How to Teach Project-Based Learning in a Virtual Classroom

project-based learning
(Image credit: Unsplash: Joseph Rosales)

When COVID-19 forced us to adjust learning environments, we knew student engagement might hang in the balance. As school leaders, we chose to believe the circumstances presented a huge opportunity to think outside the box, to change instruction for the better, and to give students a compelling, hands-on opportunity even from a distance. 

We found our solution in project-based learning (PBL); it bolstered our efforts to maintain student engagement. Here’s what we’ve learned.

Introducing PBL in middle school 

When our district went fully remote, it was the middle school students who shared the most about how much they missed (and needed) interaction with other kids and their teachers. Our decision to implement PBL with middle school students afforded opportunities for students at all grade levels to thrive in new, uncomfortable learning environments.

Middle grades present perhaps the greatest opportunity to introduce project-based learning as well as career exploration. They’re past the elementary school stage and yet high school somehow still seems far away. It’s just a neat age group. They don’t have limitations. They don’t worry about obstacles.

They develop habits and interests that foster curiosity and shape their academic selves. Nationwide, students typically begin career planning by eighth grade, and thus, the topic of career exploration fits perfectly within middle school. PBL offers an engaging, positive approach to career exploration at a critical juncture in a student’s education.

In Jennifer Davis-Kelley’s 6th-grade science class at West Wilson Middle School, students worked through Defined Learning’s lesson focused on energy through real-world projects that can be done at home, a different format from previous academic years. “I have traditionally assigned group Rube Goldberg Machines so students can demonstrate their knowledge transformations,” Davis-Kelley says.

“Being virtual this year, I decided to try the project anyway and the results are fantastic! The goal was to create a machine to do a simple task in a complicated way using at least three energy transformations. Some students didn’t do that exactly and others knocked it out of the park. We celebrated all the entries.”

“It’s been a crazy first quarter, but there is evidence virtual learning can be fun, exciting, and students are learning,” she says.

How PBL engages distance learning students 

Instead of asking students to sit in front of the computer, encourage them to back away from it, work with their hands, and explore what interests them.  

Passion and curiosity

While their passions and interests might not be a part of the curriculum, the career exploration benefits outweigh educational requirements. It’s a little scary, but as educators, we can shift our thinking to best serve our students, fellow teachers, and families. We are discovering better ways to engage our students, and it’s working. 

When we encourage our students to take an interest in projects that captivate them, we’re rewarded with higher engagement. Learning how to manage distance learning was new for us all, and we wanted to ensure our students were supported as they navigated through the changes. PBL grants students the freedom to work through assignments at their own pace, in their own way, and as it continues to make sense in their new learning environment.

You’ll see firsthand how PBL encourages rigor, a highly sought after component of academics, and helps fulfill in-depth comprehension of class topics and subject matter. When students suddenly only had access to the classroom via a screen, innovation for instruction was required, forcing the shift to more engaging activities. Compared to a standard quiz or worksheet, you can witness how PBL successfully captures the attention and participation of all students.

Real-world relevance

The notion of COVID-19 and the pandemic was disruptive and, more often than not, accompanied by anxiety and fear. Since PBL tends to be based on real-world learning, encourage students to explore current events and relevant topics relating to the world around them. It helps dispel fear and even produces creative ideas.

Education has entered an era no one ever planned for. There’s no roadmap to success, but one thing has not changed—we are still accountable for preparing today’s students for the future. PBL helps us do that, and do it well.

Dr. Donna Wright serves as the Director of Wilson County Schools, which has nearly 20,000 students in 22 schools. She has spent more than three decades working in education as a teacher, principal, administrator, and assistant superintendent. Since day one, Dr. Wright has spoken about her strong commitment to improve academic achievement and provide students and teachers with the resources to accommodate growth.