Section 5: Student-Designed Learning Projects

Conceptual Overview

Presentation Audio Transcript

Text-Based Reflection

Linda Aronson is the author of Unleashed to Learn: Empowering Students to Learn at Full Capacity, which is about her experience designing the senior capstone project at RSU2 in Maine. 

Watch this short audio collage of interviews.
Answer the following question:

  • How do the values discussed by the entrepreneurs in the video relate to the goals of implementing student-designed learning projects?

Student Experience

Watch Bringing It All Together: The Senior Capstone Project.
Answer the following questions:

  • What did you see in the students that demonstrated the power of capstones, gateways, or showcases?
  • How do you think the students were prepared and supported to be able to achieve this work?

Educator Experience

Read the Glossary of Education Reform's entry on "Capstone Projects" for a high-level overview of their use and relevant considerations.
Read Edutopia's "6 Tips for Engaging Capstone Projects" for some guidelines for teachers.
Consider the videos you've watched in the other sections of this module.
Answer these questions:

  • What support to you see being given to students (or discussed) so that they can be successful in their capstone experiences?
  • What support would the kids in your school need to be successful?
  • What would it mean for your school, faculty, and community to be able to provide that support? What would have to change?

Case Study Analysis

Read the case study below:

Gateway School Union has implemented a senior project for the last twenty years. The process requires that all students create their own learning experience and through that experience they demonstrate the union's PBGRs one last time before graduation. Each year the process has become smoother and more refined, ensuring students are supported along the way. Despite the growth the project has seen, there is always a backlash from some students and parents in the fall that the project is too difficult, that students have not been prepared to complete this magnitude of independent learning before.

Frustrated by this backlash every year, even if only for a few students, the principal asked to bring his dilemma to the union's leadership team's weekly meeting. In preparation of the meeting he wrote out his dilemma.

"Gateway has been doing senior project for two decades. In that time, the project has become a part of our culture and although each year we make improvements to the process, we still face parents and students in the fall who feel their student is not prepared to complete the project. Some improvements we have made to address these issues include creating mini projects in some classes to build independence, letting students start in the spring of their junior year, providing time during the school day to get support, and designing an organizational process to help students with time management. I know the project is important and valuable, which is evident at the Senior Project Showcase in the spring. There is a great sense of pride and satisfaction from students, parents, and staff. But, in the fall, I get a new set of parents that take up hours of time debating the project with me, guidance counselors, school board members, and other administrators."

Answer the following questions:

  • If you were on the leadership team, what advice would you give the principal?
  • How can independent gateway projects (projects between levels) help support high school seniors who struggle?
  • How can scaffolded performance indicators throughout a student's time in the district help support the senior project?

Supplemental Resources


Watch the Maine Department of Education's "History Day: School-Wide Performance Assessment" for a video about a showcase at a middle school in western Maine.
Read the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education's "Culminating Events for Project-Based Learning" for an overview of different formats for showcasing student work within the community.
Read the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education's "Celebrating Learning at Richmond Elementary School" for a description and videos of 4th grade students showcasing their capstone projects in Richmond, Vermont.


Watch Chelsea High School's "CHS Capstone - An Introduction" and "Chelsea High Capstone Project Recap for 2013-2014" for videos about capstones in a Massachusetts school.
Read Edutopia's "Middle School Maker Journey: Preparing for the Capstones" for a series of examples of what capstones might look like in middle grades.


Read the Center for Collaborative Education's "Guiding Students in Reflection: The Gateway Process at Parker" for a blog about how a gateway requirement at a Massachusetts school inspires student reflection.
Read CompetencyWorks' "Gateways, Not Grades" for an examination of how a New Hampshire school is using a gateway process to flexibly guide student progress.

Evidence of Learning

Be sure to record your answers to the above questions in the Evidence of Learning Tool.

Continue this Self-Paced Course

Section 6: Student-Led Conferences

Browse other questionsPractices in Personalized, Proficiency-Based Learning

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