Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Twenty Tips for Managing Project-Based Learning

Use these strategies to help students work towards PBL projects and assessments.

September 14, 2011

In honor of Edutopia's 20th anniversary, we're producing a series of Top 20 lists, from the practical to the sublime.

20 Tips for Managing Project-Based Learning

1. Use Social Media One of the best ways to document collaboration and engage students with technology is use social media platforms like Edmodo. Students can use it to share ideas, you as the teacher can use it to formatively assess where students are in terms of products and content knowledge, and it is a great way to have real evidence of collaboration.

2. Meet with Team Representatives As a teacher, when making announcements or doing a short mini-lesson for students, it gets really old to have to continually ask, "Can I have your attention, please?" You don't need to. Instead say, "Project Managers, I need you here to pick up a quick memo with announcements about our presentation day." Or perhaps say, "Head researchers, I need to teach you a quick mini-lesson on search terms to teach the rest of your group." It saves you time and it saves students' time, preventing a "time suck" in your classroom.

3. Play "Slacker Hard Ball" We all have "slackers," so sometimes I put them all in one group. Now you might think I'm crazy for that, and that they might not do work. But here is what can happen: Often, one or more in that group starts doing something. The minute that happens, I make a public praise of that student's work. Before then, that student had no "street cred" in my classroom, and now they do. Hopefully that moment can empower the student to excel.

4. Formatively Assess Often In order to make sure students are getting the content and skills they need, good teachers use many formative assessments. You know this. And it also holds students accountable. It ensures that they are getting good, thoughtful feedback to improve their culminating products and performances. If you are formatively assessing, you are managing your classroom effectively with accountability, reflecting on your teaching and their needs, and ensuring quality PBL project products.

5. "Give Up Power to Empower" This is my mantra for teaching. For too long, students have been conditioned not to have power in their education. As PBL helps to empower students, the teacher must be willing to give up the power to them. Don't be a helicopter. Be present, but also give space for them to take ownership and problem solve.

6. Set and Debrief Goals for "Work" Time Implementation or "work" is not simply given over completely to students, especially when students who have never been given that space to work are asked, all of a sudden, to take complete ownership. Set goals for work for the time, debrief those goals, and set next steps. It will scaffold the process of students taking ownership and it will help students to hold themselves accountable.

7. Reflect on the Driving Question Continually revisit the driving question of the project. Just like with rubrics, if you don't use the driving question, it will mean nothing. Help students make sure the work they are doing is working toward answering the driving question. Help students keep the eye on the prize.

8. Use Team Contracts Students are more likely to follow the norms of the classroom when they set them themselves, especially in their groups. It helps to decrease possibilities of escalations where there is teacher vs. student. Instead, issues that arise in the classroom become student vs. what student said they would do. Use templates, give samples and other resources to have students create effective contracts to manage themselves.

9. Group Students Intentionally When creating teams for a project, I never do random grouping. These students will be in these teams from two to six, or even eight weeks. We want to set them up for the best possible success, so make sure you are considering all forces at work, whether it's behavior, ELL, academic ability or artistic ability to set students up for a successful team.

10. Have Students Choose Or Have Voice in Team Role If you are using authentic roles in the teams for the project, have students rank choice and/or choose their role. It will empower them to be experts and gurus in a specific area of content or skill in the project.

11. Differentiate Instruction through Grouping There is always a time and place to differentiate instruction in teams for PBL. When doing PBL projects that demand a lot reading, I create teams with varying reading ability level. This allows me the opportunity to really work intensively with a group to build their abilities and push them far. Again, as long as it is intentional, create teams to allow you to differentiate instruction.

12. Use Heterogeneous Grouping It is great to have students learn from the strengths that each one brings to the group. Balance groups with leaders to push groups along. If your project has a major artistic component, make sure there is a student with that strength.

13. Allow for Conflict I know, it's difficult. When we see our students having issues and arguing, we need to remember that they are problem-solving. We need to not be "on them" instantly to make them stop arguing. Arguing and conflict is part of the process of collaboration and making decisions. Be present, but, again, don't be a helicopter. Teach them how to solve conflicts.

14. Celebrate Achievements Don't forget to celebrate the work that students accomplish. Students need affirmation. Mozilla is piloting some cool new badges to celebrate student learning, especially in the area of 21st century skills. Use stamps and gold stars. I don't know why stamps and stickers have such power, but they work. And they help to celebrate student work and learning.

15. Give Useful and Accessible Feedback Part of conducting formative assessments is giving good feedback to students. Feedback should be specific and doable so that students can later implement the suggestions you give. Useful feedback will ensure that there is something specific to do, and there is always improvement that needs to happen. There is no "dead" time because there is always feedback to implement.

16. Use and Return to the "Need to Know" The Need to Know is a living and breathing document that you create with students at the beginning of the project, where you ask students what they need to know in order to accomplish the project you have presented them with. After the initial creation, you must revisit it to let students see what you have armed them with and and also solicit more "need to knows." It will keep the momentum of the project going and also help students see what they now know!

17. Hold Students Individually Accountable through Individual Products In addition to collaborating on innovative products, students should be demonstrating the content and skills of the project individually. I want to make sure that each student walks away with the same content and skills that they are learning through the creation of their group products.

18. Allow for Voice and Choice in Products Voice and choice will allow students to use their strengths -- from artistic to techie -- in a project. It will help keep them engaged by honing their ways of knowing and showing that knowledge. Give them options of choice in the group and/or individual product, and be sure to allow their voice to shine in the project. It will keep them invested and engaged.

19. Demand High Expectations Do not fold! The minute you fold, the minute you let students know that you will change the due date or modify requirements, they will know they can goof off. My due date and requirements do not change because I have used the Teaching and Learning guide to backwards design my calendar. High expectations create great products and urgency! Consider reading Ron Berger's An Ethic of Excellence.

20. Empower Students Absent with Achievable Goals We all have students who are absent, and hopefully with the creation of authentic and engaging projects, they will want to come to school more often. Regardless of the reasons for which students do not attend regularly, we have to welcome them to our classroom with open arms and also with achievable goals. I recommend helping groups set goals each day with chronically absent students that have achievable outcomes for that day. That way, there is something he/she can get completed for the group without serious issues of incomplete or lost work.

Bonus! 21. Create Engaging Projects that are Authentic and Relevant The best tip I can give you is to create an engaging project where the outcomes and learning are relevant and the audience is authentic. When kids are engaged, they are less likely to be behavioral issues. Honestly, if I am experiencing major issues in terms of classroom management, the first question I ask myself is, "How is my project not authentic, relevant, and engaging, and how can I improve?"

A quick note on these tips: There is no real silver bullet to get every single kid under the sun engaged in your classroom, but good teachers use all the strategies they can muster. That is what these tips are; strategies which can help you ensure that all students work towards amazing PBL projects and other assessments in your classroom.

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Media Literacy
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Edutopia is an initiative of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.