Suzie Boss
6 tips for making the most of PBL

Do you have an idea for a project-based learning (PBL) experience that you think your students will love? Maybe the project idea was sparked by their questions. Perhaps it relates to a hot topic that you know they care about. Maybe you heard about a successful project from another teacher and want to re-create it with your students. These are all good starting places for PBL. But before you dive in, here’s a question to ask yourself: How can this project be the best use of my students’ time (and mine) during the coming weeks?

Pondering that question will prompt you to consider what you hope to accomplish with this project. Student engagement matters, of course, but so does the content your students need to understand. And along with academic goals, you may want to help students develop important habits of mind, such as persistence or risk-taking. You might envision opportunities for students to use digital tools to create something new, or improve their ability to collaborate with peers or communicate with an audience. Across the arc of a rich project experience, you can achieve all of these goals.

The early planning stage is time for you, as the project architect, to focus on the big ideas. Years from now, what do you want students to remember from this experience? What are the core concepts and processes they need to know and be able to apply?

For starters, you might skim the standards for your grade level and ask yourself, What do these add up to? But don’t stop there. Look for the real-world connections by asking yourself, In the world outside the classroom, why do these concepts matter? Who interacts with this topic in their work or daily life? (Hint: Talk over these questions with colleagues and you might uncover interdisciplinary opportunities.)

Once the project’s big ideas come into focus, you’re ready to look for more specific learning objectives. And as you move across the arc of the project, you can parse the big ideas into more manageable chunks by planning right-sized learning activities and leveraging formative assessments. (More to come on this in future posts.)

Here are six suggestions to help you make the most of the learning opportunities in PBL:

  1. Start with your learning goals. Identify more narrowly focused content goals, aligned to your district or state standards, Common Core State Standards, or Next Generation Science Standards. Look to the ISTE Standards for Students for guidance, as well. Great projects involve technology, develop information literacy and provide an ideal context to develop other digital age skills, such as collaboration or global competency.
  2. Focus on skills and dispositions. Along with the emphasis on academic content, PBL offers the perfect opportunity to develop the skills and habits of mind required for work — and life — success. Have students set their own goals when it comes to learning dispositions, such as persistence or self-management.
  3. Watch your verbs. As you start to design a more detailed project plan, pay careful attention to the verbs you use to describe learning goals. Verbs like remember and understand fall on the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. Push for higher-order thinking by calling on students to analyze, evaluate and/or create.
  4. Less is more. There’s a lot you can do in a project, but that doesn’t mean you should try to tackle everything. PBL is more about uncovering understanding than covering content. Rather than trying to cram a laundry list of learning outcomes into a project, be selective and aim for deep understanding of what matters most.
  5. Plan critically. Infuse the project with critical thinking by planning for students to make predictions, understand cause-and-effect relationships, think about systems, identify patterns, consider diverse perspectives or make well-founded arguments.
  6. Dodge pitfalls. If the project seems busy and long but reaches only small learning goals, it’s not worth your students’ time — or yours. If they could learn just as much from reading about the topic or listening to a lecture, then you’re missing deeper learning opportunities. And if you’re using technology just to add “flash” or dress up a traditional assignment, you’re not leveraging digital tools to take learning places that students couldn’t otherwise go. Avoid these pitfalls with thoughtful planning, and you and your students will be well on your way to more meaningful, memorable PBL experiences.

Suzie Boss is co-author of Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age. Check out the new expanded second edition of this best-selling PBL guide.

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