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
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:
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- 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.