Media, Technology, and Education
Cluster PedagogyIntegrated ClustersProject-based Learning

PSU at the Institute for Project Based Learning

For the last five summers, the Center for Project-Based Learning at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has offered a project-based learning institute for teams from colleges and universities who are interested in implementing project-based learning as part of their curriculum. This year, Plymouth State University sent a team to learn and work in this intense 3 day event. Our team included me as the General Education Coordinator since much of our work on cluster pedagogy is centered on the Gen Ed Program. Elisabeth Johnston and Rachelle Lyons were part of the team because of their work on the Tackling a Wicked Problem Steering Committee who have taught multiple sections of our now-deleted First Year Seminar. Abby Good and Sarah Parrish brought their perspectives as members of the INCAP Fellows who taught sections of the INCAP this spring. Finally, Brigid O’Donnell attended in order to bring her perspective from participating in a pilot offering of a Gen Ed thematic pathway focused on curiosity. The main work of the institute was to develop an action plan for the campus for incorporating project-based learning more widely across campus, particularly in the Gen Ed program.

The institute itself was structured in an interesting way. There were three plenary sessions, workshops led by members of the institute faculty, most of whom are faculty and staff from WPI, team working sessions with a coach from the institute faculty, and meetings of teams from four different universities to give feedback on the action plans. The workshops were concurrent, with 7 options in each time slot. Our team divided ourselves among those workshops to get as much information and advice as we could. We received the materials for all of the workshops, plenary sessions, etc., even the ones we didn’t attend and will share those materials on the Cluster Pedagogy Learning Community Moodle page in the next few weeks.

For example, I went to a workshop on forming, developing, and mentoring student teams engaged in project-based learning. We brainstormed the characteristics of effective teams (good communication, shared goals, accountability, psychological safety to allow risk-taking, mutual respect, good results, and so on) as well as the characteristics of ineffective teams (different agendas and ideas of desired outcomes, lack of communication, lack of motivation, conflict avoidance, tension, and so on). We talked about the various ways we can form teams in our classes: student self-selection, randomized selection, and faculty mediated selection which could be done by complementary skills, diversity, logistical considerations such as available meeting times, and/or student project interest. We discussed the advantages and disadvantages of each method. At WPI, the Counseling Center is a resource that faculty and students can use when team dynamics are getting in the way of productivity. We also discussed the difference between a course in which improved collaboration skills is an explicit learning outcomes and a course in which the project work is a means to achieve other outcomes. Neither of these is better than the other. We simply need to know which we are doing. The best part of the workshop was that we received a packet of materials for helping teams work together (which I will share in the Moodle site for the Cluster Pedagogy Learning Community).

I also went to a workshop on using rubrics in project-based learning. Terry Rhodes, a Vice President at AACU, was one of the presenters along with Paula Quinn, the Associate Director of the Center for Project-Based Learning. We talked about reasons for using rubrics, including articulation of project expectations and allowing dependable judgments when evaluating projects. Terry then talked about the elements of a rubric: criteria which represent key elements of learning that we will look for, levels of achievement, and performance descriptors which describe what learning looks like for each key element as each level of achievement. This all felt pretty basic to me but the materials they provided will be useful for our learning community (and again, I will share on the Moodle site). The most useful part of the workshop was when Terry described how a faculty member evaluated her assignments using the rubrics she created. She asked herself whether the assignment addresses the elements of the rubric and whether those elements of the rubric specified criteria that were actually taught in the class. For example, if the rubric has an item about working well in a team, is working well in a team something that is taught in the class? If not, either working well in a team should not be part of the rubric or working well in a team should be taught in the class. In other words, the assignment as well as what you do in the class should be aligned with what you want students to learn. It was a useful exercise to think about and I plan to use it when I create rubrics and assignments.

Rick Vaz led one of the plenary sessions. I’ve seen versions of this talk a couple of times from Rick but he had some updated information that I think is interesting. Rick is the Director of the Center for Project-Based Learning and presented on the results of an alumni survey that WPI did a few years ago. The survey indicates that alumni find the focus on PBL to have positively impacted their success after graduation. But the thing that I found most interesting (because I’ve seen the alumni results a couple of times before–they are also very interesting) was the results of a survey done in 2018 by AACU of hiring managers and what they look for when they are hiring new employees. 95% of respondents judged the following things more important than a student’s major for career success: oral communication skills, working effectively with others, ethical decision-making and judgment, applying knowledge and skills to real-world settings, working independently and managing time, being self-motivated and taking initiative, and critical thinking and analytical reasoning. That is 7 items that are more important to 95% of surveyed hiring managers than what a student majored in. For me, this is why we are using cluster pedagogy in our classes at PSU. We are focused on helping students develop the Habits of Mind that represent the learning outcomes for the Gen Ed program and these Habits of Mind are related to the 7 items identified by hiring managers. I think the thing we could use more emphasis on is ethical decision-making and judgment.

The most important part of the Institute was the time that our team spent together coming up with an action plan for our campus to incorporate more PBL into our classes. Since PBL is a component of cluster pedagogy, we actually looked at this task a bit more broadly. Our goal for the action plan is to align our curriculum and practices with cluster pedagogy. We will present our action plan to the decision-makers on each item (President, Provost, Associate Provost, Gen Ed Committee, etc.) over the next few weeks and will be working on implementing the plan over the upcoming academic year. We’re excited about the possibilities!

Image Credit–taken by Cathie LeBlanc at Rick Vaz’s plenary on June 19, 2019

Article written by:

I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.


  1. Kristin Wobbe

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  3. Rick Vaz

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  4. Rick Vaz

    Looking forward to following the great work being done @PlymouthState by @cathieleblanc and her colleagues. Thanks for the great post about #ipbl2019!

  5. Rick Vaz

    Looking forward to following the great work being done @PlymouthState by @cathieleblanc and her colleagues. Thanks for the great post about #ipbl2019!

  6. dr. mary beth ray

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