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Project-Based Learning (PBL)

6 Ways to Guide Students to More Authentic Work in PBL

Authenticity is a key element of project-based learning, and teachers can use these tips to create more meaningful learning experiences.

October 27, 2021
High school student giving a presentation to the class
Allison Shelley / American Education

While many educators would agree that authenticity is a core feature of project-based learning (PBL), many of us have different visions for what it looks like in practice. Ultimately, something is authentic (or not) in relation to some other reference. For PBL, we can look at references along several different project aspects, such as role, problem, product, audience, impact, and our students themselves.

1. Support Students to Take on Authentic Roles

Rather than maintaining the traditional student role, PBL has the potential to position students in other real and meaningful roles. Students could take on the role of a mathematician and create mathematical models to make predictions, or an investigative journalist to identify and vet sources as they piece together a puzzle and communicate a story. However, merely telling students that they’re taking on an authentic role doesn’t make it true for them. To make it real, students need support in doing the authentic work of those roles.

For example, it’s important for students to learn how to make predictions and observations like a scientist, or how to critically analyze a primary source like a historian. Teachers can model these practices, help students break them down to make them more accessible, create plenty of opportunities to practice, and provide ongoing feedback to students as they practice doing authentic work within their role. In your next class project, what roles are you supporting students to take on?

2. Promote Student Exploration of Problems and Questions

A complex problem, driving question, interesting puzzle, or perplexing dilemma drives PBL. When considering the authentic work of a historian, students may explore the question of what really happened in the past. For instance, students can examine primary sources to understand what happened in Tulsa in 1921 during the Tulsa Race Massacre.

When portraying the authentic role of an engineer, students can explore the problem of how to design a product that satisfies a need, such as how to create a compost bin to help their school deal with its organic-matter waste. If we want students to engage in real work, then we need to support them in exploring real problems and questions.

3. Ensure That Students Create Authentic Products

While many forms of education ask students to consume information and then share it back with the teacher, PBL empowers students to design, create, and produce—which develops their knowledge and skills along the way. A typical PBL project may culminate in a presentation as a final product; however, a traditional presentation may not be the most authentic product choice. Teachers can think more expansively about alternative products that are more authentic to the role and the problem that students are exploring.

When students take on the authentic practices of a scientist, they can produce an authentic scientific investigation with real scientific findings. As photojournalists, students can produce a photo essay that captures striking images that convey complex messages. As political activists, students can produce a real policy proposal for their student government.

4. Encourage Students to Make Personal Connections

Far from being disconnected from students’ lived experiences, project-based learning has the potential to allow them to bring their full selves to their work. Projects can create explicit opportunities for students to draw on their experiences, perspectives, and values. Even when students are exploring the same essential question and driving toward a common set of broad learning goals, PBL can create space and opportunities for them to explore how they are personally connected to the project. 

To do this, students may choose a specific topic to explore or product to create, or use their project experience to examine their own beliefs and values on a particular issue or question. For example, in an English language arts project focused on the creative use of figurative language, students may produce written works that are inspired by their own experiences and interests.

5. Promote Impacts on Authentic Audiences

In many classes, the only audience for students’ work is their teacher, and the only impact is a grade or teacher feedback. In a PBL-driven class, students can create products that have real impacts on real communities.

In exploring the authentic role of statisticians, students might perform statistical analysis using real data and construct a mathematical argument that they present to their school board to advocate for a later school start time. Or, acting as literary critics, students can publish a literary magazine and distribute it for the enjoyment and enrichment of members of their local community, or even the broader global community of writers and critics.

6. Clarify the Elements of Your Project

In our work at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, we encourage educators to piece the previously mentioned aspects together to articulate the essence of a project, using a straightforward template:

“Students will explore {Question/Problem}. To do this, they will take on the role of {Role}, make personal connections by {Personal Connections}, and work to produce {Product} in service of {Audience and Impact}. In doing so, they will learn {Project Learning Goals}.”

Tying these various project aspects together can help us assess how well connected they are. How aligned are project goals with the question that students are exploring, the role that they are taking on, and the product that they are producing? For example, if students are taking on a scientist’s role, are they engaging with a question that a scientist would authentically explore and ultimately producing something that a scientist would actually produce? Are they building knowledge and developing skills that are worthwhile and meaningful within the field of science, in the context of their lives and their communities?

For your next project, consider how you would complete the template above. What’s the essence of your project? What changes could you make to the various aspects of the project so that it is more authentic to students, the subject area, and the world?  

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  • 9-12 High School

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