We all know the benefits of project-based learning. It makes students into more independent learners and universities are also increasingly seeing the value in such projects. In fact, some universities are giving reduced offers to students who achieve a qualification in the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) or International Independent Project Qualifications such as the OxfordAQA International IPQ. They are also encouraging students to include examples of their project accomplishments in their personal statements.
I also know the value of project-based learning and have seen how successful it can be when implemented in a strategic way. I successfully implemented the EPQ as a mandatory subject taken by our students in year 12, whose cohort size was roughly 300 students average. It took a lot of planning, careful consideration, and trial and error, but in the end I was able to start a successful programme which is fully embedded into the sixth form curriculum and is accessible to all students whatever their level of ability.
There are a lot of things to consider when integrating project-based learning into the curriculum.
1. Plan how long the projects will last
The first question you need to consider is when you want the students to partake in the project and for how long. When I started this process, I chose to run the project from September to March in year 12, and to leave the rest of the school year for marking and moderation of the projects themselves. There were many reasons for this, but primarily it was a balance between giving the students enough time to develop their projects, whilst also giving the staff enough time to manage the workload. A benefit of running the project for a single year was that the summer holidays did not impact the project (for example with changes to timetables or staffing, which could cause unnecessary complications).
Once you know how you plan on running your International Independent Project Qualifications, you can start to tackle the issues surrounding the other barriers: time, budget, staff, students, and parents. For all these barriers, careful planning can ensure successful implementation of project-based learning. Having gone through the process myself, here is my advice regarding these key areas.
2. Build key dates and deadlines into your plan
Time is one of the biggest concerns when implementing project-based learning. However, the easiest way to help manage this barrier is effective planning. Make sure you know when the exam board deadlines are. You want to plan to give yourself and your students sufficient time to complete everything you need to in order to meet these fixed deadlines. Internal deadlines, however, can be changed, and therefore you should carefully consider when you want these to be set. Ensure you plan for the students to have enough time to complete their project, but also for the supervisors to be able to mark and moderate them.
3. Leave enough time for taught skills
Whilst working out the timetable for your internal deadlines, you need to ensure that you plan for the effective delivery of taught skills. I would suggest that these should be frontloaded so that students are equipped with the necessary skills to do their projects independently from the beginning. Ideally, these should also be timetabled lessons, to not put extra demands on the staff outside their normal teaching commitments. Having this scheduled time in the timetable also allows for supervisors to give advice and feedback when not delivering the taught skills.
If possible, having weekly drop-in sessions will also give students time to see their supervisors outside of lesson time. To account for this when timetabling, I would suggest that supervisors are given a free hour every week in their timetable. An added benefit of giving this time to supervisors is that it also gives them an opportunity for monitoring projects which doesn’t interfere with their other teaching commitments.
4. Be creative with timetabling
In terms of the budget, you don’t have much control over this unless you are part of the senior leadership team. However, there are things you can plan for that make the implementation of International Independent Project Qualifications more financially appealing. Firstly, try to use volunteers to staff your team (if there are any), and then if you still need more staff, look for teachers with gaps in their timetable.
Be creative with timetabling to ensure you can complete the taught skills. For example, use assemblies for whole cohort messages, timetable lessons in computer labs, or invite speakers from universities and libraries to deliver content. Use free online platforms to monitor projects digitally or have your IT department build a digital logbook. These are all creative ways to use the resources you already have.
5. Develop case studies to showcase your school
Use the project as a way to increase the appeal of your school, both for prospective students/parents and also for funding. Having a school involved with project-based learning makes its students more attractive to a growing number of universities, which makes the school more appealing. Keep a record of the most exciting and successful project stories to share with new cohorts or prospective parents. Save the impressive visual aspects from students’ projects to use as displays and show off at open evenings. Use past students as resources and have them share their experiences and give tips and advice.
The presentations that all students undertaking the project have to do can be done as a showcase. They can be an opportunity to invite students, teachers, parents, and the community members into your school to show off what you are doing. In addition to building appeal, this can also draw in funding from the PTA or the community for example.
6. Support and train your team
One of the main concerns with delivering International Independent Project Qualifications successfully is staffing. Ideally you will have a team of volunteers, but when this isn’t possible, you need to make their role as easy as possible to ensure success. Creating the resources for the team to use will help make their role as supervisor more manageable alongside their other commitments. You can use the specification from the exam board to create well planned resources. This also ensures that all the students will receive the same delivery of the taught skills. Since you can’t be in every lesson to ensure consistency, having centralised resources ensures that everyone is equally prepared. To ease pressure on your team, you can also deliver whole school sessions when it makes sense.
