Keeping Students Engaged in a 1:1 Project-Based Classroom [guest post]

Image approved for copy by Cre­ative Commons.



When lap­tops first arrived in my class­room, I wor­ried about class­room man­age­ment. How could I cre­ate an envi­ron­ment where stu­dents used their com­put­ers as tools rather than toys?

I was wor­ried for noth­ing. The fol­low­ing are sug­ges­tions for keep­ing stu­dents engaged in a project and account­able for their time with computers:

Stu­dents make a plan.

Stu­dents are most tempted to open wid­gets, games, and social chats when they are faced with a blank screen and have no plan.

Much of the time, stu­dents think they have a plan. If you ask them What are you going to do?, the answer is usu­ally I’m gonna make a Power Point about… or I want to make a movie about… Those answers indi­cate that stu­dents are think­ing of tech­nol­ogy before content.

Instead, ask What are you try­ing to learn? or What are you try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate? or What are you work­ing on as a writer? Those ques­tions get answers like I want to know more about the horses that Civil War gen­er­als rode or I want to con­vince peo­ple that Justin Bieber is the best singer ever or I’m try­ing to describe the character’s actions.

When you ask about learn­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tion, you are sig­nal­ing that the con­tent is more impor­tant than the tech­nol­ogy. Pull aside those who are strug­gling with plans. Let them talk together and encour­age them to sketch their ideas with dia­grams or bul­let points and return to the com­puter later. Stu­dents with a plan tend to stay on task.

Stu­dents set time-bound goals.

Once stu­dents have a plan, they break the project into smaller tasks that can be fin­ished in 10– to 15-minute chunks of time. Have stu­dents write the spe­cific tasks on Post-it notes. Post-its are set beside the com­puter. On their Post-its, stu­dents fin­ish the sen­tence, “In the next [x-amount of] min­utes, I plan to…” They gen­er­ally write things like…

  • Cre­ate an out­line for my essay
  • Write my introduction
  • Find three pic­tures about…
  • Do my voice recording
  • Fin­ish four slides of my Power Point/Keynote
  • Find at least three data­base arti­cles on…
  • Draft at least three paragraphs
  • Use Google docs to peer-edit so-and-so’s essay
  • Upload my story to Voicethread

Tasks should be spe­cific. I’m gonna work on my project is not spe­cific enough. At the end of class, Post-its become “exit slips”. Stu­dents tick off the tasks they have com­pleted and hand the Post-its to the teacher so the teacher can see the progress.

Lap­top screens are “fisted” or “put at half mast”. 

Teach­ers don’t lec­ture much in a project-based learn­ing envi­ron­ment. How­ever, some­times stu­dent work time is inter­rupted so the teacher can give reminders or clar­ify directions.

Ask stu­dents to “fist” their com­puter (or “put the screen at half mast”). Screens should be gen­tly low­ered so that stu­dents’ fists fit between the edge of the track pad and the screen.

When screens are fisted, stu­dents are not dis­tracted by items on their screen nor can they type. At the same time, stu­dents do not lower their screens to the point that the com­put­ers go to sleep. In an iPad envi­ron­ment, stu­dents might care­fully face their screens down on the desk.

Fin­gers indi­cate the amount of time stu­dents need to com­plete a shorter task.

Some tasks are shorter and need to be com­pleted within a few min­utes of class. After stu­dents have worked for a rea­son­able amount of time, ask stu­dents to show fin­gers for how many addi­tional min­utes they need. Fisted com­put­ers sig­nal completion.

If a stu­dent is far behind the rest of the class, try to deter­mine whether the stu­dent got dis­tracted or if the stu­dent needs reteach­ing. Have the stu­dent take a screen­shot of his or her progress. Screen­shots are help­ful to guide future conversations.

Cir­cu­late the room, con­fer­enc­ing with students.

Walk­ing and talk­ing with stu­dents is impor­tant with or with­out com­put­ers. In her arti­cle 10 Ways to be a Ter­ri­ble Teacher, Vicki Davis describes the ter­ri­ble teacher as one who is work­ing on his or her own com­puter and not pay­ing atten­tion to students.

