Digital Age Teaching and Learning

How I Replaced Exams with Project-Based Learning

How I Replaced Exams with Project-Based Learning

Project-based learning is more than just a buzzword or passing fad in education; it is the future of learning.  But if you are just getting started, take the time to read about how I started implementing it in my classroom.

Going Against the School Culture

The biggest problem with switching over to project-based learning isn’t the students’ abilities.  It isn’t even your need to change the way you approach teaching.  The biggest problem is going against the school culture.

For many, exams are how we prove that we have learned.  This is what most of us did when we were in school, it is what we must do to obtain professional certification, and high-stakes testing is always part of the news.  They are objective, with clear right and wrong answers, giving us the perspective we need with regards to achievement and learning.

And when you approach them from that point of view, doing away with exams seems counter-intuitive.  Which means we have to change the point of view.

What is the Point of Going to School?

When I began teaching, it was this exam-centric culture that I came up against.  The majority of teachers followed a traditional model of lecture, drill/practice, test.  When I submitted my first unit plan, I was called into my director’s office to discuss the absence of a final exam; the conversation went as you might expect.  I continued to push for the chance to teach the unit I had designed and was eventually given the chance to speak with the administration.

I used all the reasons and research that most likely motivated you to read this article.  The idea that won them over?  Getting to the heart of why we go to school.

We go to school to develop not just the knowledge, but the skills needed to succeed in the real world.  Tests apply knowledge, but the only skills they require you to apply are test-taking skills.  And when is the last time you took a test?

For me, it was the Praxis; I took that back in 2011.

And that resonated with them.  Having won them over, I was given permission to start implementing project-based learning in my classroom as something of a pilot program for the school.  On one hand, it was pretty cool to be given that chance.  On the other hand, it was pretty heavy knowing that I needed to get it perfect from the get-go.

How I Got Started

If you have done any research on project-based learning, you likely already know the basics of getting started.  However, it always helps to have a refresher.  Below are the basic steps I use to plan my units.

  1. Using backward design, determine what you want your students to be able to do by the end of the unit (or lesson or mini-unit).
  2. Then create a project that would allow them to demonstrate these skills no matter their learning style, level, or special needs.
  3. Based on the skills and the project, determine what you need to teach them to get them there and craft your lessons to address this; the lessons should be centered on active learning, with small activities or projects to allow them to demonstrate what they are learning along the way and make it easy for you to assess them on a daily basis.

It sounds simple, and like most things, it is in theory.  But putting it into action can be difficult.

What Skills Matter?

So, the point of this style of teaching is to help students develop skills they will use in the real world.  But that creates a new dilemma: What skills are used in the real world?

Sure, I use plenty of skills every day, and some of those are the same ones you use.  But many of them are different.  So who am I to decide what matters and what doesn’t?

The key for me was to start looking at broad skills and then filter them through the lens of my subject.  We all need to learn how to argue effectively.  We all need to learn how to critically examine information.  We all need to learn how to entertain others with a story.  There are many real-life skills that are universal—all I needed to do was put a language arts spin on them.


How Can I Address Varied Learners?

The next big dilemma for me was figuring out how to meet the needs of the varied learners in my class.  While projects sound great, they risk the trap that comes with exams: catering to a small subset of learners.  For me, the solution was handing over some of the control to the students.

For example, my unit on argument requires that the students create a final project that exhibits all elements of my argument structure.  A good project for demonstrating this is a persuasive letter, which was my idea.  My students, however, had ideas of their own.

For final projects, I received YouTube videos, posters, children’s books, stump speeches, and even a campaign song.  The students got the chance to make projects that both made them happy and showed me what they could do.

School Culture, Revisited

But this leads me to another problem and back to the issue of school culture.  A big part of making project-based learning successful is giving control to the students.  A big problem with project-based learning is giving control to the students.

If you are not working in a school that has been implementing this style of teaching for several years, you will need to do a bit of reprogramming with the students.  Kids love projects and kids love having control, but if they have never been given these opportunities before, they won’t know what to do with it.

My first unit of my first year, I modeled how to create a project proposal for the kids, right down to the format I would present it in; it would be a children’s book about a moment in my childhood when I was punished for accidentally hurting my brother.  Once I finished modeling and took questions, I let the kids create their proposals.

99% of them were proposing to create a children’s book.  About the time they got in trouble for accidentally hurting their sibling or friend.

So as you get started, expect to take the first unit to not just introduce project-based learning, but to work on creative and critical thinking and skills that help them with being self-directed.  And always be ready to change your focus to address misconceptions.

But Don’t Be Discouraged

Okay, so getting started with project-based learning isn’t the smoothest transition, at least not in all cases, but it is worth it.

Rather than grading stacks of exams at the end of term, I get to take in the incredible projects that my students make.  With each one, I learn more about who they are, not just what they know or what they can do.  And with each so different from the next, it truly becomes and experience for me.  Not to mention the fun of the process and the ways they grow in creativity and confidence.

So know that even if getting started isn’t the smoothest ride, and even if you come up against some push-back, the journey is certainly worth it.