It is important to make sure you provide your staff with training early, where you show them how to supervise, mark, and teach the taught skills. Supervisors must be taught about the kinds of advice they may give, so it is appropriate and helpful. All your training should be aimed to ensure supervisors are empowered to work well with students and give clear and appropriate feedback.
Make sure there is training time dedicated to marking, both for standardisation and moderation. This will ensure consistency and give you peace of mind. I would recommend you also schedule a full moderation team day to help to promote consistency in marking the first few projects (as a rule, always moderate the first few projects).
Staff sometimes can fall behind, lose interest, or feel pressured with the workload. This is why open communication is so important, and why I suggest pairing experienced team members with new team members. This is also another example of why strategic planning is so important to help spread out the workload.
7. Moderate projects to avoid bias
Other issues that may arise with staffing may be related towards student bias. I strongly advise that these projects are moderated. You may also discover that a supervisor’s advice is bad or too prescriptive. It is really important that you address this as soon as it comes to your attention. If this is only discovered in the final stages, make a note to the exam board in the submission with a cover letter. Consistent issues with a member of your team might need to be reflected in future staffing decisions. However, most issues can be avoided with thoughtful planning and rigorous training. The better you can make the experience for your staff, the more likely they will want to be a part of your team in the future.
8. Empower students
It is important that the students have ownership over their own projects. You need to give them the opportunity and freedom to pick what they want. Sometimes students can lose interest for a number of reasons (for example they no longer like their project, they find it too difficult, they run out of material to cover, or they want to drop out). Effective monitoring and supervision can help to avoid this, and students should be allowed to change topics, if time permits. You can also use monitoring to help keep the students on track and intervene with support when needed.
9. Model success
Using the taught skills is essential for equipping the students with the tools they need to be successful in International Independent Project Qualifications. You can use models of a range of projects (the good and the bad) to help them understand formatting and feedback. However, as a rule, don’t show them a full project to avoid any temptation to copy someone else’s work. Also, make sure you have the necessary time in the timetable for drop-in sessions for when students need advice.
10. Have the right policies in place
Make sure you also have policies in place for major issues, like plagiarism and failure to complete the project (if it is mandatory), and be clear about the consequences. This is an excellent excuse to review your school’s policies. I used a student contract that they signed agreeing their place in the sixth form was conditional to completing the project without plagiarism. Make sure that you emphasise the importance of citation and referencing in the taught skills, and use the first draft as a way to check there are no issues with this. Remember, there is a difference between lack of citations and passing work off as one’s own.
11. Engage parents
Parents are the final stage in setting up successful project-based learning. However, you can’t do this until you have a clear plan of action. Be ready to address how International Independent Project Qualifications will be integrated into the curriculum, how it benefits the students, when the deadlines are, and how you will support the students. Keep a record of any positive feedback from the exam board to increase your credibility. If your marking and monitoring are strong, you can be confident that you can handle any issues surrounding results.
12. Keep records
Complaints may be raised. If there is a complaint against a supervisor, having clear structure, training, and resourcing means you are covered. Make sure you also know how to handle appeals to the awarded project marks. Your team training should ensure confidence that moderation will bring up the same mark as originally awarded.
Lastly, make sure supervisor feedback is recorded, and concerns are flagged early. Having written documentation of feedback provides a log of evidence, especially if the student isn’t able to overcome a problem like time management. If you find any major concerns during supervision, you should communicate them with the parents and ask for their support.
Implementing project-based learning into your curriculum is hugely beneficial and can have a huge impact on student learning and engagement. The sooner you can bring International Independent Project Qualifications such as the OxfordAQA International IPQ into your curriculum, the better. Other things to consider very carefully before you get started are: how many supervisors you will be allowed, how many students per supervision group, how can you give time to supervisors to give effective supervision and handle workload (I suggest an hour PPA per week), and what other items in the calendar may interfere with your plan (for example mocks and report writing). From my experience during the completion of the project there are higher levels of workload for staff and students during project approvals, first drafts, and presentations. However, as mentioned before, careful planning will mean that you are prepared to handle any issues that come your way, and be able to successfully implement project-based learning in your school.
Written by Sheridan Mack. Sheridan is a Secondary School Teacher based in London. She successfully brought project-based learning into the curriculum of a large comprehensive state school, with cohorts of 300 students completing their independent projects under her guidance.
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