I remember the first time I decided to try a project based learning unit with my sixth-grade science students. I wanted my students to learn about fossil fuels and renewable energy by working in teams to identify a problem and develop a solution.
I had a vision for the outcome, but I lacked the structure and details that my students needed to be successful. While this was still a great learning experience for my students and me, I wish I would have had the knowledge and experience that I know now.
One thing I’ve learned from the last twelve years of facilitating project based learning (PBL) units is that students need targeted guidance and structure in order to maximize their learning and understanding.
While guidance is generally the same in most cases—encouraging, supporting, and advising students—the structure can look completely different depending on the content, grade level, and learning objectives. For example, some of my PBL units were designed for students to work independently, whereas others were designed for students to work collaboratively in small teams.
After conducting lots of research, engaging in countless conversations with other teachers, and reflecting on the dozens of PBL units I have facilitated, I have synthesized a step-by-step process that includes the essential elements to any successful PBL unit.
The best part about this process is that it empowers students to direct their own learning, while allowing the teacher to make instructional decisions that align with their school’s mission and unique classroom needs.
What is Project Based Learning?
Before we dive into the process of PBL, it can be helpful to have a solid understanding of what project based learning is and isn’t.
To be clear, project based learning is not just having your students work on a project. In fact, some teachers mistakenly substitute the word “product” with “project”.
In the context of education, a product is an artifact that students create to demonstrate their learning and understanding, whereas a project is a series of calculated steps that students perform in order to answer a question, or solve a problem.
Put simply, the product is just one part of the entire project based learning experience.
The purpose of project based learning is to help students develop the knowledge and skills that are needed to be successful in today’s rapidly-evolving world.
When students participate in PBL they are immersed in a learning environment that simulates the modern workplace.
Throughout the process, students grow their intrapersonal skills—confidence, creativity, and critical thinking—and practice their interpersonal skills—communication, collaboration, and conflict resolution.
What’s more, they begin to explore their interests, and discover their strengths as independent learners.
What can I expect to take away from this post?
Whether you are a seasoned project based learning veteran, or you are a teacher who is interested in facilitating your first PBL unit, the information in this post will provide you with an opportunity to rethink your current teaching practices.
My aim with this post is to offer a step-by-step process—full of strategies, tools, and resources—that is designed for you to implement in your classroom immediately.
By the end of this post, my hope is that you will have the guidance, structure, and support that is needed to facilitate a successful project based learning experience for your students.
Let’s get started!
How do I get started with PBL?
Step #1: Commit to Project Based Learning
Making the decision to facilitate a PBL unit is half the battle.
When you commit to project based learning, you already understand that as our students approach their unforeseeable future, they need to develop the skills demanded of them in order to be successful in any career or any endeavor.
Skills that inquiry-based learning and meaningful projects can cultivate: problem solving, information literacy, cultural awareness, and technological proficiency, just to name a few.
Step #2: Implement Backwards Planning
The term “backwards planning” is often used to describe the process of mapping out a unity of study with the end goal in mind.
The first stage in backwards planning is to clearly identify the desired learning outcomes for your students.
These expected outcomes stem from state and national standards that are used to create learning targets or learning objectives.
As an example, in my PBL science unit that I facilitated for my sixth-grade students, I identified the following learning target: Students will be able to compare and contrast the advantages and disadvantages between consuming fossil fuels and renewable energy resources in order to justify an energy source recommendation for their own community.
Step #3: Prepare Project Logistics
After you have documented the learning goals for the unit, it’s time to determine the structure and details of the project.
These logistics will help you to manage your curriculum, instruction, and assessment throughout the project. I have found that the more time and energy that you put into setting up your project logistics, the more successful the learning outcome is for students.
I recommend starting with a project timeline. By referencing the scope and sequence of your curriculum, you can determine an appropriate end date for the project, and then plan accordingly from there.
To set students up for success, I suggest creating and sharing a performance assessment rubric with your students to clearly communicate the learning objectives and expectations within the unit of study. Consider using the Science Leadership Academy (SLA) rubric as a reference, and tailor it to align with your school’s educational philosophy.
It is important to select the resources that your students will need throughout the project ahead of time.
- What devices, tools, and materials will your students be using?
- Will you use Google Classroom or your school’s learning management system (LMS) to manage student workflow?
- Are there any thinking routines or graphic organizers that you might provide to support your struggling learners?
- Who might you collaborate with at your school to make this an interdisciplinary project?
- And consider inviting local community members to provide expert advice on relevant topics, or to serve on a panel as authentic audience members.
The last logistical item to consider is your group orientation for the project.
Do you want your students to work independently, or do you want your students to work in small teams?
