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How to Get High-Quality Student Work in PBL

John Larmer

Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education
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"I thought the project was going well . . . but by the end, I felt that the work my students produced was not as good as I imagined it would be. I was a little embarrassed and almost wanted to dial back the audience's expectations on the night of the presentations!"

This is a common concern of teachers who are new to project-based learning. Things can appear to be going smoothly -- students have been engaged by the project, they've been learning content and skills, they've been busy and meeting deadlines -- but their thinking is not as in-depth and their final products not as polished as they should be. If this is your experience, it's time to ask yourself some questions:

1. Did I use rubrics and exemplars to help students understand the quality of work expected?

Simply telling students that you want them to do high-quality work is not enough, nor is giving them a checklist that tracks completion, not quality. Most PBL teachers know that they need rubrics in order to assess the complex products and performance tasks typically seen in projects. But rubrics should also be used throughout a project as a tool for guiding students as they work. Introduce rubrics near the beginning, when students hear about (or help decide) what the major products of the project will be. Actually, you're doing more than an introduction. You should be saying, "Get to know it well," so don't just point out a rubric you've created and say, "Here's how you'll be assessed.” Have students either (a) practice using the rubric several times or (b) co-create a rubric and then practice using it.

To have students practice using a rubric, find some exemplars of the kind of work required in the project. You could find real-world examples made by professional adults, or use student-created examples from past years. So if students need to write, say, a scientific report after an investigation, show them one -- on a different topic, to prevent direct copying. If they need to build a museum-style display, take them to a museum or visit its website. If the product is a presentation, a designed artifact or a work of art, show videos, photos or physical examples. Have students use the rubric to assess the quality of the exemplars and debate their decisions until the class arrives at a consensus and is "calibrated" on the criteria.

Here's another tip for clarifying high expectations. Depending on what kind of product the project requires, bring professional experts into class, or visit them in person or online, to hear about the criteria used to judge the quality of a similar product in their work. For example, have an engineer describe how she defends the mathematical models used in a proposal for a new construction project, or have a sculptor explain how he puts together a proposal for a piece of public art.

2. Did my project include effective formative assessment?

One of the 8 Essential Elements of PBL is "Revision and Reflection." The Common Core State Standards emphasize the ability to give and receive feedback -- and use it to improve work -- in the ELA writing standards for grades 6-12. So make sure that you teach students how to play a role in the formative assessment process, and provide them with regular opportunities to do so. Your project calendar should have several checkpoints on it for when formative assessment can happen.

Teach students how to use critique protocols (such as Critical Friends, Gallery Walks, design charrettes) that emphasize what Ron Berger calls "kind, specific and helpful" feedback. Make sure students use rubrics or other established criteria as the basis for giving critique. To help emphasize its importance, include the ability to give and receive feedback -- and use it -- in your grading and reporting system.

The following short video from Expeditionary Learning demonstrates the power of peer critique.


Of course, the teacher also must provide feedback and critique, so make sure that yours is based on clear quality criteria and arrives in timely fashion. That latter point can be tricky -- if 35 rough drafts arrive on your desk all at once, it's going to take some time to review them. Peer critique can help lighten the load, and so can the use of other adults acting as project mentors and experts. Also consider setting staggered checkpoint dates for different student teams.

3. Did students have enough time to revise and polish their work?

Sometimes lower-than-hoped-for quality is simply a matter of time -- as in, not enough of it. That can be especially true the first time you conduct a project, because it's easy to overlook how long it might take students to create high-quality products, whether those products are writing, live presentations, multimedia or digital. After your students get all that helpful feedback, they still need time to reflect and act on it, and to revise their work.

Maybe it's hard to imagine adding another few days to your project calendar. The need to "cover" content frequently causes tension in PBL. So you may have to weigh the trade-offs and make a choice: do I want the highest-quality work, or is there some other level I can accept? (A word of reassurance: the more you use PBL in your teaching, the better you'll become at finding the sweet spot between time and quality.)

