3 Ways To Differentiate In Project Based Learning

May 21, 2018 | Differentiation, PBL

3 Ways To Differentiate In Project-Based Learning

by John McCarthy, EdS, ThoughtStretchers Education PD Facilitator

Differentiation in Project-Based Learning Units

Project Based Learning (PBL) units are a perfect structure for differentiation so all can learn. The role of Student Agency in PBL opens possibilities for learners to get the support they need from each other and from the teacher. The opportunities are endless for a teacher who is dedicated to implementing PBL with a self-perception of a coach and facilitator, and not just a content deliverer.

Through the conscientious work of a teacher, differentiation happens with students in many ways in PBL. Learner support happens through Intuitive Differentiation and Intentional Differentiation.

  • Intuitive Differentiation – this happens during instruction. In the moments of learning experiences, teachers adjust assistance to meet the needs of students who struggle with understanding and others who are ready for the next level of challenge. This often happens by addressing student questions and giving learners options to choose their own path.
  • Intentional Differentiation – takes place during the planning phase of instruction. Teachers pre-plan learning experiences that anticipate learner needs based on trend data and formative assessments. When student needs are known, intentionally planning for those targeted needs makes good sense.

Most teachers practice Intuitive Differentiation in almost every lesson by addressing questions and giving choices for completing tasks. To do otherwise would be to ignore students’ requests and ideas. But by itself, Intuitive Differentiation is inefficient.

in combination, Intentional Differentiation can balance the work by planning ahead in anticipation of what learners need, while addressing questions that come up by students. As with all good plans, we anticipate issues that may arise with supports ready at hand, only for new unanticipated ones to appear. Teachers then adapt through Intuitive Differentiation–the cycle continues.

Project Based Learning units are best when planned with the end in mind. During the planning of the lessons that address the big ideas and content standards, teachers address important logistics, including:

  1. Formative Assessment Checkpoints
  2. Collaboration and Communication through Teams
  3. Nurturing Student Voice

These three areas are important keys to successful PBL implementation and are opportunities for meeting diverse learner needs. Let’s take a closer look at PBL through the lens of Differentiation.

Formative Assessment Checkpoints

Effective Differentiation starts with understanding where the student’s learning needs exist. What do they already know, and what do they need to learn? Once these are identified, support can be planned to assist the needs of groups and individuals.

PBL assessment checkpoints keep teachers informed of how students are performing. They occur at least once or twice a week. Students’ current learning progress signals to teachers which students need remedial to enhanced support. Students who exhibit skill gaps can be gathered for a mini-lesson or personal coaching, while the rest of the class continues working. Sometimes checkpoint results indicate that the entire class is struggling or surpassing the expected outcome, which may mean reassessing the learning activities.

Collaboration and Communication through Teams

There are many ways to form student teams. Two approaches are to form the Project Team, which is a group that works together throughout the PBL unit, and Learning Groups, which are formed on an as-needed basis for short-term tasks around acquiring concepts and skills. From many interviews that I’ve done with students on teams, they frequently comment on how they value getting just-in-time support from their peers, rather than having to wait for the teacher’s attention.

Such teams increase in effectiveness when collaboration and communication skills are taught and coached. For example, use protocols for reading comprehension and critiques for students to learn effective means of helping each other. Some examples include:

  • Save the Last Word for Me
    Encourages students to read assignments in chunks, identify 3 passages that had meaning for them, share one of the passages to hear reflections by others, and express their thoughts as the final word. *modified from the NSRF’s Save the Last Word for Me protocol
  • Charrette Protocol
    This protocol empowers the “author(s)” to set the focus for the feedback that they receive. They ask a focus question about what they want to work on and receive input from the group. Comments must only address the question that the author(s) ask.

Here is a PDF for additional protocols.

Nurturing Student Voice

There are many ways that PBL units encourage student voice. From a Differentiation perspective, including students’ questions about the learning concepts and skills elevates their experiences and helps the teacher collect formative data about the instructional progress.

The Need to Know process is a staple of PBL units. A close cousin of KWLs, the Need to Know process is student-driven and gives them a voice about the pace of instruction. Within the first two days of the PBL unit, students create a list of questions about what they need to know regarding the content and concepts. Once the list is made, the teacher includes them as part of the other learning outcomes in the unit.

Most of the generated questions are likely already part of the curriculum plan. Students are motivated to pay attention and engage because they generate the questions. The questions are revisited at least on a weekly basis to add more questions as students build their base of content understanding.

The powerful component of the Need to Know process is that as questions are addressed, the students decide when to check them off as completed. For example, using a thumbs up or down, students through consensus vote on whether a question is fully answered. If all thumbs are up, the question can be highlighted or checked off. If even one student shows a thumb down, the question remains.

This formative assessment lets the teacher know when concepts and skills are sufficiently addressed, and when they need to provide additional support to individuals, small groups, or the whole class depending on the feedback.

Meeting the Needs of All Learners

Differentiation that is intentionally part of PBL planning helps teachers get the formative assessment they need, empowers students to support each other, and provides ways for learners to take true ownership of their progress. Using these ideas can elevate good work to great PBL learning experiences.

1 Comment

  1. Jenn Stuart

    I really appreciated this article discussing both intuitive and intentional differentiation. Typically, one can find me using intuitive differentiation in my classroom, but I also need to incorporate intentional differentiation; how I would do this would be to analyze test scores (MAPS, SAT, PSAT) to identify the students’ weaknesses so that I can make sure that I address and practice them through the variety of lessons in my classroom. This is very helpful information.

    Furthermore, I appreciated the discussion about “need to know questions” being a close cousin with KWL. I use the KWL graphic organizer often in my classroom, so my familiarity with this resource better helps me understand the importance and placement of “need to know” questions.

    The idea of student generated questions and revisiting these weekly makes sense and is applicable. Revisiting the questions through communication and collaboration allows the students the opportunities to discuss their responses and build upon their knowledge. These practices and the various formative assessments lead to an engaged classroom where the students are excited about their learning. 🙂


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