Enhancing Student Engagement in Project Learning

The research on enhancing student engagement in the classroom or other academic settings is quite clear. Students who are engaged in their learning show greater enthusiasm and concentration on assigned tasks. This in turn creates a more positive attitude toward school as a whole which produces greater effort (Connell and Welborn; Skinner and Belmont). This has significant implications for the design of project learning experiences. We need to identify what excites students and will promote their interest and involvement.

As you plan projects for students, consider the following recommendations that support student involvement/engagement. It is not realistic to think you can satisfy all of the recommendations in any one project, but the more you can include, the more likely students will be to participate and learn.

Select or create projects thoughtfully:

  • Purpose—Topics should not only engage the interests of children or youth but have purpose and incorporate knowledge and skills that students need. Thus, it is a good idea to consider what the students need to strengthen and to consider how that knowledge and skill is actually used.
  • Focus—When thinking about a driving question for a project, brainstorming about potential topics can help focus the question to something doable and worthwhile.
  • Authentic—Real investigation should be possible. Data also show that when technology is available, it can add to the richness of students’ investigations.
  • Relevant—Think about areas of the curriculum that need to be shored up and imagine projects that relate to those areas.
  • On-going—Provide numerous opportunities for students to communicate with their peers and the instructor.

Select topics that ignite student interest in learning:

  • Choice—When students have the opportunity to select their own topic it promotes interest and engagement (Wiggins and McTighe). This is not to be confused with setting students afloat to go anywhere they wish. A small menu should be carefully created to address a targeted area and should provide an opportunity to apply identified knowledge and skills.
  • Contemporary—Try to select topics that are in the news and occurring right now. At the secondary level, for example, students are often motivated by topics that create debate or differences of opinion. Politics or environmental issues often create a great opportunity for students to explore and challenge their beliefs and opinions. If selected, be sure the approach to the project is consistent with district policy on the treatment of controversial issues and focuses on the students use of skills, evidence gathering, etc. and not on ideology.
  • Exciting or interesting to age group—Try to identify topics that are of interest to your particular age group.

Project activities should:

  • Be challenging—Try to create activities that push students to apply or learn new skills. It is important to note that these skills may need to be taught in a mini-lesson. Such mini-lessons should be anticipated and planned.
  • Be interactive—Provide opportunities for students to work in groups and share ideas. Often the traditional classroom does not promote as much social learning as a less structured after-school setting (Johnson; Sharan and Sharan).
  • Use a variety of skills: visual/auditory/kinesthetic—Students learn in a variety of ways. Providing a range of opportunities and methods for students to express learning will help ensure that all students can contribute to group projects (Cohen; Willingham).

Final Products/Presentations should:

  • Be purposeful—Any effort to generate meaning for the products that students produce will further motivate them. Having more than just a grade promotes ownership and pride in the product and strengthens students’ “can-do” attitudes and persistence.
  • Integrate skills—As students work on a project it is important to integrate the various skills they will use. A science project will often involve reading and writing and some use of mathematics. The more skills identified and used, the more likely the time spent on the project will be regarded as useful.
  • Provide opportunity for service learning—Service learning is a great opportunity to promote purpose in a project.
  • Provide opportunity for students to teach other students—Another great purpose for a project is to actually teach other students or adults. Learning fairs, symposiums or skits can often teach the audience.
  • Have a meaningful assessment—Develop assessments that are authentic and linked to the identified skills and objectives. Be clear about what students need to know and do to meet these assessment objectives (Wiggins and McTighe).
  • Provide opportunities for collaboration—Students can and do learn from each other. The research on social learning in the classroom is clear. Projects that promote student interaction have implications for social learning as well as cognitive lessons. Remember that productive ways of interacting must be taught and should be practiced.

Give students a sense of progress:

When students work hard and see no progress, it is easy to get discouraged. Jacob Kounin’s research found:

As students perceive that an activity is becoming increasingly repetitious they become less involved in it and exhibit more off-task behaviors…. In effect, students begin looking for something more stimulating to do.

The most important element influencing the rate of satiation is a sense of progress. Students who feel they are not making definite progress either don’t become satiated or take considerably longer to become satiated.

Providing this sense of progress can be done in several ways.

  • Intermediate checks for progress—It is crucial to identify “mileposts” or session goals so students can assess their progress and monitor their production. Creating a sense of progress is a crucial component in maintaining student engagement.
  • Student self-assessment—Group and individual reflection is helpful in developing metacognitive skills in students. It is well established in the research community that creating an awareness of achievement and areas for further growth is essential to overall student learning (National Research Council).
  • Provide clear identification of learning goals and project quality—Efforts to establish goals on a rubric or list will enhance student understanding and clarify expectations. This can be linked to the intermediate checks for progress. Having clear expectations for the final product helps students know what is expected so they can work towards meeting high level expectations.
  • Student accountability—Assure that all students are held accountable for their work each day. If students are in groups, make sure that each student is clear about what they are expected to do (Rosenholtz and Wilson).