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Five Tips for Embarking on Project-Based Learning (PBL)


Authors: Adam Babcock & Dr. Jenny Lott Van Buren

Project-Based Learning (PBL) has been a talking point for school innovation for years and is considered a best practice in improving students’ readiness for college and careers. However, while many educators recognize the potential of PBL to develop deep understanding of content while also providing students with opportunities to practice problem solving and other skills needed for the real world, they also feel overwhelmed and don’t know where or how to start. Whether you are new to PBL or consider yourself an expert, it is always a good idea to keep basic principles in mind to ensure that your PBL is effective.

PBL Makes Learning the Main Course

One of the biggest misconceptions about PBL is that students are making something just to be creative and/or express themselves. No, PBL is about conveying learning that has been carried out to serve a certain purpose, solve an authentic problem or explore a deeper question. Practitioners of PBL know that you can’t find learning at the end of the project when you treat the project as dessert rather than the main course. PBL is not about learning content first from a teacher and then creating something after a series of lectures, activities, and a unit test. Learning needs to be deep and spread throughout your PBL unit.

Key features of PBL include:

  1. A project that is the unit, that way content is both taught and assessed

  2. Open-ended tasks that allow for student voice and choice

  3. Student collaboration about real world problems or applications

  4. Sustained inquiry and creation of a product

You can easily find “dessert” projects all over the Internet or uploaded to sites like Teachers Pay Teachers. Where can you find examples of projects that make learning the Main Course? Turn to the PBL Works (formerly known as the Buck Institute for Education) for their Gold Standard examples or measure the projects you develop up against their Gold Standard.

Plan Effectively

Designing a PBL is like planning a unit. Over the course of many class periods, you will have lessons, activities, tasks, and assessments. Start with a general idea and build a framework that fits within your goals for student learning and time restrictions. Have a clear vision for what you want students to be able to do before planning the detailed parts of the project such as rubrics, handouts for students, and specific lessons. The work up front allows for your time in-class to be flexible during the project.

It is always a good idea to get feedback from peers that are experienced in PBL. You may also wish to post your ideas online to request feedback from a larger PBL community. Having a common framework for planning is helpful, so you can collaborate while using a common language. One tool that may assist with the planning process is the PBL Works Project Planner.

Start with Inquiry

A project should be authentic in a way that makes students hungry to learn more. One easy way to deflate a great PBL idea is to launch it by saying at the beginning of class, “Today, we’re starting a project”. What are some great ways to start with inquiry, then? One strategy is to conduct an entry event that engages students in the project. During this event, students and teachers create a driving question as well as a list of sub questions to guide the inquiry process. Once these questions are generated, students can begin building knowledge and skills in order to answer their questions and apply their learning to new tasks. An intriguing piece of media, such as a video, infographic, commercial (perhaps from the Ad Council) or podcast, can really ignite such discussions.

Use Rubrics as Roadmaps

Sitting down and making a high-quality rubric is essential to satisfying the adage of “begin with the end in mind.” Rubrics should not appear only to display grades at the end of the project. Instead, rubrics should be part of the ongoing learning. They should frame why certain teacher-centered lessons are taught and why certain research activities are introduced for independent inquiry.

At the beginning of a PBL unit, teachers can use rubrics to assist students in understanding what a high-quality project looks like. It is a good idea to provide exemplars as well as non-examples if these are available. Students may also have input regarding the rubric and have input regarding how their work will be assessed.

Rubrics should also be used during the revision process. Students’ teachers and peers can use rubrics to provide feedback and identify needs in order to help students do a better job applying knowledge and answering the driving question.

Finally, when students believe they have found the answers to their question, they can also use a rubric to reflect on their learning and to self-evaluate their progress.


Throughout the process of designing and implementing your PBL, be sure to take time to reflect on your work as well as student learning. As you begin, reflect on your plans for the project. Is your project well-aligned to standards? Have you planned for scaffolding and assessing student learning? Have you provided opportunities for student voice and choice? Are you being flexible enough while providing enough structure to ensure students meet the learning goals?

Throughout the project, reflect on student work. You may need to provide additional support (lessons, readings, field work, and other opportunities) for students to better guide them through the inquiry process. Collect data by observing and taking notes as well as through formative assessment. Collaborate with other teachers and staff regarding adjustments that could be made to better support students.

Finally, after the final products have been presented, debrief. Take notes of what worked and didn’t work as well throughout the project. Determine how well individual students answered the project’s driving question. If needed, reteach concepts that students did not fully understand and always celebrate your project’s success.

About Adam Babcock: A Technology Integration Specialist in Spartanburg District Seven and former high school teacher, Adam is an Apple Learning Specialist, Microsoft Innovative Educator (yeah, you can be both!), a South Carolina ASCD Emerging Leader and one of one-hundred 2014 PBS Learning Media Digital Innovators. Prior to coaching teachers, he taught high school through traditional and project-based learning approaches. Adam received his BA from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an MSEd in Instructional Technology at Northern Illinois University, and EdS in Administration and Supervision through Clemson University. Connect with him @AJBabc.

About Dr. Jenny Lott Van Buren: Dr. Jenny Lott Van Buren is currently a South Carolina ASCD Emerging Leader and teaches mathematics at Powdersville High School in Anderson School District One. She graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University of New Orleans in New Orleans, Louisiana in 2006 with her Bachelor’s of Science in Secondary Mathematics Education with university honors and honors in her major. She earned her Master’s degree in Educational Leadership from the University of North Florida in 2010. She earned her Doctorate of Education in Curriculum, Teaching, and Teacher Education from the University of Florida in 2017. Connect with Dr. Van Buren on Twitter @vanburenEdD.



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