Should PBL be the main course or the dessert? A long-standing axiom of PBL is that the placement of the methodology is critical to enabling students to learn content and skills at high levels and to emulate the “real world.” PBL promotes authenticity by giving students the opportunities to engage in the work of experts and solve contemporary problems faced by local and global organizations and communities. Engaging in a project as the “main course” means students learn all content and knowledge within the context of a project. The “main course” approach is lauded by many researchers, professional developers, and teachers as the most authentic form of PBL, as it provides students with the challenge upfront and gives students the experience many experts face. The “dessert” project occurs after the core content and knowledge has been learned in the classroom through a different methodology. This project placement has created a dichotomy between “doing projects” (dessert) versus “project-based learning” (main course).
Although I have a personal bias toward presenting PBL as the main course, I don’t think it matters when it comes down to student learning, and it doesn’t affect the authenticity of the project. What matters are the actual ingredients within the project that ensure quality learning; regardless of whether it is positioned as the “main course” or the “dessert.” The key ingredients include establishing clear learning intentions and success criteria, providing targeted instruction in light of student assessment data, and ensuring a culture is established that focuses on students taking ownership over their learning and acting as a resource to others in their learning. In other words, the ingredients are simply: clarity, challenge, and culture.
- Clarity of learning intentions and success criteria– Ensure students have a clear understanding of the core learning intentions of the project and what success looks like in showing their understanding of the learning intention. Learning intentions are not tasks or project products; rather they are expectations of learning that are presented through tasks and/or products.
- Providing Targeted Instruction (in light of student assessment data)– Ensure that student performance is being ascertained on a daily basis and that instructional strategies that have a high probability of making an impact in relation to student performance are being utilized.
- Ensuring a culture focused on learning is established- Ensure that students can answer the following four questions: Where am I in my learning? (Do they know the learning intentions and success criteria?), Where am I now in my learning? (Do they know their performance relative to the learning intentions and success criteria?), what’s next? (Do they know what steps you are recommending they take? Do they have a plan?), and how do I support others and myself in learning? (Do students have a set of strategies for reflecting on and improving their own learning?)?
PBL is a complex methodology with a checkered past regarding its impact on student learning. In John Hattie’s research that involves more than 250 million students, he found that the ideal effect size of almost every variable studied on student academic achievement measures at least .40 (approximately one year’s growth). PBL sits well below this mark at .15 when students are aiming at basic knowledge and skills and a substantial impact of .68 when students are learning more complex knowledge and skills. The tension point is that students must have both basic and complex knowledge and skills in their learning. Learners cannot think critically about a subject when they have no foundational knowledge—nor can they utilize a set of knowledge and skills without strategies and processes for transferring their understanding to a true world problem.
By establishing the 3 key ingredients in the PBL classroom, the likelihood of impact on student achievement levels is high. As such, the placement of PBL is far less important than the ingredients that make up the methodology. A case can be made that beginning a unit using PBL as the main course and teaching content and skills within the method is a powerful form of teaching and learning. Students have the opportunity to identify the complex expectations upfront and it provides an easier narrative for teachers to establish a rationale for learning basic level knowledge to meet project expectations. A case can also be made that the “dessert” style provides teachers and students with the time needed to focus sharply on the content and skill building necessary to be ready for more complex project-based work. A dessert style project could last a few days or a week rather than having students spend two to three weeks building knowledge and skills and risk project fatigue. A third option is teachers may want to start with a dessert style project and over time move to a few “main course” projects. Main course projects are more difficult to implement and execute correctly, and student learning can be substantially impacted if the key ingredients are not intentionally embedded in the design and implementation of the project.
In regards to authenticity, students can be presented with a real problem faced by real people and complete professional tasks in the main course or dessert mode. Students are cognitively different from experts in the amount of knowledge and experience they possess and how that knowledge and experience is structured. Students can and should engage in expert-like experiences and scenarios but they must have explicit opportunities and direct interventions in academic domains to build the knowledge and skills experts possess to solve real life problems. This is where targeted instruction is critical. Developing basic and complex knowledge and skills requires a few common approaches, such as clear learning outcomes and means for measuring student success. However, different instructional strategies are required for students based on their level of prior knowledge. For instance, a student who is attempting to relate ideas may be better served with tasks that are akin to Venn diagrams and concept maps rather than creating lists or previewing content. Teachers’ instructional approaches may also vary providing explicit examples for students to understand a specific idea while using other approaches such as the jigsaw method to see how ideas relate.
In the end, whether you approach a student’s learning using PBL in the “main course” or dessert” mode, I just don’t think it matters. All essential PBL “gold” standards objectives can be met in the main course or dessert approaches. What matters is focusing on the learning and that comes through three key ingredients: clarity, challenge, and culture. So, before you serve PBL to your students, check the ingredients and make sure it has a good change of producing a high effect size.