Educators who invest in project-based learning (PBL) say the benefits are obvious: real-world relevance and a sense of purpose lead to higher classroom engagement and better knowledge retention among students. But the path to those outcomes isn’t always smooth. Students sometimes resist the more active role PBL requires from them, because they are accustomed to sit-and-get instruction.
“That's how we train kids to do school,” said Bob Lenz, the CEO of PBLWorks, a nonprofit that helps educators build capacity to design and teach quality PBL. “You tell me what I need to know. I'll tell you what I know. You'll give me a grade and we're done.” Instead of capturing what students know about a particular subject at a point in time like a traditional test or quiz, PBL encourages students to iterate and repeatedly evaluate their understanding.
Because it explores real-world issues without clear-cut solutions, PBL might involve public speaking, working in teams or sharing projects in an exhibition, all of which can cause anxiety in students. Additionally, projects require more responsibility and investment, so when they go awry, it can lead to doubts that result in low confidence, negative thoughts and low engagement, according to University of Illinois researchers Carolyn Orson and Reed Larson in their article, “Helping Teens Overcome Anxiety Episodes in Project Work: The Power of Reframing.” Teens are especially susceptible to high levels of anxiety. A recent survey from Pew Research Center showed 70% of teens ages thirteen to seventeen think anxiety and depression is a major problem among their peers.
But not all anxious feelings are harmful to learning. In small doses, anxiety can be fruitful, according to researchers and psychologists. Lenz has seen this play out in classrooms that PBLWorks supports. “When it [works out] and you have the exhibition and you share it and everybody claps, you never forget that as a learner,” Lenz said. “If you want to build somebody's self-esteem, support them in doing something that causes them anxiety.”
Orson and Larson’s research includes three reframing strategies teachers can use to help students step back from their feelings of anxiety when they experience challenges in their project work.
Discomfort or Disorder?
Getting butterflies before a big presentation or feeling jittery when starting a new project are common responses to events that seem challenging. How does a teacher or parent know when a child’s anxiety is normal vs. when it’s cause for concern?
“I talk about school as being something that is okay to get a little nervous about because it is important. We want you to care enough to study,” said Jennifer Louie, clinical psychologist in the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute. “But we want you to keep it all in perspective and say to yourself, ‘Is my anxiety level appropriate to the situation? Is my body reacting as if I'm being chased by a lion when I only have a test?”
A misconception about children’s anxiety is that parents and teachers have to completely accommodate it. “Too much giving in to anxiety actually makes things worse,” said Louie. Teachers and parents can look for signs that anxiety is severe, like disruptions to eating and sleeping or excessive crying, and then make accommodations as necessary. But the accommodations should be temporary.
“We don't want it to be that way for the long term. We want them to always be working towards challenging themselves,” said Louie. For example, if a student is really nervous about a class presentation they might be allowed to record and submit a video of the presentation. The next time, the student can give the presentation to just the teacher, and eventually they can work up to presenting to the full class.
Reframe Students' Understanding of Their Abilities
Orson and Larson, the University of Illinois researchers, interviewed 27 educators to understand their strategies for helping learners with anxiety related to PBL. One of the educators, identified in their study as Cathy, was working with middle school students on a play when she found a student who had been cast as the lead character crying in the bathroom. Even though they had been practicing for weeks, the student, named Katara, didn’t think she was good enough for such a big role.
Ability-related anxiety usually crops up when students are trying something new, write Orson and Larson. A telltale sign that a student is experiencing this type of stress is a drop in confidence and an increase in negative self-talk. Teachers can help students by reminding them of times they tried something new and succeeded. Teachers might say, “I’ve seen you do this” or “I’ve seen your abilities” when assuring students that they are equipped to take on a challenge, Orson told MindShift.
Cathy, for example, helped Katara think about her skills in new ways by reminding her how much she had rehearsed and prepared for her role in the play. To quiet Katara’s self-deprecating inner voice, Cathy provided her outside perspective, including examples of how Katara excelled in the role and why she was chosen to play the part.
