Project Based Learning

Kids are smart. They can smell fake a mile away. That’s one of the reasons they get so frustrated with class content and homework that doesn’t seem to have any impact on real life. Engaging students with course material is sometimes just a matter of making it relevant. For instance…my uncle teaches nursing at the university level. He and I were chatting about classroom best practices the other day and how marked a difference classroom attention and focus were when students felt a connection to what they were learning. In one of his classes on medical finance he was noticing students start to nod off, and who could blame them? Insurance policies, co-pays, fee structures….blech! But once he couched those mechanics into stories of patients who had to deal with them, say a mother of 3 without insurance about to be denied on the transplant list for a new kidney, or a teenage boy who’s poor family insurance plan can’t get him the insulin he needs after a change in federal policy. Well now those boring facts and figures are literally life and death. They’re interesting because they are real, and directly applicable to their practice.

Taken to the next step, project based learning assumes that we learn best not by being told how to do something in practice, but by actually practicing it. In music, this is a no brainer. Our entire lives are one big project based learning loop, and we grow through doing, through trial and error and are guided by mentor musicians who are a little further down the path than we are. So when thinking about a project based learning unit for my songwriting class I skipped the obvious choice of writing practice songs or doing some sort of performance. I chose an activity that is well known in the modern music business world, almost essential for any budding songwriter, but which has larger, broader applications…crowdfunding.

In order to write an effective crowdfunding pitch you need 4 things: a project plan, a killer intro video, a great system of tiered rewards, and a marketing plan. The project plan is an essential component to any profession. It’s how most working adults present ideas to colleagues or government bodies to propose a course of action and demonstrate their research, organization and feasibility. I tell students that if they come up with a plan to bring something they’re passionate about to life, they can start by creating a project plan with the following template and any adult will take them seriously.

Project Plan Template

The project students complete is a crowdfunding page for a project they are passionate about seeing actually happen. Maybe it’s a community garden, a “little free library,” an EP of original songs, a cleanup of the lake at their cabin, a social justice project…anything that gets them fired up.
In the lessons we go over how to create each part of the plan, how to plan and shoot an intro video, how to construct reward tiers and how to put together a marketing plan including press release. To make it as real as possible I have them construct it in the Kickstarter platform. This way if they really do want to see the project through all they have to do is launch it on the platform and they can start raising real money to make it happen. The final crowdfunding pages are shared with the class as a presentation and are graded with the following rubric.

Teacher-Facing Rubric

Student-Facing Rubric

But the assessment for this type of assignment can’t just be given at the end. There need to be a series of formative assessments throughout the project to evaluate student understanding and progress.

At the completion of each major phase of this project I have students break out into pre-assigned cohorts to discuss their progress. They get a chance to share the work they’ve done, test it on some peers, and work through trouble spots. Checking in verbally with each group and asking for a mini-presentation of what they’ve got together so far is an excellent, fast and low stress way to gauge where students are at without resorting to a summative assessment.

As students move through the project they can self-evaluate their progress, both with the provided rubric and with an activities checklist that tells them exactly what they need to have done and suggested dates for completion. Checking in regularly with a show of hands as I run down the checklist aloud to the class will give me a good indication of how the group is progressing on their tasks, and provide a reminder and motivation to any who may have neglected to manage their time wisely.

After each major phase of the project I will also have students share their work with me on Google Docs and will use the comment feature to provide timely and relevant feedback that will guide their progress and challenge them to address higher orders of comprehension. Here I can ask questions, provide links to resources, and give specific individual feedback that they can use to better meet the project criteria.

At the end of the project I do a combination formative and summative assessment. For the summative portion I fill out the rubric with the score I believe their effort has earned. This will be the grade that is entered in the book for the project. The formative part comes from a playful peer assessment where we play a game, not unlike the TV show “Shark Tank,” where the presenting student is asked to give a short promotional pitch for their idea to the class and see if they can convince their classmates to become Kickstarter backers for their project. Students are asked to write a dollar amount they’d be realistically willing to spend on the project being presented. These amounts are collected and anonymously calculated and reported. Students then know if they were persuasive enough to get the project “funded” or not. In the past this game has always provided good feedback while also giving us ample opportunity to ask probing questions and have a lot of laughs. This project has, over the years, become one of the student favorites. We learn so much about business, marketing, and the nuts and bolts to making an idea become reality.