Project-Based Learning and Executive Function
Thinking about bringing project-based learning to your classroom? You can help students succeed by weaving executive function strategies into every step.
Project-based learning is a hot topic in education these days. By actively engaging in real-world projects, students often experience higher motivation and deeper learning. Students are able to explore issues that are personally meaningful, such as bullying, or make an impact on the community by helping out someone in need, like a homeless shelter or animal rescue. The skills and strategies needed to engage in project-based learning (e.g., organizing, public speaking, research) are essential for success in college and the real world.
Unfortunately, projects don’t always go smoothly and learning opportunities are lost. When we work with schools that are implementing project-based learning, it’s not unusual to hear stories of projects gone wrong: students who don’t understand the point, materials that got jumbled up or lost, or a timeline that left everything to the last minute.
To be successful when implementing project-based learning, executive function must be addressed explicitly. Students need to organize their time and materials, sift and sort information when conducting research, and self-monitor and check their progress.
Here are three steps to follow when thinking through how to integrate executive function into project-based learning.
PLAN - A successful project takes thoughtful time management. This includes both long-term management (setting the timeline for each phase of the project) as well as short-term management (identifying work time and helping students use that time efficiently). Students must be engaged in the planning part of the project. While the teacher may need to do most of the calendar planning, students can create their own personal timeline to gain a sense of the scope of the project.
DO - Project-based learning relies on academic tasks with a high executive function demand (note taking, reading comprehension, breaking down directions). This is the perfect opportunity to teach executive function strategies in the content of an engaging project! Model the successful use of an executive function strategy, and then let students practice this strategy on their project.
REFLECT - Take time to ask students to reflect on how they used executive function strategies within their projects. This helps them to make connections between the problems they are exploring or to apply strategies they used on their project to other areas of their lives.
By explicitly embedding executive function into every step, you’ll increase the success and impact of your students’ project-based learning experience.
Want to learn more? Join us at the 10th Annual Executive Function Conference for a session on "Designing and Assigning Projects through an Executive Function Lens." We’ll see you there!
Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director