George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

3 PBL Practices to Empower Students

Empower students in PBL settings by framing the purpose for learning, intentionally structuring collaboration and choice, and using appropriate scaffolds for learning and revision.

November 13, 2015
Photo credit: Dylan Otto Krider via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Project-based learning (PBL) provides a powerful opportunity for students to reflect on who they want to be and what decisions they want to make. One student says, "[PBL] helps me try to ask questions and find out what everything means. The self-advocacy is a really important part, getting information for yourself." Teachers who have implemented project-based approaches report that students are empowered when they make personal conclusions about the value of their learning and reflect on the complexity of decision-making.

A recent literature review of PBL (Condliffe, Visher, Bangser, Drohojowska, & Saco, 2015) (PDF) highlights instructional practices to structure and guide student processes and decisions. When implemented effectively, these practices have the potential to move beyond disconnected pieces of required information and empower students to drive their learning.

Purpose, Structure, Design, and Use

1. Frame the Purpose for Learning

Students are empowered when they understand why content is both meaningful and significant. Creating projects oriented around authentic and consequential driving questions can encourage extended inquiry and deeper learning. This requires teachers to skillfully plan backward from ambitious learning goals. When learning goals and driving questions are consistently and often made clear, students understand how their daily work fits into the larger vision of the course, which reinforces real-world connections to learning. Teachers can highlight these connections by launching a project with an engaging entry event that piques student interest and encourages a "need to know" (Parker et al, 2013). This creates the context for a connected set of active, collaborative, extended experiences that encourage student choice and decision making as they apply relevant information to authentic tasks (Thomas, 2000).

2. Intentionally Structure Collaboration and Choice

Project experiences are empowering when they reflect skills and scenarios required in the real world, including collaborating with others on a problem or task (Larmer, Mergendoller, & Boss, 2015). Structures for collaboration and choice can guide student action, while leaving room for creativity. To begin, teachers and students must articulate expectations for what productive group work "looks" and "sounds" like. Teachers initially guide students to practice working productively in pairs and then in groups, reteaching and clearly modeling productive collaboration when needed. The intentional grouping of students also maximizes productivity during group time (Frey, Fisher, & Everlove, 2009). Finally, offering students multiple ways to progress through a project encourages them to make choices about how to generate work that is meaningful to them. These structures, in combination with frequent checks for understanding, teacher and peer feedback, and opportunities for revision, help students take action together to produce consequential work and deepen understanding (Berger, Rugin, & Woodfin, 2014).

3. Design and Use Appropriate Scaffolds for Student Learning and Revision

When they take an active role in their learning, students often describe their project-based experiences as a refreshing change from business as usual. Increased interactivity, however, comes with a downside. For students, it can be intimidating to have their perspectives placed front and center in the classroom. They are surprised by the work expected and point out, "It is pushing me out of my normal comfort zone." Multiple scholars conclude that learning scaffolds are particularly important in PBL to help students manage increased social and emotional demands of projects (Darling-Hammond et al, 2008; Grant, 2002; Kracjik & Shin, 2014). For instance, scaffolding the revision process can ease apprehension by setting norms for constructive criticism, creating peer feedback worksheets, and using task lists to identify next steps for future drafts. Such scaffolds empower students to make choices about incorporating feedback to improve their work, while feeling increasingly comfortable with risk-taking. Scaffolds might also include project templates, guiding questions, and learning technologies that tailor to specific student needs identified through ongoing assessment, also allowing for productive student struggle. Gathering data on areas of discomfort along with specific interpersonal strengths is critical to showcasing students' unique personalities and helping them take action.

Defining Structured Opportunities

PBL places greater responsibility on students to manage their learning, which can be unfamiliar to both teachers and students. Structured opportunities for students to collaborate and make choices about how they might apply relevant information to authentic tasks can help students practice for situations that they might face in the world. At Lucas Education Research, we continue working with teachers and researchers to gather evidence for effective PBL practices. These practices will empower students and teachers to believe that they can make change and take charge of their learning.


  • Berger, R., Rugen, L., Woodfin, L. (2014). Leaders of their own learning: Transforming schools through student engaged assessment. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Condliffe, B., Visher, M. G., Bangser, M. R., Drohojowska, S., & Saco, L. (2015). Project-based learning: A Literature review.
  • Darling-Hammond, L., Barron, B., Pearson, P. D., Schoenfeld, A. H., Stage, E. K., Zimmerman, T. D., Cervetti, G. N., & Tilson, J. L. (2008). Powerful learning: What we know about teaching for understanding. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Frey, N., Fisher, D., & Everlove, S. (2009). Productive group work: How to engage students, build teamwork, and promote understanding. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
  • Grant, M. M. (2002). Getting a grip on project-based learning: Theory, cases and recommendations. Meridian: A Middle School Computer Technologies Journal, 5 (1).
  • Krajcik, J. S., & Shin, N. (2014). Project-based learning. In R. K. Sawyer (Ed.), The Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences (2nd ed.) (pp.275-297). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
  • Larmer, J., Mergendoller, J. R., & Boss, S. (2015). Setting the standard for project based learning: A proven approach to rigorous classroom instruction. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
  • Parker, W. C., Lo, J., Yeo, A. J., Valencia, S. W., Nguyen, D., Abbott, R. D., Nolen, S. B., Bransford, J. D., & Vye, N. J. (2013). "Beyond breadth-speed-test: Toward deeper knowing and engagement in an Advanced Placement course." American Educational Research Journal, 50 (6), 1424-1459.
  • Thomas, J. W. (2000). A review of research on project-based learning. San Rafael, CA: The Autodesk Foundation.

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  • Curriculum Planning
  • Student Engagement
  • Teaching Strategies

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