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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

5 Keys to Rigorous Project-Based Learning

Well-designed project-based learning (PBL) has been shown to result in deeper learning and engaged, self-directed learners. Learn more about the five core elements of successful PBL.
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Five Keys to Rigorous Project-Based Learning

Voiceover: How will today’s children function in a dangerous world? What means will they use to carve the future? Will they be equipped to find the answers to tomorrow’s problems?

Teacher: When you think about traditional learning you think of a student sitting in a classroom and being talked at.

Teacher: Now I imagine a lot of you are still thinking...

Teacher: They are supposed to be a sponge. The teacher tells them information and they suck it up. That’s not the real world. Having them actively engaged learning about things in their community and doing projects that they care about is giving them that ownership of their learning, it’s making them life-long learners, it’s giving them the critical thinking and problem-solving skills that they need as soon as they walk out of your classroom into the real world.

Peggy Ertmer: So there are a lot of different ways to approach PBL, a lot of different ways to implement it, but really it all boils down to five essential keys: real-world connection, core to learning, structured collaboration, student driven, and multifaceted assessment. The first key component of PBL is real-world connections, and really what this entails is having an authentic problem that drives the curriculum. So students are given this question, for example, “What’s in our water and how did it get there?” And then the students choose different paths to explore that question.

Student: One of the problems in the ocean is that with the higher amount of CO2 calcifying organisms are decreasing and we’re testing to see how well life in the ocean lives without calcifying organisms.

Tom Duenwald: When the students know that what they’re doing in the classroom has an audience outside the classroom it really helps them deepen their thinking on it and I think that is pretty authentic in terms of what the future work world holds.

Student: --four by eight feet.

Peggy Ertmer: So the second commonality is the PBL unit provides academic rigor. This is not something that teachers would add at the end of a unit because they learned all the content they’re supposed to learn already and so this, you know, the fluff that they can do at the end. This is the unit, this is the way that they learn the content.

Teacher: So what’s your standards you’re gonna be covering?

Teacher: We’re gonna do 5a, which is analyzing scenes, and this is huge in this book.

Steven Zipkes: When you can show that you’re incorporating the standards built in these projects that aren’t fluff a lot of eyes and ears open, because people are hungry for that.

Peggy Ertmer: Structured collaboration refers to allowing the students to work together, but giving them a structure within which to work.

David: Our project was to create a aquaponics system and we had several people working on it. In my case I was kind of the team leader. Two members of my group, who were kind of just like the thinkers that would think, “What if we could include this?” And once those two came up with the ideas, it would go through another person who was kind of like the designer to figure out, “Oh, how would we make it?” And then it would kind of go up to me and say-- and I would kinda be like the final decider--

Sheela Webster: We would never put four kids together at a table and say, “Here’s a task. Get it done during this time period.” It’s very carefully scaffolded.

Peggy Ertmer: There’s an interesting shift in roles that happens in a PBL unit. The teacher becomes more of a facilitator and the students take more control.

Teacher: You guys are the Red Cross responders. You already looked at news broadcasts.

Student: Yes.

Teacher: And you took down some notices. You need to take all of this and you need to bring it together.

Student: So I have to write down the aspects of the news broadcast?

Teacher: You got it. Exactly. So Kassim’s got it. Kassim can give you some ideas on how to start.

Peggy Ertmer: But as the facilitator the teacher needs to be able to ask good questions. She needs to re-direct if necessary, you know, give hints but not answers. And that’s really an interesting role for teachers to learn how to do. Multifaceted assessment refers to assessment being integrated throughout the entire PBL unit.

Lisa Zeller: I do a lot of formative assessments. It’s not a test at the end of the week or the end of the unit. You’re doing a lot of small check-ins with the students to see where they’re at and to see that they’re growing along. I think it’s really important to also make sure that the students are assessing themselves.

Sheela Webster: It’s a process that we are really trying to bring back again to the student so that kids are part of the assessment process and that assessment is just not being done to them.

Peggy Ertmer: --are students who would blossom under this approach. They learn that they have voice and choice and teachers would probably in the end find it easier and more fulfilling and we would probably have a whole lot less burnout. I mean this is really an exciting way of teaching.

Steven Zipkes: What we’ve done for the last hundred years direct teaching for some students it works, but for most students it doesn’t. So for us project-based instruction is a way that we can reach all students and get them engaged.

Student: Right now my favorite project is called “Create Your Own Project”.

My favorite project this year was in chemistry and what it was about we were using chemistry and reactions to create a soda.

It’s a video production class and we’re making a kids’ show. We’re calling it “The Dojo Show”.

We’re learning about spatial diffusion, Black Death, the Columbian exchange--

Reactions like double replacement, combustion, things like that.

We’re basically the teachers in this so we’re gonna create a rubric, our group contracts, and we’re gonna launch this project to our class.

We’re learning how to collaborate and also work towards a creative goal. It helps us get into that creative mindset that really is something that’s hard to find in any other high school.

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  • Web Video Producer: Christian Amundson
  • Editor: Daniel Jarvis
  • Associate Producer: Douglas Keely
  • Camera: Christian Amundson, Matthew Beighley, Zachary Fink, Mario Furloni, Daniel Jarvis, Gabriel Miller
  • Sound: Douglas Keely
  • Graphics: Cait Camarata, Jenny Kolcun
  • Historic Footage: Prelinger Archive
  • Senior Manager of Video: Amy Erin Borovoy

Special thanks to Buck Institute for Education, Expeditionary Schools, New Tech Network, and Bob Pearlman.

