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Project-Based Learning (PBL)

5 Questions for Troubleshooting Project-Based Learning

When PBL isn’t going as planned, sometimes it takes just a few tweaks to turn things around.

August 3, 2022
Middle school students work on project in classroom
Ground Picture / Shutterstock

Sometimes, in spite of your best efforts, the project-based learning (PBL) experience you planned just doesn’t work. Instead of throwing up your hands and assuming that PBL doesn’t work for you (or your kids), let the following five questions help you figure out what went wrong so you can adjust and get it right next time.

1. How’s Your Community?

PBL requires collaboration, and collaboration requires community. When we ask students to work together to solve a problem or create something, we increase the amount of risk they experience. Keeping a kid in their zone of proximal development (ZPD) means balancing the amount of stress they’re bringing into the classroom with the amount of risk (and therefore stress) we decide to add.

Think about what else is going on in their world. Have there been any changes to the schedule? Has someone moved away or a new student been added? Any major events—positive or negative—in the school or larger community? Heck, even something like an upcoming holiday or changes in the weather can be enough to throw a community out of whack.

Remember, communities need maintenance—they aren’t binary propositions—so a less-than-optimal PBL experience could be a sign that your community needs a little attention. This might be a good time for the following:

  • Consider how your students are doing individually. Revisit Maslow and see if there are specific, immediate issues that need addressing.
  • Review your expectations or class agreements to make sure they still fit, and maybe make some revisions.
  • Play together. There’s nothing like some good old-fashioned fun to decrease the stress level and build community. (Just be sure that whatever you define as “play” is fun and inclusive for everyone—the last thing you want to do is make things worse.)
  • Reflect as a group on what just happened. Tools like a carousel or a WASH can make sure that all voices are heard.
  • Address group dynamics and conflict head-on. Life is full of conflicts, and learning how to manage disagreements will serve your students for a lifetime.

2. What Grouping Decisions Did You Make?

The size of the groupings matters as much as their make-up (and experienced teachers know that balancing personalities, challenges, and growing edges is an art in itself). Smaller groups = less risk, and as noted above, PBL can be risky.

Sometimes we think that PBL needs to be whole-class or, at the very least, groups of four to six working on the same thing at the same time. We envision classrooms with kids focused together around a single project or task, busily talking about what to do next.

However, anyone who’s either been in one of those groups or taught a class with those groups knows that more often than not, three kids are working busily, two kids are talking about something completely different, and one kid is doing their own thing. (This is actually a sign that the task at hand isn’t complex enough to require that many hands and minds, but we’ll get to that later.)

There’s no law that says PBL = all kids working on the same thing at the same time. In fact, that’s the highest-risk thing we can ask them to do. Instead, consider an individual or pair project or something that’s going to require lots of different roles to be played at the same time with different kids doing different work (individual, pair, or group) toward a common goal.

This parallel-play approach to PBL can be a lot to manage—it’s definitely more advanced. It’s also important to consider how much instruction kids have had in how to work in a group. Collaboration isn’t something that comes naturally to anyone. It has to be taught and practiced.

3. Did You Over- or Under-Shoot the Level of Structure?

Revisit the amount of structure that students have had in the past. How much of their work is usually self-directed versus teacher-directed? What’s it been like for most of their academic careers? How different from their typical experience is what you’re asking them to do?

If they’re used to having someone tell them what to do most of the time, suddenly losing that structure is going to be too much. It’s going to add risk and possibly pitch them right out of the ZPD. 

At the same time, if they’re used to solving problems on their own, having too much structure can feel insulting and boring, moving them in the other direction but still out of that ZPD. (The good news is that shifting the level of structure can also help resolve the issues you may have surfaced when you examined the community.)

It can also be useful to consider what your moves have been. Shifting from the teacher-in-charge role to the teacher-as facilitator role can be hard. It may feel like you aren’t doing enough or that you’re running from group to group putting out fires. It’s equally uncomfortable for the students—at least at first. As you make the shift, consider the power of waiting and mindful facilitation. Your students will discover that they know more than they realize (and so will you!).

