Transforming Classrooms with Project-Based Writing

 //  Oct 16, 2020

Transforming Classrooms with Project-Based Writing

Susan Van Zile is the co-author of Writing: A Project-Based Approach. In this blog post, Susan explains the benefits of project-based writing and ways to encourage students to collaborate, even when they are learning remotely.

During a global pandemic, educators, students, and parents face enormous challenges. Each district must determine whether to offer in-person, virtual, or hybrid instruction, and if schools are forced to shut down, remote learning becomes the norm. Within this environment, what can educational leaders do to promote high-quality learning that teaches students 21st-century skills and motivates them to learn?

My language arts colleagues and I passionately believe that project-based learning (PBL) and, in our case, project-based writing, both prepares students for the future and inspires them. In fact, with its emphasis on using sustained inquiry to investigate challenging problems or questions, our students might be able to help us solve some of the problems COVID-19 poses for the classroom.

Our investigation into project-based writing began when I heard one of my students shout, “I hate writing!” Devastated, I wondered why. Could it be that I had overemphasized the analytical writing demanded by the state assessments? In doing so, had I contributed to students’ animosity toward writing? What could I do to change students’ attitudes while also meeting state standards and preparing students to succeed on the state tests?

To answer these questions, my colleagues and I began to explore project-based learning and to examine how it could revitalize our writing program. As a result of our research, we incorporated the principles of project-based learning into our language arts curriculum. We decided our writing units needed to begin with a driving question; incorporate student choice; include collaboration, innovation, feedback, and revision; and generate products for a public audience (Larmer & Mergendoller, 2010). Our research also revealed that students who receive PBL instruction score higher on standardized and performance-based assessments than students who study similar materials using traditional methods (Larmer et al., 2015; Thomas, 2000). How ironic that a PBL approach could actually prepare our students for the state assessments while simultaneously arming them with skills future employers require: inquiry, research, problem-solving, collaboration, and communication (Smart, Hicks, & Melton, 2012).

Our Developing, Designing, and Marketing Inventions and Innovations unit for students in grades 4–6 illustrates the transformative power of project-based writing. This unit, like all of them, begins with a student-generated driving question: How do we turn ideas into inventions and innovations? To address this question, students engage in 21st-century skills used in the workplace. They work in business teams to create a viable product, conduct surveys to determine its validity, analyze the results, and create a business proposal and multimedia presentation to introduce and market their invention/innovation to a real-world audience. While the skills noted here are specific to our Inventions and Innovations project, all our units involve research, investigation, and collaboration. Additionally, they utilize multimedia and digital presentations, such as podcasts, movies, and advertisements, to communicate what students have learned.

Since we initially implemented project-based learning in a traditional classroom setting, we will now need to adjust some of our learning activities to accommodate CDC guidelines and virtual classrooms for the current school year. Both Google Classroom and Zoom provide safe environments for collaboration, a critical component of project-based writing. Through Google Docs, students can critique and review one another’s writing as well as write collaboratively. Presentations can be live through Zoom or created through Google Slides embedded with audio and video. If students are writing and giving speeches, they can be recorded in Flipgrid so students have access to all of them in a central location. With a few modifications, project-based learning will succeed in a virtual classroom.

Whether teaching in a traditional or virtual classroom during a pandemic, why does project-based learning continue to be so important? Consider the following student responses when asked about what they learned during our Inventions and Innovations unit:

  • To work together on something and achieve a goal
  • To make different products from combining ideas
  • To be successful takes teamwork

Involving students in PBL teaches them the value of compromise, teamwork, and goal-setting. Learning becomes meaningful and relevant: students are doing what future employers need them to do.

Since we have started using PBL in our classrooms, we have witnessed its positive impact on students. Excitement and enthusiasm for learning has soared, and the quality of final products has improved significantly. We encourage educators everywhere to embrace the principles of PBL and join us on our journey to inspire, challenge, and prepare our students to face the 21st century with joy.


Larmer, J., & Mergendoller, J. R. (2010, September). Seven essentials for project-based learning. Educational Leadership, 68(1), 34-37. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational_leadership/sept10/vol68/num01/Seven_Essentials_for_Project-Based_Learning.aspx

Larmer, J., Mergendoller, J. & Boss, S. (2015) Setting the standard for project-based learning: A proven approach to rigorous classroom instruction. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Smart, K.L., Hicks, N., & Melton, J (2013). Using problem-based scenarios to teach writing. Business Communication Quarterly, 76(1), 72-81. doi:10.1177/1080569912466256

Thomas, J. W. (2000). A review of research on project-based learning. San Rafael, CA Autodesk Foundation.