5 Keys Video Series

See Edutopia's core strategies in action with our Five Keys video series. Take a deeper look at each strategy as we share the nuts and bolts of program implementation, give voice to examples from schools around the country, and illuminate the research behind the practices.


Learn more about the 5 Keys to Rigorous PBL: 

More Edutopia Resources for Project-Based Learning

  • CORE STRATEGY PAGE: Project-Based Learning

    Use this roundup page to discover why project-based learning is a dynamic classroom approach in which students actively explore real-world problems and challenges and acquire a deeper knowledge.

  • ARTICLE: Project-Based Learning Research Review

    Studies have proven that when implemented well, project-based learning (PBL) can increase retention of content and improve students' attitudes towards learning, among other benefits.

Find more resources and information on project-based learning at the website of the Buck Institute for Education (BIE), or follow BIE on Twitter.

Project-Based Learning Overview

Comments (15) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Hi Don-
So I took a swing at something. This is Bill Vinton's secondary physics class in the Upper Valley of Vermont. http://youtu.be/rATRUMnU-B4

There's a jazzier version using footage from a variety of classrooms (this same class, a middle level physical science class, and a college level class on human sexuality) here: http://youtu.be/kWLhv8QnB4Y

Let me know what you think!

Andrew Frishman's picture
Andrew Frishman
Director of Program Development at Big Picture Learning

Glad to see these elements of PBL laid out here - makes me think about the approach that we use at BPL to engage students and help them develop agency - https://www.teachingchannel.org/big-picture-video-library-bpl...

I also think that if we want PBL to be TRULY student driven, real-world connected, and meet all five criteria, that we need to attend to these 10 expectations - http://www.leavingtolearn.org/10-Expectations/

ms. Astrid De Herrera's picture
ms. Astrid De Herrera
english primary principal at southern cross school, buenos aires, argentina

I love this...we do a lot of PBL...but...how do we go about it in the elementary grades?

Amy Erin Borovoy (aka VideoAmy)'s picture

Great question, Astrid! Have a look at this excellent blog by John Larmer from the Buck Institute for Education:

How Project-Based Learning Can Fit (or Not) in an Elementary School Program

If you'd like to see some videos showing PBL at the elementary level, here's a few from our archives -- older videos, but worthwhile content:

Various Projects at Auburn Early Education Center in Auburn, AL (Kindergarten)

Worm Project at Newsome Park Elementary School in Newport News, VA (1st Grade)

Journey North Project at Rockledge Elementary School in Bowie, MD (3rd Grade)

NatureMapping Project at Waterville Elementary School in Waterville, WA (4th Grade)

Water Wheel Project at Ferryway School in Malden, MA (5th Grade)

Best of luck to you!

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Hi Astrid-
We do a lot of work at the pre-k to 6th grade levels and find that PBL is exponentially effective because kids build on the habits learned in those early years as they move up through schools. We have a little k-3 kit that tell more about how it works. You can download it here: http://tinyurl.com/AUNE-CSP-k3

Good luck and keep in touch!

Ms Tiernan's picture

Thank you for this. I attended trainings and seminars on PBL over the summer. Having access to these videos will definitely be helpful as my History department implements PBL this year. This is going t be an awesome reference.

Don Chester's picture

I am currently working on my Master's degree in Instructional Design and Technology and recently heard of PBL during a discussion within one of my current courses. After watching the initial overview video, I am impressed with the route that current education is taking in allowing students to lead their own learning instead of being lectured to for 45 minutes, 7 periods a day. This type of preparation is extremely valuable to students not only within the classroom but also once they are out in the real world trying to find their place and where they fit in with society. Often times, students are not ready for this because we as instructors have not prepared them for it.

On a personal note, one thing that I noticed when completing my student teaching during my Bachelor's program was that a large amount of students expect instructors to tell them exactly what they need to do without putting any thought and/or effort into it; with that method of learning, students are unable to apply the necessary critical thinking skills that they need. Additionally, they are not gaining the necessary and relevant experience in driving and assessing their own success. PBL transforms this because it takes the majority of the facilitator's instruction/direction away and replaces it with student directed and critical thinking based learning thus ensuring that students are thinking about and taking responsibility for their own successes and failures.

Finally, with this type of learning, not only are they getting that critical thinking experience and real world connection they are also learning what true "collaboration" means which they need understand in order to be successful in the current work force and in the world in general.

Don Doehla, MA, NBCT's picture
Don Doehla, MA, NBCT
2015 California Language Teacher of the Year, Co-Director Berkeley WL Project at UC Berkeley Language Center

@Don from Don!

Well said. Your comments are spot on. Since I began creating PBL-aligned units, my students are much more engaged, ask far more complex questions and solving problems more interesting to them. AND the creativity is over the top! Let me share an amazing project with you. I am really proud of these students!

Here is what they did. Working in groups, students researched a Maison des jeunes (Youth center) in a Francophone city of their choice. This group chose Lyon. They researched what the youth center offers by way of activities and services. They chose a role to play (in this case, a news reporting team and the people who work at the youth center). They then chose an audience (in this case, a TV viewing audience). Then they chose a product to make (in this case, they chose to make a news broadcast/ documentary report). They made a video, and posted it on YouTube. I hope you enjoy the video!

And thanks for posting your reflections. Best wishes on your continued studies!



ARain's picture

This is a great video but not all schools have access to the same resources. PBL that includes up to date technology is very important in keeping students engaged.

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