When my students work in groups, I like to assign different roles—manager, designer, builder, reporter—so that each student is responsible for a portion of the work. By the end of the school year, I try to make sure that every student gets an opportunity to experience each role in order for them to practice different types of skills.
Step #4: Determine Student Deliverables
It can be helpful for students to submit different deliverables throughout the project so that they stay on track, and have the opportunity to receive frequent feedback.
I have found that my students are more successful when they have multiple opportunities to assess the quality and direction of their project.
The first deliverable that I have my students submit is their “driving question”.
I like this terminology because it makes me think of planning a road trip. If you don’t have a destination in mind, then you will never get there.
So, by having a driving question, it acts as the destination to their learning journey. Depending on the project, I might have students generate a driving question independently, in teams, or as a whole class.
I highly recommend using the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) in order to facilitate this process for students.
After students create a driving question, I have them create a project proposal.
The purpose of the project proposal is to provide structure for students to plan out their project. The proposal includes their driving question, learning goals, and other project logistics.
Then, I have students craft an elevator pitch that they rehearse and present to the class. For both of these deliverables, I use free templates that can be found on 20time.org and adjust them to meet the needs of my PBL unit.
I also like to schedule at least two different checkpoints throughout the project.
These checkpoints serve as formal assessments in order to collect evidence of student learning. They can be in the form of a questionnaire for students to self-assess their progress, or they can be in the form of a prompt for students to write or record their responses.
This is a great way to provide meaningful feedback to students to help guide their learning in the process.
The final student deliverable is the culminating presentation.
When students present their ideas, they have agency over creating a product or performance to communicate their findings.
This presentation can take on many different formats—a slideshow, model, video, podcast, skit, children’s book, etc.
Depending on the project, I might choose a presentation format for my students. For example, I might have my students build and present a model if the goal is for them to design a product as a solution to a problem.
For other projects, I might allow my students to choose their preferred presentation format.
What matters most is that students have the opportunity for creativity and self-expression when they demonstrate their learning and understanding.
What does project based learning mean for me at my school?
Project based learning is about asking questions and seeking out answers to those questions in meaningful ways. It’s about exploring new ideas and discovering one’s own potential.
And that goes for teachers too!
It’s an iterative process that values progress over perfection, and students need teacher leaders to model this type of learning for them.
As you reflect on the information that is shared in this post, think about how you can use these steps to implement your own PBL unit.
Consider how you will meet the unique learning needs of the students in your classroom. Try to find ways to integrate your school’s vision and mission into your projects.
And just remember, committing to project based learning is half the battle. All it takes is the first step.
I would love to hear your feedback. Leave me a comment below and let me know if you found this post helpful, if you’ll be implementing PBL into your classroom, or if you have any questions.
Looking for customized support for your staff to integrate project based learning at the school or district level?
For Asynchronous, go at your own pace support, check out the Empowered Learning Institute for school-wide support on:
- Project Based Learning
- Student Voice & Choice
- Authentic Engagement
- Portrait of a Graduate
- Artificial Intelligence
- and more!
Dive Deeper into Project Based Learning:
- 7 Examples of Project Based Learning – by Bradley Lands
- [Book] Knowledge-ABLE: Igniting a New Generation of Lifelong Learners – by Bradley Lands
- PBL Strand – Empowered Learning Institute
- Twitter: @MrLands
- Website: www.uplearnllc.com
- Book: Knowledge-ABLE: Igniting a New Generation of Lifelong Learners
Bradley Lands is the owner of UpLearn LLC, the author of the book Knowledge-ABLE, and is currently the Director of Technology and Innovation at The Langley School in McLean, Virginia. He is also an educational consultant available for keynote presentations, facilitating workshops, and leading professional development. With over 15 years of experience in the field of education, Brad has taught in both public and independent schools, as well as in higher education as an adjunct professor. Brad is a Google for Education Certified Innovator, a Google for Education Certified Trainer, an Apple Distinguished Educator, and a National Board Certified Teacher in K-12 Technology Education. Brad encourages his readers to connect with him on Twitter (@MrLands) and visit his website at www.uplearnllc.com.
- Wiggins, Grant P., and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2008.
- “What is the QFT?” Right Question Institute, 12 March 2023, https://rightquestion.org/what-is-the-qft/.
- PBLWorks. “What Is PBL?” Buck Institute for Education, https://www.pblworks.org/what-is-pbl.
- “Assessment at SLA.” Science Leadership Academy @ Center City, https://scienceleadership.org/pages/assessment_at_sla.
- Brookhouser, Kevin. “How.” 20time.Org, https://www.20time.org/how.