4. Did the project feel authentic enough to motivate students? Did they care?

For many students, school assignments are more about getting it done than doing it well. That attitude may transfer to project work at first. But PBL is based on the belief that schooling should be different. A project should increase students' motivation to learn and produce quality work because:

  • Students care about the issue, problem or topic of investigation because they see its relevance to their own lives. The answer to the project's driving question matters to them.
  • Students care about the fact that they are producing work for a public audience. It's not a just another instance of turning something in for the teacher, or another casual presentation in front of the class. Students will come to know that the quality of a product matters if they want to make an impact in the real world. They'll want to impress people and not be embarrassed when they share the results of the project, whether it's a live presentation of a solution to a community problem, the launch of a website they've created, or a demonstration of a product in front of its intended users.
  • Students feel a sense of authenticity when they collaborate with adult professionals, experts, parents or community members during a project. "We're working as these adults do," students will think, "and they don't do shoddy work." And those outside adults -- often more powerfully than words from a teacher -- can encourage students to do better work.

5. Do my classroom and my school cultivate a culture of quality?

In addition to the above, there's a less tangible but very important aspect of getting students to do high-quality work: culture. Through the stated and unstated beliefs promoted by adults, and the structures and rituals of a classroom -- or more effectively, throughout a school -- students get the message: "We do good work here."

If you ever get a chance to visit High Tech High or one of its sister schools in San Diego, the first thing you might notice is the student work displayed all over the building -- works of art, pieces of writing, inventions demonstrating an understanding of science. That's part of a classroom and school culture of quality. Excellence is celebrated and displayed on walls, in hallways, on websites, at public events. Teachers use portfolios to collect student work and share it with parents and the community on exhibition nights.

Another way to make the message of quality concrete is to arrive at a shared understanding of and commitment to high standards across classrooms, departments and grade levels. Teachers should engage in professional development that allows them to examine student work together and discuss how to improve it in a project. Adopt the same PBL rubrics whenever possible, such as those describing a quality demonstration of the 21st century competencies of critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity.

Talk as a school staff about how to promote commonly held classroom norms that encourage students to take risks, be persistent, value feedback and expect much of themselves and their peers. As Ron Berger says in his seminal book, An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students (Heinemann 2003), "When students expect excellence out of each other and hold each other to high standards, you'd be amazed what can happen in a school." For more of Ron's thoughts on how and why schools should focus on quality over quantity, see his essay Beautiful Work at

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TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"


Casual observers saw the flag controversy pitting the "fergit" crowd against the "fergit, hell" crowd.

--Georgia Odyssey, by James C. Cobb

They have said to me that they'll never look at a flag the same way again. They have said to me that now they'll pay more attention to what a flag might communicate, represent, and symbolize.

I'm tearing up. I really am.

They have also said to me that since they have a better feel for what a well-designed flag looks like then they'll speak up and tell anybody who'll listen when they see any flag anywhere and at any time about the elements of the flag that could be changed and made more balanced and logical and communicative.

It's what vexillologists do.

Flags are eagerly presented from the front of the room. Snap says the red on his flag represents him getting better at baseball because he's been trying hard. The picture of him used as a charge in the canton is of him in the dugout during a baseball game.

Montene says the crucifix represents her love of Jesus.
Milo says the picture of the nose on his flag represents his concern for his sister who wants to get a nose job. Milo says the meaning of a hammer about to smash his alarm clock glaring the hideous time of 6:30 should be pretty obvious.

Hap's flag represents a place he'd like to live in and rule called Haptopia.

Beauregard didn't have a name for a new world represented by his funky flag, but Beauregard says it would be more of a kingdom and he'd be the ruler of the kingdom.

Albert had a near perfect flag. Elegant and simple, the way professional vexillologists like a flag. Albert had drawn a heart and inside the heart symbol it said Brandi + Albert. As simple as that.

We asked Albert if he loved Brandi, who goes to another school.

He said he did.

I asked Albert if Brandi loved him back.

Albert said he was pretty sure she did.

I asked Albert if wanted to keep his flag.

Albert said yes and he wasn't embarrassed one bit as he carried it back to his desk.

Click's bi-color flag was elegant and simple, too. Click didn't have to, but he wrote his explanation out so when he presented his flag to us he would remember all the details and get them right. I'd say he did present it right, on deeper levels of vexillology than he might possibly realize. In Click's words ...