Stu­dents wel­come teacher con­ver­sa­tion. They are eager to share their progress and request advice when they’re stuck. You build rela­tion­ships with stu­dents when you talk to them about their work.

Rather than ban­ning chat, teach stu­dents how to use it for collaboration.

Chat fea­tures are pro­grammed into Gmail and Google prod­ucts. The first year, I banned chats. Then, I real­ized that chats can be used for stu­dent collaboration.

I glance at the chat win­dows as I cir­cu­late the room. Since stu­dents have spe­cific, time-bound goals, most chats are used to ask peers to look over a para­graph or help with another aspect of the project.

Don’t be afraid to have tough con­ver­sa­tions with indi­vid­ual students.

Each year, I have to pull aside one or two stu­dents to talk about time man­age­ment. It’s not a puni­tive con­ver­sa­tion. The con­ver­sa­tion goes some­thing like this:

I’ve noticed you haven’t made much progress on…I need to know what’s get­ting in the way of your progress. I’m not ask­ing because I want to get you in trou­ble. I’m ask­ing because you’re now x-years old and I’m wor­ried that, if you get in the habit of…,then school will be really hard for you in the future.

Many of the sug­ges­tions above apply to project-based learn­ing envi­ron­ments both with and with­out com­put­ers. The trick in a 1:1 envi­ron­ment is to main­tain focus on learn­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Then let tech­nol­ogy nat­u­rally enhance those outcomes.

What tricks do you use to keep stu­dents engaged?

Janet Moeller-Abercrombie is the author of Expat Edu­ca­tor. She has 16 years of teach­ing expe­ri­ence and cur­rently works full time at Hong Kong Inter­na­tional School. Janet is a doc­toral can­di­date with the Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota and has begun cur­ricu­lum con­sult­ing with admin­is­tra­tors and teach­ers. She is cer­ti­fied by the National Board for Pro­fes­sional Teach­ing Stan­dards. @jabbacrombie



  1. […] week­end I worked on a guest post for Dan­ger­ously Irrel­e­vant and 1to1 Schools. Both blogs are run by Dr. Scott McLeod. If you give a stu­dent a com­puter, you’ll want to […]

  2. Holly says:

    Thank you for such prac­ti­cal tips, Janet! I’ll be shar­ing this with my fac­ulty for sure. We aren’t a 1:1 school, but I know your man­age­ment tips will helps us out when using our mobile lap­top labs.

  3. […] Keep­ing Stu­dents Engaged in a 1:1 Project-Based Class­room [guest post] | 1 to 1 Schools […]

  4. […] Keep­ing Stu­dents Engaged in a 1:1 Project-Based Class­room [guest post] | 1 to 1 Schools […]

  5. […] Keep­ing Stu­dents Engaged in a 1:1 Project-Based Class­room [guest post] | 1 to 1 Schools […]

  6. Heath McFaul says:

    I think the 1:1 con­cept needs to be seri­ously recon­sid­ered. This push tends to make me believe that peo­ple (teach­ers included) actu­ally think that mak­ing tech­nol­ogy more avail­able will decrease the dig­i­tal divide our nation cur­rently faces. The real­ity is that 1:1 learn­ing is only as good as the ped­a­gog­i­cal skills devel­oped around it. The sug­ges­tions pro­vided in this arti­cle will undoubt­edly pro­vide a level of focus placed upon tech­nol­ogy as a tool, and not a toy. How­ever, at what point do we exam­ine the qual­ity con­trol mea­sures that must be put in place in order to ensure all teach­ers are as ded­i­cated to learn­ing as the blog suggests.

  7. […] this blog via e-mail or my RSS feed. I also am on Twit­ter. Thanks for visiting!In an ear­lier post, Keep­ing Stu­dents Engaged in a 1:1 Project-Based Class­room, I focused on projects com­pleted by indi­vid­u­als. What about group […]

  8. […] TO A RECOMMENDED ARTICLE:   Keep­ing Stu­dents Engaged in a 1:1 Project-based Class­room by Scott […]

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