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Addressing Student Engagement Through Hybrid Project-Based Learning (Cabarrus Virtual Academy)

How a virtual school engaged students through project-based learning


This brief case study features the work one school system completed to address the challenge of student engagement in their virtual and hybrid learning environments. It is part of a larger brief exploring the work that four school system teams undertook in TLA’s Strategy Lab program, which is a networked learning experience that leverages our Real-Time Redesign (RTR) process to help teams identify and address root-cause equity barriers.

Context: Cabarrus County Schools

Cabarrus Virtual Academy (CVA), a hybrid school based in North Carolina serving 300 K-12 students, describes their instructional model as a combination of virtual and in-person instruction. They joined Strategy Lab to learn how to create an accessible and sustainable student-centered instructional program for all students across their system.

The Challenge of Engagement: Active Learning

Each of the school systems featured in TLA’s student engagement case study was selected based upon their focus on one particular aspect of engagement, ranging on a continuum from foundational (i.e., attendance) to deeper (i.e., active learning) characteristics. Each district chose to focus on an aspect of engagement that emerged from team discussions, self- and team assessments, and that was aligned to their reason for joining Strategy Lab.

Continuum of engagement from foundational tenets to more meaningful learning.

Four arrows going to the right showing the continuum of engagement: Attendance to Participation to Work Completion to Active Learning. 

Attendance: Actions such as physical presence for in-person or synchronous sessions.

Participation: Behaviors and action markers such as camera on/off, verbal responses in discussions, and/or use of chatbox/reactions.

Work Completion: Actions such as submitting assignments or completing tasks, as well as resulting grades earned and/or GPA.

Interaction and Collaboration: Actions such as working together with peers, creating products, and/or taking part in peer and/or self-reflection.

The CVA team identified a core challenge: how to encourage active learning in both synchronous and in-person classes. They wanted to empower students to interact with content and peers while also taking ownership over their learning.

According to their team assessment, teachers were beginning to use instructional strategies that fostered active learning as well as produce multimedia resources to support learner engagement. Discussions during the needs assessment prompted the team to ask to what degree do students feel empowered in their learning? By the same token, workbook entries showed that the team wanted to ensure that their middle-school students were prepared with certain skills – independence and self-directed learning – before they transitioned to high school.

Continued conversations around existing policies and practices pointed to a problem of practice: the challenge of increasing opportunities for student-centered activities to drive engagement in meaningful learning.

Designing and Piloting a Measurable Solution: Hybrid Project-Based Learning

To address this issue, the team decided to design and pilot a hybrid approach: an in-person project-based learning (PBL) lesson for middle-school students. They hypothesized that this plan would provide students with critical opportunities to socially interact with peers across grade levels while also empowering them in their learning through solving a real-world problem.

The leadership team piloted the introduction of an in-person PBL lesson across grades 6-8 to increase interaction among students during in-person days as well as transfer ownership of learning to students. This involved three key components:

Pre-Experience Online Preparation: Prior to the in-person PBL day, teachers took students through a design cycle and piqued their interest by showing a video that demonstrated an engineering challenge around boat-building. Teachers told students that they would be working on a boat project in cross-grade level teams, but they would not know the full scope of the materials available to them until the day of the event. To further solicit student interest, teachers shared that there would be a contest at the end of the day to determine which team had built the best boat.

In-Person PBL: The pilot team concentrated their efforts to create a learning experience founded on active learning. For the PBL project, students needed to design and execute a plan to build a boat that would propel itself across the water.

Cross-Grade Level Collaborative Learning: The pilot teachers intentionally created the PBL lesson so that students would interact and collaborate with peers from different grade levels. The purpose was to encourage team-building, social interaction, and a sense of collective purpose.

What Happened

Data from the pilot showed that 100% of students who attended the in-person PBL day actively engaged with the task and earned a passing grade for their project. According to the pilot team, the middle-school teachers noted the enthusiasm of students as well as a decreased dependence on teachers to provide support as students instead collaborated with their teammates for help.

Students shared that working across grade levels made the project more engaging:

  • 84% of students agreed that the PBL lesson increased their engagement; and

  • 85% of students shared that the PBL lesson helped them learn better.

Workbook entries from the pilot team revealed that meaningful engagement among students improved with the implementation of the PBL lesson. The teachers saw a variety of successful solutions as each group took on a different approach to the project and appeared to learn a lot from working with peers. More promisingly, both teachers and students remarked that they would like to participate in another PBL activity. 

What’s Next

The district leadership team is planning to use the lessons from this pilot to learn, iterate, and scale whole-school PBL learning. As they look forward to the new school year, the team intends to develop more active learning opportunities as part of their school improvement plan.

Resources for Taking Action

Below are some tools and ideas that can help system leaders and educators think about this strategy in their own context: