Teaching inquiry, collaboration, and technology through inquiry, collaboration, and technology.

Differentiation in Project-based Learning (a timeline)

February 2, 2013 No Comments

After many failures, half-successes, and mid-unit surrenders I think I’ve finally figured out a solid way to incorporate differentiation into my project-based group engineering units.  I think this kind of timeline could work with any long-term project-based unit.

First, here is a broad outline of my recent Wind Turbine Unit.

  1. Define the objectives, criteria, and constraints of the problem.
  2. Research the science and engineering concepts behind the problem.
  3. Brainstorm design concepts to solve to the problem.
  4. Individually develop a Design Concept for the design.
  5. Present an Elevator Pitch of the Design Concept to the class; get feedback from the class.
  6. Choose one design concept to prototype as a team.
  7. Build, test, and refine prototypes until the team has a successful design.
  8. Write a team Design Report and deliver a team Design Presentation.

Within the unit I work on and want to assess 8 standards.

  • Defining Problems
  • Developing Designs
  • Engineering Drawing
  • Writing Arguments
  • Designing and Delivering Presentations
  • Professional Writing
  • Collaborative Writing
  • Teamwork

The goal is for the students to develop these skills enough by the end of the year to be able to complete an independent design project, which is their final exam. So it is important that every student has a chance to work on each skill independently, get some feedback, and if necessary get a chance to improve.  I can’t just ask teams to work together to define the objectives, criteria, and constraints because I won’t have any idea which kids have the skill and which might need more help.  This is a big problem with group projects and why many teachers (and students) don’t like them.

My solution to this problem involves a cycle of individual assessment for each stage of the unit.  The basic cycle works like this:

First, I give an individual assessment of the skill involved.  I grade the assessments that afternoon and divide the class into three groups:

  • Students who are proficient (level 3 and 4).  The next day these students move on to the next stage of the unit.
  • Students who need more practice (level 2.5).  These students use my feedback to individually redo their assessment and work on additional practice of the skill.  Once they have demonstrated improvement and asked me to informally check their practice I give them another assessment, which usually gets them up to a  3 or 4.  This usually happens in one class period after which these students join their teammates in the next stage.
  • Students who need some instruction and more practice (level 1 and 2). These students  work with me in a small group of tables to go over the assessment in detail, identifying their misunderstandings and carefully analyzing a proficient model.  They then move on to guided practice of the skill where I have them work on a practice together on whiteboards before moving onto independent practice.  After a period or two of practice I give them a reassessment and they join the rest of the class in the next stage of the unit.

Once all students have progressed to the next part of the unit I need a way for the students who had to pause for a couple days of practice and reassessment to catch up with the rest of the class.  I do this by making sure that each assessment is followed by a more flexible task like research where its fine for some students to spend 3 days on the task while others only get one.

Example 1: Working on a discrete skill

  • Day 1 of the Wind Turbine Unit: I introduce the wind turbine project with a presentation on wind turbines and the need for green energy.  All students are given an assessment on identifying the objectives, criteria, and constraints for the wind turbine project.
  • Day 2-3: Based on the results of the assessment students are separated into the three groups.
    • The proficient group are given an article on wind turbine design, physics textbooks, and computers and asked to type up the Introduction section of the group’s Design Report (the major group writing product of the unit).  The next day they are giving an article about turbines and computers to begin doing research on turbine blade design.
    • The more practice group receives a packet with a review of objectives, criteria, and constraints and four additional practice problems.  They correct their assessment then work on the practice problems.  As they finish each problem I check their work with their group mates then call me over to check their work.  Once the student says that she feels confident that she “gets it” I give her a reassessment.  If she is proficient she begin her research.
    • The more instruction and practice group also receives the packet and I work with them to identify misconceptions and reteach skill as needed.  They work through example problems one step at a time and we discuss answers and address misunderstandings.  As they gain confidence, they work independently to practice and eventually reassess.  Even if these students don’t work their way up to a level 3 (proficient) after 2 days of practice, they will reassess and move on.  They’ll have another chance to work on these skills during the next project.
  • Day 4: At this point the entire class is doing research.  The students who started research on day 2 are asked to look through their research for key scientific terms (drag, energy, generator) to look into in more detail.  They student who are just beginning their research are only required to read one article and get a basic background on turbine design.  Having different depths of knowledge on turbine design is fine since these students will be mixed into groups for the actual design work.

Example 2: Working on Writing

  • Day 1: Students are assessed on writing an argument to support one of their final design decisions with evidence from their research and their prototype testing (ex. We decided to use 3 blades for our final turbine design.)
  • Day 2-3: Based on the results of the assessment students are separated into three groups.
    • The proficient group use my feedback to write their argument into the Theory of Design section of their group design report.
    • The more practice group analyzes a proficient sample argument, then rewrites their argument using my feedback.  I check their arguments and conference with them about it.  If they need to they rewrite it again.  Once they show that they’ve “got it” they reassess by writing a new argument, supporting a different design decision.  If their argument is proficient they join back up with their team mates who are working on writing their design report.
    • The more instruction and practice group also receives a proficient sample argument.  I work with them to analyze it (identifying the claim, looking at how it uses data to support the claim, etc.)  They then rewrite their assessment arguments.  I check their arguments and conference with them about it.  If they need to they rewrite it again.  Once they show that they’ve “got it” they reassess by writing a new argument, supporting a different design decision.  Again, I’m not necessarily looking for perfection from this group, solid improvement is the goal, and after two days I move these students onto helping write the design report.
  • Day 4:  At this point all students are working on typing up various sections of the design report.

A key to this strategy is that there is a big group product that students can work on in various pieces over the course of the project.  In my case it’s the Design Report.  Students in the proficient group can write sections of the report on their own while I’m working with the groups that need extra help and practice.

So how do I grade the group’s Design Report if some students are doing more of the work?  Easy…I don’t.  Since I’ve already assessed and in some cased reassessed every student individually on each section of the report, I don’t grade the content of the report at all.  Instead I use the report to assess the students abilities to write collaboratively on Google Drive and their ability to put together a professional document with headings, pictures, tables, graphs, etc.

Formative Assessment, Teaching

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