The Issue:  Sam just isn’t working hard enough:

  • When asked to complete a worksheet, he does little more than rely upon his memory. He is reluctant to refer to the textbook, and when he is encouraged to refer to his notes, he states that he has lost them.
  • The situation is worse with writing essays.  He says that he doesn’t understand what a thesis is and does the minimum to satisfy the requirements of the assignment.
  • He is failing Spanish largely because he does so poorly on vocabulary quizzes: apparently, he doesn’t spend enough time on his flashcards memorizing the words.


Whether a student is intrinsically motivated (wants to complete an assignment for the sake of learning/self-improvement) can be a function of the student’s home life, the school environment, the nature of the assignment, and the engagement with the teacher.  The first two of these are outside the scope of this piece, but the twenty-first century classroom can be intentionally designed to address the latter two.

Project-Based Learning

Proponents of “Project-Based Learning” (PBL) argue that this pedagogical approach addresses both these issues.  In this teaching model, teachers or the students themselves identify an issue or problem, research/study it (often collaboratively), find a solution, and present their results to a ‘real-world’ audience as a presentation, paper, video.

In terms of intrinsic motivation, since the students have chosen the area of study, the design of the research and the form of the final product, they have ownership of the learning.  In terms of extrinsic motivation, the final product is not solely for the eyes of the teacher: they are submitting their work to a competition, making a presentation to an external community, or showing their video to their peers.  Furthermore, they may feel that their research and proposed solution may have a practical impact upon their environment.

From the perspective of engagement with the teacher, class time is not spent delivering content: the teacher is free to work individually with students.  In short, there are many reasons for students to invest themselves in such work as opposed to writing another five paragraph essay that will only be read by their teacher.

There is research, moreover, to back claims of heightened student motivation and achievement where the PBL model is used.  In a June 2012 article, the website Edutopia featured results from the Knowledge in Action study by the George Lucas Educational Foundation that found that students in Advanced Placement classes who had been taught using PBL models had, “A 30% higher pass rate for high-achieving students compared to peers in traditional AP classes in comparison schools in the same district;” and, “A 10% higher pass rate for high-poverty students in PBL classes compared to peers in traditional AP classes.”

In The Power of Project-Based Writing in the Classroom, Heather Wolpert-Gawron describes why teaching writing through PBL can be more effective than traditional writing assignments: project-based writing, she argues, provides the opportunity for cross-curricular research, it incorporates higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy (analysis, evaluation, and creation), and it activates all multiple intelligences.  Furthermore, by allowing students the ability to choose the format of the presentation, design a rubric, evaluate each other’s projects, and present to a ‘real life’ audience, students are intrinsically motivated or as Wolpert-Gawron says, “The buy-in for the quality of the final project is tremendous.”

Finally, in How Project-Based Learning Builds 21st Century Skills, Suzie Boss describes more specifically how PBL incorporates higher-order learning objectives of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Citing research from the Buck Institute of Education, Boss argues that students in PBL classrooms are more likely to:

  • “compare information from different sources before completing an assignment
  • “draw their own conclusions based on analysis of numbers, facts, or relevant information”
  • attempt to “solve complex problems or answer questions that have no single correct solution”
  • provide “feedback to peers or assess other students’ work”
  • “convey their ideas using media other than a written paper (such as posters, blogs, or videos)”
  • “answer questions in front of an audience
  • “generate their own ideas about how to confront a problem.”

Using PBL as a model for learning can provide the impetus for a shift from a traditional focus on lower-order learning outcomes such as remembering and understanding to high-order learning objectives such as analyzing, evaluating, and creating.

An example of PBL in a humanities classroom is a documentary-making project.  The objectives of this assignment can be very similar to those of a traditional five-paragraph essay, but the subject is of the students’ choosing and the format is film. The objective and structure of the five-paragraph thesis essay is to:

  • Identify an issue
  • Develop a point of view/opinion
  • Provide evidence to substantiate and/or contradict this opinion from a variety of perspectives exploring all aspects of the issue
  • Summarize the findings

While students may need the opportunity to complete a traditional five-paragraph essay on a subject chosen by the teacher, they are more likely to be motivated by an assignment that allows them to choose and research their own issue, and to create a product in a format that resonates closely with their daily experiences.

For example, the project begins with the students finding and analyzing models for their documentary on YouTube and even presenting what they find to the rest of the class (again, an audience greater than just the teacher). For the next step, they identify an issue, an aspect of their daily lives that they would like to change and develop a thesis statement as a question: “In what ways does a paperless classroom enhance engagement and motivation for students?”

Next, students use a smartphone/iPod Touch/video camera to record interviews with members of the community.  They also capture some footage and even record some voiceovers. Finally, they use a laptop or desktop computer to create and edit their documentary.  The important point here is that students are using the same organizational skills and structure in making this documentary as they would a five-paragraph paper.  Finally, the students present their video to their community, or upload it to YouTube, or submit it to a competition.

The students are assessed through a rubric that uses the assignment’s criteria to evaluate their adherence to each aspect of the assignment so that the evaluation process is transparent and straightforward.

