoyances build up to a climax where you've got nowhere to go and only thing you want to be is done. Many outdoor enthusiasts refer to this as the “Valley of Death”, the low point of your trip and where even outdoor veterans can break down and give up. But then, as you approach the last couple miles, you realize you're almost done, you begin to get excited about the idea of a shower or a celebratory cheeseburger, and you begin to get panicked about the amount of things you have to do when you get home and therefore wish that you were still out on the trail so you can avoid the end and the return to civilization where you must move on to what’s next.

PBL follows a very similar path not unlike a good hike. Projects are very exciting at the beginning during the entry event, but soon lose their glitz and glamour as your students approach the middle of them. Here, malaise sets in, collaboration breaks down as students encounter obstacles or grapple with difficult questions, and they too find themselves in the academic version of “The Valley of Death” Then, in the few days before the project is to be shared or presented they pick up steam because the due dates are coming and they also begin to wonder what is going to come up next.

Ideally, we would like s our students to circumvent any valleys so that interest and engagement remain high throughout the entire project to help motivate individuals to do their best work and motivate groups to continue to collaborate and communicate effectively. But how?

Here are five things that can help you avoid students slipping into the dreaded valley;

1) Guest Expert Speakers - A lot of times students begin to slip into the valley because they hit unexpected questions. They can pique interest, diverting them outside the scope of the project or they can be much higher level questions then the ones that they have been investigating previously. This is a prime-time for descending into the valley, but an expert speaker coming into a classroom can provide a way out. Speakers can help coach students towards answers they might otherwise not be able to find themselves. Expert speakers also provide authenticity by contextualizing the WHY, something that can boost interest in even the most jaded of students. They remind students that there is a reason why they are laboring on this project or problem. Equally as important they allow students to interact with a person other than the teacher, something that may improve classroom culture or provide another point of view.

2) Sustained Inquiry - Quality PBL projects are built around a central question or challenge that students investigate in order to figure out what they need to know, come back with information they share, get feedback on their solutions which leads to new questions, and back to the beginning. This process repeats itself throughout the entire project, sometimes several times. This sustained cycle of inquiry is key in keeping students from falling into the dreaded “Valley of Death” as a result of boredom or a lack of finding things to do. It is through this cycle that students become independent learners, always investigating a new series of questions instead of hitting dead ends that send them down and the cavernous blackness of boredom.

3) Hands-on Activities – No matter what subject you’re teaching, the chances for hands-on or interactive instruction techniques abound. If you sense that students are losing their drive and descending into the canyon of despair, pull them up with a simulation or learning game, a teacher-created video, a real or virtual field trip, or something else that isn’t part of “class as normal” to get them re-energized.

4) Discussion Protocols - Getting students talking about each other's projects in process is an important way to motivate them and also give answers to students who are perhaps encountering similar challenges to their peers. Discussion protocols such as the Charette do not take much time, and can provide a much-needed boost to students who are suffering from a lack of contact. They can also simply add a little variety to the project process.

5) Plan Check-In’s - Always make sure that you are giving students a chance to work, a chance to receive feedback, and a chance to revise. Putting in plenty of formative assessment points so that you can keep track of both student learning and the process and progress on their projects.

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