"My flag of choice for this assignment is a two banded horizontal bi-color design. The ratio of my flag is roughly 1:2 because my flag is of a rectangular shape. On my flag I have the colors yellow and green and together they represent my active lifestyle. Green represents my love of the outdoors along with my lifetime wilderness experience and practice of survival skills. The main purpose that my flag serves is that the flag I have come up with represents the things in my life that I enjoy being a part of and experiencing for a lifetime to come. The way I decided my flag to be positioned is yellow for the top color because that is the part of me that I think means the most, and on the bottom I have green for my secondary love for adventure. Yellow symbolizes my friendly, peaceful approach to people and who I respect and care for."

Click, outstanding job, you vexillologist human being 14 year old whacky kid who I have always liked a lot. I'll offer to you what I think might be the greatest sign of respect and appreciation for a flag and what it represents, communicates, and symbolizes ... your flag, Click ... and that's saluting it. I salute your flag and I salute you and Albert, too, my real good vexillologists.

John Larmer's picture
John Larmer
Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education

Thanks Gloria, great link. I almost added a paragraph to my post about how students can create rubrics, but this piece from High Tech High says it very well. And yes, it would be later in the project - although I'd put this practice on the "advanced" end of the PBL scale.

Ericka Nall's picture

Great article & will be great for future reference. I have always talked about using rubrics more than I do. After this article, I will be using rubrics for much more assignments.

CometED's picture

Wow, there were so many great ideas in this post. I am trying to implement PBL in my classroom and have had many discussion with my principal over your five different tips. It was great to see another viewpoint. My favorite was using the rubrics and showing students quality work, but using a different subject to demonstrate. This was one problem I was running into because I did not want my students to imitate what they saw.

Again, thanks for so much insight into PBL.

Esther's picture
Ed.M candidate at Harvard Graduate School of Ed; NYC Special ed teacher

A powerful yet simple strategy to teach kids (even with learning differences in special ed classrooms) to feel empowered and engaged. This strategy can be used to introduce topics, to engage children, or to launch off any projects or lessons.

One change makes all the difference! Need I say more?

John Larmer's picture
John Larmer
Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education

Esther, Nice blog on SPED students in a PBL-like setting - although you don't call it a project, it sure sounds like one. The process of generating student questions you describe resembles what BIE calls the "Entry Event" and "Need to Know List." The Right Question Institute is a great resource.

Yleana Baca's picture
Yleana Baca
Reading Specialist, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Thank you for this post! This is the hot topic right now at our academy and I am so excited to share this and your article "8 Essential Elements of PBL" with my colleagues. We are a very small school who focuses on Africana Studies and all of our projects this year are to incorporate New Mexico History from the Africana Studies perspective. This is no easy task without a lot of research and assistance from the department at University of New Mexico.
Our question to every lesson, project, or reading is "so what?" asking for the relevance to our focus.
I particularly appreciate the questions referring to motivation and assessment. We are working on these particular components of project building this week at our staff meeting.

Greg Reiva's picture
Greg Reiva
High School Science Teacher

At the high school that I teach at I have embraced the PBL methodology as a means to increase student intrinsic motivation to learn. This inquiry-based model of instruction and learning is engaging for the students and it greatly contributes to their academic success. Please check out my blog to read about some of the avenues of learning I have pursued as a high school science teacher.

Brianna's picture
2nd Grade teacher

I agree this article had great insight on how to implement PBL. I like the idea of creating a "culture of quality." Many times we hear that it is important to create a culture within our schools but how? I like the idea of celebrating excellence by displaying students works of excellence around the schools. Great ideas thanks for sharing!

Jackie Taylor's picture
Jackie Taylor
1st/2nd grade teacher

My school uses PBL and is gearing up for our Culminating Event in a couple of weeks. As we prepare our final projects it is always nice to have clear ideas for communicating the expectations for quality work. I found your ideas very helpful and really enjoyed watching the video Austin's Butterfly. Thanks for the great suggestions and the many resources for further exploration!

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