Increase Student Ownership and Investment in Project-Based Learning With Voice and Choice

Grades K-12 15 min
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Explore strategies and tools that can be used to increase student voice and choice during project-based learning.

Project-based learning (PBL) utilizes student voice and choice, provides opportunities for students to really care, and therefore, increases engagement and learning outcomes for students. In PBL, voice and choice should be woven throughout the entire project. The teacher’s role is to help students find their voice and share it, while also deciding how much choice students are able to make according to readiness, interest, learner profile, and teacher capacity.

It’s important to remember that when engaging in PBL, it’s perfectly fine to start small and build up both your students’ and your capacity for engaging in PBL. In other words, it’s okay to begin with fewer student choices, and then gradually allow more student voice and choice as they become more experienced with the process. However, even in the first experiences, students should have some degree of choice.

Student Voice

In PBL, learners must be involved in decisions about their learning. When students get to consider their personal interests and concerns and then apply them to the project, they become engaged in a more meaningful and authentic learning experience. Here are some ways to increase student voice in your classroom and throughout the PBL process.

5 Ways to Increase Student Voice

  1. Actively seek out student input and feedback, and then honor their ideas by integrating them into the project. By gathering input from students and then incorporating their ideas, you elevate student voice, which will increase engagement. When you use feedback to inform decisions and practices, it can help students feel that their voice has meaning and is important. Below are several strategies for gathering student input:
    • Use Google Forms, Microsoft Forms, or SurveyMonkey to create a survey and gather written input and feedback from students.
    • Use Flipgrid (Tips) to gather video input and feedback from students.
    • Ask questions and have a class discussion.
    • Interview students individually or in small groups.
  2. Create a safe and culturally responsive classroom that encourages students to take risks. Students have diverse perspectives, needs, and interests. Creating opportunities and an environment where all students, but especially traditionally disempowered students, are able to feel empowered to share their voice will positively impact change and create more opportunities for learning to be student-centered. Below are some strategies and resources to help you get started and create a safe and culturally responsive classroom:
  3. Help students develop and use their voice. Many students may have never had the opportunity, the need, or the appropriate modality to share their voice. They may not even believe that their voice matters. It is our job as educators to empower our students so that they know their voice and how to use it. Here are some ideas around how to help students develop and use their voice when engaging in PBL:
    • Create multiple opportunities and provide a variety of modalities for students to share their voice. Voice does not always mean audio. Students may share their voice through art, video, song, etc.
    • Actively seek out the under-engaged voices and provide them with a safe space to engage.
  4. Help students understand the voices of others. Humans are naturally self-centered. Just as you’ve had to learn how to include student voices, students will need to learn how to include other student voices in their project, especially because they will be working in groups. Below are some strategies to help increase student understanding of each other’s voices:
    • One way to help groups understand each other a little better is to have them engage in the Compass Points Protocol from the National School Reform Faculty’s Harmony Education Center. Group members identify individual preferences and those of the group. This protocol may help group members better understand one another and their voices, while also helping them work together.
    • Teach students how to collaborate with one another. Here are some resources to help you teach collaboration:
  5. Encourage students to advocate for themselves and their group members. Students know themselves best and should understand their own strengths and weaknesses, how they like to learn, how they like to communicate, and ultimately, what they need to be successful. Encouraging students to share what they or their group needs in order to be successful is an important life and career skill. In many traditional classrooms, the power lies with the teacher, and students are not empowered to advocate for themselves. This may be a habit that must be untaught. Below are a few ways to encourage students to advocate for themselves or their group members:
    • Create opportunities for students to share what they or their group members want and need, possibly using some of the strategies described when gathering student feedback.
    • Allow students to be decision-makers.
    • Find opportunities to show respect and value for each and every one of your students. Tell and show students that their opinions matter and they are their best advocate for what they need.
    • Post self-advocacy sentence starters in your virtual and/or digital classroom. Here are some examples from Understood: Self-Advocacy Sentence Starters for Kids Who Learn and Think Differently.

Student Choice

In project-based learning, students should be making big and small choices throughout the project. Teachers must release control to students to allow them to make these choices, which may be something new and a bit scary. Teachers need to be aware of the quantity and to what degree of choices students are ready to handle and what kinds of differentiation, scaffolding, support, and coaching they will need to provide. In addition, teachers need to be aware of their own capacity and ability to support choice. It is fine to start small; in fact, too many choices can initially be overwhelming for students. The teacher is still very important and much needed during PBL, but their role is more that of a coach and/or mentor.

Providing student choice is essential to the learning process and necessary to shift learning from being teacher-centered to student-centered. In PBL, students should be given opportunities to have choice over the inputs and outputs of their learning.

Student choice: input or output diagram

Inputs of learning include choice over what and how students learn. As pointed out in a previous AVID Open Access article on PBL, Wrap Authentic Project-Based Learning in Inquiry, students should have choice (in modality of information and the content itself) over how they will find the answers to their questions. Students may have complete freedom to gather information, or they may be provided with a choice board of options. If trying PBL for the first time, you might consider providing only a few choices. For ideas on how to incorporate and use choice boards, consider reading our Incorporate Playlists Into Blended Learning article. For more tips and ways to authentically integrate student choice, read our Empower Students Through Creativity and Choice article.

If you are going to give your students the opportunity to make choices, it’s important that you empower them with the skills to do so. This will set them up for success. To help students better understand themselves and what choices might be best for them, consider having your students engage in a learning-style quiz, and then have them evaluate and discuss their results. Below are a couple quizzes that you might use with your students:

Students should also have choice over how they demonstrate and share their understanding and learning. In other words, they should be given choice in their outputs. There will be more in-depth information around the different types of public products that students can choose to create in a later article.

Providing choice over the final public product is very important, but students should be given many micro-level moments of choice in outputs throughout the project. Students may have choice over how they demonstrate their learning at different checkpoints or for different components of the project. They may share through writing, video, visuals, or oral feedback, among other options. For ideas on different types of assessment opportunities that you may have students choose throughout the project, consider listening to the podcast episodes or reading the articles from AVID Open Access below:

PBL is student-centered learning. Therefore, students need to have the opportunity to voice their ideas and opinions and be involved in the decisions about their learning. It is your role as the teacher to provide students with these necessary opportunities for voice and choice.

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