Creating Authentic Learning Environments using Project Based Learning and Scrum

As a leader for a software development team, I really enjoy seeing our team members teach each other.   Because I value education, I personally want to understand how various leadership practices foster learning.   On our team, we have decided to implement an agile project management style known as Scrum.    Seeing my project teams learn, grow, and recover from mistakes every two weeks, I started to wonder if Scrum has been employed in academia in project based learning.

What are the motivations for using Scrum?

Through a quick google search, I discovered Dr. Rebecca Pope-Ruark, a professional writing and rhetoric professor at Elon University.   Since group work is very common in higher-education, she started experimenting with Scrum to improve team cultures in her class.   In her online reflection, she outlines some of her motivations for using Scrum while teaching her students:

  • She wanted to create a learning environment that is authentic.
  • Students should learn to facilitate collaboration effectively.
  • Students should learn a sense of accountability.
  • When student teams “divide and conquer” project work without Scrum, she found that her students would produce “disjointed and repetitive final papers.”
  • Student teams should hold each other accountable to avoid plagiarism.

What’s Scrum?

Scrum is a team leadership framework popular in software development.   The framework, however, can be used in any situation where a complex and creative product needs to be created.   The framework involves three core roles:

  • Product owner:  This team member controls the requirements of the project and the order in which those requirements need to be addressed.
  • Team:  This is the group of people (i.e. students) who need to serve the product owner and make the project.
  • Scrum master:  This stakeholder acts as a coach for the product owner and team members to help enforce the rules of the scrum framework.   The scrum master is also responsible for removing road blocks or external impediments of project work.   If students need access to a tool to accomplish a task, the scrum master is accountable to resolve the impediment.

How does it work?

Iteration sizes or sprints are strictly time-boxed.    On my team, we use two week iterations.   In other contexts, an iteration size might be one month.    Throughout this process, the scrum master helps to enforce the following rules while fostering communication and removing blocks.  For each sprint or iteration, the following activities occur:

  1. Product backog management: Product owner drafts requirements or stories of what makes the product great.   This list of requirements is known as the product backlog.    In a education context, the professor often assumes the role of product owner.   This gives the teacher the ability to define the “done conditions” for the learning experience.
  2. Sprint planning:   The product owner and team meet to determine what part of the requirements can be built during the iteration.   The stakeholders negotiate what sub-set of the product backlog can be addressed to create a minimum viable product or an increment of value.
  3. Work, work, work:During the middle of the iteration, the team is free to self-organize to build the product increment.    In a classroom situation, the students may design, create, peer review, and test their product.  Each day of the project, the team should have a quick huddle (15 minutes) to answer the following questions.   It’s important to remember that the students are accountable to each other during these quick huddles.
    1. What did I do yesterday?
    2. What work is blocked?
    3. What’s next for work?
  4. Demo day: This is a “show and tell” day.   On the last day of the iteration, the product increment is shown to the product owner.   The team and product owner collectively review the strengths and improvement opportunities for the product.
  5. Retrospective:  On the “demo day”, the students/team members should have a quick meeting to reflect upon how they can improve.   (30 minute meeting)
    1. What went well?
    2. What do we need to change in our process to improve our team and product?
  6. If there is more product to build, go back to step #1.
  7. Party time!  Project is done!

For a detailed summary of the Scrum framework, please visit

How effective is Scrum in teaching?

In future blog entries, I would like to follow up with Dr. Rebecca Pope-Ruark.   She mentioned that she would be doing a formal research project regarding the effectiveness of Scrum in the classroom.    Dr. Paul Gestwicki, a computer science professor teaching game development and Android programming, shares his reflections of using Scrum in his classes.   On his blog he shares that “I am taking a significant risk by trusting my students to effectively self-organize and deliver the promised software system.”   He, however, seems to have some positive results to share.

In drafting this post, I am excited to see the strengths, weaknesses and learning outcomes from this style of teaching.   Since the students are encouraged to organize themselves, the process of Scrum helps to foster creativity and critical thinking.   I have personally enjoyed seeing the spirit of collaboration on my team.   It’s always cool to see team members teaching each other.

When “no brain works alone”, cool stuff happens!



Let’s keep the conversation going:   I would love to hear your stories about project based learning.  What is your favorite aspect of project based learning or flat classroom learning?


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