Additionally, teachers can help students who are anxious about PBL understand that they can learn new skills from the challenges that they’re experiencing. For instance, if a student is trying something that consistently fails, teachers can use Carol Dweck’s growth mindset framework to convince them that they’re on the way to learning something new. To avoid misusing the growth mindset framework and praising effort solely to make kids feel good when they are not successful, teachers can direct praise towards students’ effective learning strategies.
Reframe Students' Understanding of the Challenges
Orson and Larson’s research highlights another reframing strategy used by Desiree, an educator in Illinois. During a mural project, Desiree’s student, Delphi, was using spray paint for the first time and struggling to paint eyes on a person in the mural. After multiple attempts, she became frustrated and anxious.
As students are first starting project-based learning, they usually don’t anticipate possible obstacles, write Orson and Larson. When students come up against a roadblock, educators can give them more information about the materials or scope of the project to help them understand what is and isn’t in their control. “They’re not saying, ‘We’re going to make this easier,’” Orson told MindShift. “It’s more like they’re [giving students] another perspective on the challenge.”
For example, Desiree helped her student understand that spray paint works differently from more familiar art-making tools and that it may not look the way she expects it to. She told Delphi to take a step back from her work to see it how murals are meant to be seen – from a distance. With a new perspective on challenges, students are able to adjust their expectations and the work seems more manageable.
Reframe Students' Experience of Their Emotions
Research shows that emotions – even ones that are considered negative like guilt, anger, or anxiety – are a useful feedback mechanism. “Emotions are so intertwined with learning at every step of the way from why you decided to try to engage with something all the way to actually finishing something,” Orson said. "Emotions can help alert you to information that helps you understand your world a little more."
Orson and Larson interviewed Vivian, an educator for a robotics youth program, about how she addressed student anxiety as her class built catapults. Vivian’s student Mateo became so frustrated when his catapult initially didn’t work that he stopped trying altogether. Instead of getting mad at her student for wasting time, Vivian prompted him to talk through his frustrations with his catapult and focus on the specifics of the situation causing him to feel that way.
Vivian normalized his emotions, saying it's okay to feel frustrated when trying to solve a hard problem. She also helped Mateo see that his emotions are not a reason to check out but that they could help him identify where he could start problem-solving.
Reframing emotions is useful when students hit an unforeseen obstacle, like if one of their project partners is absent or an expert they were hoping to talk to suddenly cancels. They learn that working through surprises is part of the process. As students do more project-based work and are supported through their challenges, they’ll learn to reframe emotions on their own.
Improve the Conditions for Project-based Learning
Teachers can put structures in place that make overwhelming anxiety less likely. “The fear of being judged is a huge adolescent fear,” said Orson, who recommended that teachers plan relationship-building exercises throughout the year to maintain a positive social environment in the classroom. “Fostering a really supportive interpersonal environment where it's okay to not know and it's okay to ask questions and to make mistakes is really important.”
When students are new to PBL, teachers also can limit the scope of projects to allow for the unexpected. “Some students are going to struggle, so you’re going to slow down. Or their first projects are just not ready, so you’ll have to help them revise,” said Bob Lenz from PBLWorks. “It's better to do small projects that are successful than large ones that you don't finish.”
Teachers can reduce assessment-related anxiety by setting clear expectations and providing a rubric for what makes a quality project. “Sometimes that criteria can be generated by the students,” said Lenz. “Sometimes it's influenced by an expert.” For example, if the class is creating public service announcements, they might have a commercial director talk to them about what goes into a good product.
When projects are finished, teachers can leave time for students to reflect. Lenz suggested questions like “What was your process for completing this project?” and “What would you do differently next time?” Opportunities to reflect individually and with others helps students understand themselves better as learners and monitor their growth.
Moving past anxiety and creating a finished project invites students to practice valuable skills. Schools aspire to develop students into problem-solvers, critical thinkers, active communicators and kind collaborators. It’s a tall order, but when done correctly, PBL and the challenging emotions that come with stepping outside one's comfort zone can provide the opportunity to develop those qualities.
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