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An inquirED Blog

Social Studies Projects: Give Students the Keys to Success

Updated: Nov 19, 2020




Does designing a great project seem impossible? What about assessing it? Discover how to engage students and give them agency and ownership over the creation and evaluation of informed action projects. For those of you who were unable to attend the webinar, please find the recording at the end of this blog post.


What was your most memorable learning experience?


I bet it wasn't a quiz or a unit test.


More than likely, it was a project or research paper that challenged you to create something new, something you were proud of, and something you wanted to share with others. Great social studies projects can create that same experience for your students, translating their learning into action, giving them ownership over their work, and creating a deep sense of pride in their accomplishments.


What challenges do projects present?


We know that project work isn't all rainbows and roses. Problems always arise as you begin to think about design and implementation. In a poll of teachers, we identified some common challenges.

Teachers expressed the concern that there was "learning time and project time." They wanted to connect projects more directly to the standards and objectives they were targeting in the rest of their social studies unit.


Other teachers expressed uncertainty around the assessment of projects, which felt subjective to them and to their students. Issues of equity and time were connected in the concerns of teachers, as they acknowledged both the need to work on projects in class — so that all students had the same opportunities — and the difficulty of finding class time for project work. Finally, when using time in class for projects, many teachers wanted students to take more ownership of the process even when the "going got tough."


Alignment, Assessment, and Ownership


During the webinar we focused on three interrelated aspects of project design that address the concerns expressed by teachers.

  • Alignment: Ensuring that the project is connected to social studies learning objectives and standards.

  • Assessment: Building better assessments that gauge understanding and feel authentic to teachers and students.

  • Ownership: Ensuring that during every phase of the project cycle students feel ownership over the process.

To zero in on practical solutions, we focused our attention on three critical lessons that can be implemented as students begin the project phase of their unit. These three lessons form the bridge of an inquiry unit, connecting the sustained investigation of content to informed action, the process by which students use their learning to create and communicate solutions that impact their world. These lessons are briefly outlined below, with links to any resources mentioned during the webinar.


Pulling It All Together


The "Pulling It All Together Lesson" helps you review the major findings of your unit. This is crucial for students. They need to have the major learnings of the unit fresh in their mind as they explore what information and ideas are most important to communicate to others through their projects.

  • Gather artifacts of student learning from across the unit. Use these artifacts to reflect on your compelling question and the big ideas/findings of your investigation. Consider: What have students created throughout the unit? What images or other media have you examined? What stories have been featured during your investigation?

  • Prompt students to Think Pair Square in response to the prompt: What are the biggest takeaways from this unit that you would want to share with others? Groups take a moment to discuss, then share out. As groups share, record big ideas on the board.

  • Provide students with a reflection tool (a handout, exit ticket, etc.) to answer the question as well.

Issuing the Inquiry Challenge


In this pivotal lesson, students transition from investigation to action. They consider the content they have explored, the relevant knowledge they have gained, and the questions they have asked (acknowledging that some may have remained unanswered and new questions may have emerged) to decide how to create an Inquiry Product that has an authentic impact.


  • Before the lesson: Review student exit tickets to synthesize ideas and create a “Goals” list to share.

  • Introduce the format and purpose of the Inquiry Challenge Statement. You can use the Inquiry Challenge Statement Video to help you!


  • Arrange students into groups of 3–4.

  • Distribute the "Inquiry Challenge Statement Frames" handout to each group

  • To set up students for success: Provide the “Goals” list you created from student feedback and word banks for each element if necessary (co-create the statement with younger students).

  • Once students have completed their challenge statements, have them share their completed statements. Write down important information, then ask students to identify the most important elements.

  • When students leave, let them know that you will use their statements to create a combined statement for the class.


Examining Models and Creating Success Criteria


In this lesson, students compare several models of authentic projects, identify specific elements that make the models successful, and establish the Success Criteria for their own project.


  • Before the lesson: Gather 3-5 models of projects of the same type students will create

  • Introduce the "Model Comparison" handout. Give an example, or ask students to give examples, of what could go in each section of the handout.

  • Arrange students into groups of 3–4.

  • Have students work together to examine models (or discuss models that you examined as a whole class) and fill out the handout.

  • Bring students back together to fill out a whole-class version of the handout - writing down suggestions from each group.

  • Close the discussion with the question: "Which elements on this list are the most important to include in our final projects?" Circle these elements.

  • After the lesson, use the appropriate student-generated criteria - in addition to your content standards (written in student-friendly language) to create a product rubric.


One of the key mantras of any project session is: Mistakes will happen - learn and move on. Good luck as you work on powerful social studies projects with your students!



For those of you unable to attend the webinar, please view the recording below.