When students struggle, state and restate clearly what you expect to see and hear while they are working so that they know what is expected and can effectively take action.

Step aside, observe, and wait before rescuing groups that seem to be in trouble; let them struggle with the task they have undertaken. How long should a group struggle? That depends on a lot of things, but usually you can let them struggle longer than you think you can. Ask questions if necessary in order to refocus a group:

  • What are you supposed to be working on?
  • What steps have you already taken?
  • What isn’t working?
  • What do you need to be successful? Where can you get it?
  • What else could you be doing?

It’s also fine to call a time-out. Bring everyone back together to think or write for a few minutes on what’s working and what isn’t. Brainstorm about the changes that need to be made to the structure, timeline, groupings, or expectations. Putting everything on pause while you work together to solve the problem models exactly the kind of resilience you’re trying to teach.

Come back to it the next day, and revisit the changes proposed before you move forward with the work. (It’s also fine to chuck the whole thing if it’s just not the right moment. Better to abandon the work altogether than push students—and yourself—through a miseducative experience.)

4. How Complex Is the Work?

An ill-defined problem to solve or project to create can be a great learning experience, but it will be frustrating—and therefore risky and stressful—for students who haven’t done it before or haven’t had an opportunity to grow into that level of challenge. The parameters of the work and the resources to do it should be carefully defined to grow with the students.

At the start, everything students need should be found on a single sheet of paper and in their own heads. After some success, everything they need could be found in a single box, then on a table, in the classroom, in the school, and finally the sky’s the limit!

Bloom’s Taxonomy reminds us that drawing conclusions from multiple sources or experiences increases the level of challenge. Take a look at what you asked students to do. Did you inadvertently ask them to synthesize more than you realized? Synthesize and evaluate? Synthesize and create? Consider breaking the work down into multiple linked projects, building on one another, in which they first synthesize, then evaluate, and finally create.

How familiar are the students with the content? With the tools they’re being asked to use? It’s possible that the issue is related to their understanding of one or the other. Rule of thumb: Never have students work with a new process or tool and new content at the same time. New tools require very familiar content, and new content requires tools they can use without much effort.

When it comes to the amount of time to spend on a PBL lesson, the balance between too short and too long can be tricky. If students have too much time, the sense of urgency is lost. Too little time and you start to get stress-reactive behaviors.

Consider negotiating time with students based on what you see around the room, and offer more or less time if it seems prudent. (I typically tell the students they have less time than I’ve actually budgeted, but I advise teachers that any PBL experience will probably take twice as long as they plan—at least at first.)

5. Do Students Have Clarity Around What’s Expected of Them?

We often assume that students know what we expect, but clarity is everything when it comes to PBL success. We use form, process, content, and impact criteria. Start by providing these to students (but keep them simple). Then, over time and with experience, cocreate them.

By differentiating between the form of the work, the content it needs to demonstrate, the skills and dispositions we expect to see demonstrated, and whether the desired result was achieved, we can prevent the grading conundrum presented by the slick-but-devoid-of-content presentation, the perfect product created by one student in the group while the others chatted, the messy but academically brilliant paper, or the “they did everything right but it just didn’t work the way they planned” result.

Form: What is the work supposed to look like when it’s done, either specifically for this project or in general? For example: How many pages? How big should the poster be? How many images? Typed or handwritten, or just legible? How long is the presentation?

Content: What is the work supposed to show that you understand? What academic knowledge needs to be demonstrated?

Process: What should we see and hear while you’re working? (This is a great opportunity to target a particular skill or disposition, like communication, collaboration, or management.)

Impact criteria: What characteristics will the work have if it has the desired result? Did it have the desired effect or result? How will we know that it worked? (See two examples here and here.)

We often think of PBL as a binary proposition, but successful PBL is a journey. Considering your and your students’ past instructional experiences, the state of the classroom community, and everyone’s current level of comfort with additional risk, you can plan for just the right amount of risk, structure, and complexity.

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  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Classroom Management
  • Collaborative Learning

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