The paperless classroom is the ideal environment for PBL because of the wealth of technology resources to facilitate learning through projects and help our students to develop the 21st century skills:

  • the internet, more than any collection of information before it, provides content from any and all sources;
  • Evernote (or other resources such as Springpad or Google Apps) provides opportunities for organizing digital documents, annotating them, and sharing them with others;
  • cameras, projectors, audio and video recorders and playback  equipment promote professional-looking and engaging presentations for the projects’ audiences;
  • WordPress, Google Sites etc. provide opportunities to publish work on the internet;
  • email, websites, social media, Skype, YouTube, blogs, etc. allow students to share information, presentations and projects with anyone;
  • Google Docs allow students to work collaboratively and provide feedback to each other.

PBL is a pedagogical model that proponents argue promotes higher-order thinking and problem solving while motivating students as they own the subject and final product.

However, PBL does not address all learning needs in a curriculum: virtually all courses require at least some vocabulary building or other forms of the lower levels of Bloom’ Taxonomy: remembering, understanding, and applying. The need to learn and build vocabulary is clearly important in foreign languages, but it is equally important to build subject-specific terminology in mathematics, sciences, and the humanities as much as it is important for students to remember how to perform foundational skills: how to balance an equation, how to determine the path of a projectile, or how to build a major triad on the note D.


There are many traditional ways to help students remember the vocabulary and build the foundation skills they need in all subject areas: examples, problem sets, quizzes, drills , etc.  However, these traditional forms of learning tools are generally unresponsive to the performances of the students: no matter how the students perform on the problems, the questions or the order of questions does not change.

On the other hand, the digital world can provide responsive or ‘live’ learning tools for students: adaptive learning programs that learn from the student’s answers and change the order of questions or the types of questions that are presented.  There are again a multitude of products here such as the lower school adaptive math program IXL.

There are clear benefits to using an adaptive learning program over a traditional problem set for student motivation since the program adapts to the appropriate level for the student.

In terms of motivational self-paced learning, a step further than adaptive learning programs for lower-level learning objective needs are games.  Most games are motivational with rewards, points, and built-in competition: hangman, jeopardy, or word-searches can be fun and motivational alternatives to drills in the acquisition of vocabulary.

Furthermore, the emerging area of gaming can also be an opportunity for PBL; for example, projects where students develop smartphone apps, or compete in robotics competitions.

Blogs & Websites

A major source of motivation when working on a project is knowing that there will be an audience to share the final product with: music groups rehearse diligently when a concert is looming; artists work long hours before a show; robotics engineers sweat to solve problems before a competition.

In the classroom, blogs and websites can be used to provide a wide audience for a student’s everyday work and therefore provide greater motivation to produce quality work than if the sole audience for his/her work is only the teacher.

Blogs (a contraction of “web-logs”) are essentially online journals but with the added advantage of being ‘shareable’ with whomever you’d like to see your thoughts.  Google offers a simple blogging service (“Blogger”) which can be set up and accessed straight from your Gmail account.

A blog can be a free-form journal for students to express themselves on a given topic or one of their choosing.  On the other hand, it can also be a place for students to address specific writing prompts that reflect upon their studies in class.

Once the students have answered a prompt, to complete the assignment, they can read and comment on each others’ posts (either freely or by answering a prompt).  In this way, the students have an audience for their reflections, they have the opportunity to evaluate each other’s writing, and they are also building a digital portfolio of writing.  Importantly, in both their own blogs and the comments they write on each others’ blogs, they are motivated by knowing there is an audience for their writing and that they will receive feedback not just from the teacher, but also from their peers.

Websites offer a similar opportunity to publish work on the internet for a wide audience.  The main differences between blogs and websites being that websites are usually not chronological in their organization as blogs are, and that websites offer a higher level of customization for layout.

QR Codes

QR Codes, those small patterns of square dots that can be found on seemingly everything you buy, offer further opportunities for students to publish and share their work.  Just as the commercial world is becoming ever-more adept at using these codes to provide easy access to their products, so can educators use them to provide information for students and for students to easily access each others’ work. For example, when students complete a video project, besides sharing the final products with the class, QR codes for the videos can be posted in the classroom/in shared school spaces for easy access by other students and members of the school community.


In addition to PBL then, adaptive learning programs, blogs, and ‘gaming’ provide opportunities for teachers to develop both the intrinsic motivation of students and the ability to use extrinsic leverage to drive forward learning outcomes in the classroom.

PBL encourages students to take ownership for their learning, follow their own interests, develop their ability to communicate, create, and problem solve; it focuses learning on the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  PBL allows the teacher to be the ‘guide on the side’ and develop a collaborative relationship with students.

Blogs provide opportunities for students to reflect upon their learning and develop their writing while communicating with an audience.  Blogs also provide the opportunity for students to evaluate and comment on each others’ work and to build a digital portfolio.

Adaptive learning programs and games provide resources for addressing necessary lower-level learning objectives that are self-paced and motivational; they are ‘student-centric.’   The next page will address another aspect of creating a student-centered environment: how digital tools can facilitate collaborative learning among students.

Further Resources

This Edutopia article describes best practices in project-based learning as defined by Manor New Technology High School in Manor, Texas, a 100 percent project-based learning school.

Creative Commons License
Beyond the Paperless Classroom by David Doherty is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.