George Lucas Educational Foundation

How Does Project-Based Learning Work?

Tools for understanding the process of planning and building projects.
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Project-based learning, as with all lessons, requires much preparation and planning. It begins with an idea and an essential question. When you are designing the project and the essential question that will launch the activities, it is important to remember that many content standards will be addressed. With these standards in mind, devise a plan that will integrate as many subjects as possible into the project.

Have in mind what materials and resources will be accessible to the students. Next, students will need assistance in managing their time -- a definite life skill. Finally, have multiple means for assessing your students' completion of the project: Did the students master the content? Were they able to apply their new knowledge and skills? Many educators involve their students in developing these rubrics.

Teacher Eeva Reeder developed and implemented an architecture project for her geometry students.

Here are steps for implementing PBL, which are detailed below:

Start with the Essential Question

The question that will launch a PBL lesson must be one that will engage your students. It is greater than the task at hand. It is open ended. It will pose a problem or a situation they can tackle, knowing that there is no one answer or solution.

"Questions may be the most powerful technology we have ever created. Questions and questioning allow us to make sense of a confusing world. They are the tools that lead to insight and understanding." --Jamie McKenzie, The Question Mark

Take a real-world topic and begin an in-depth investigation. Base your question on an authentic situation or topic. What is happening in your classroom? In your community? Select a question about an issue students will believe that, by answering, they are having an impact on. Make it relevant for them. The question should be a "now" question -- a question that has meaning in your students' lives.

Among many other wonderful resources for understanding PBL, the Buck Institute for Education (BIE) offers a great tutorial on how to "Craft the Driving Question." BIE consultant Andrew Miller recently wrote two blog posts for, How to Write Effective Driving Questions for Project-Based Learning and How to Refine Driving Questions for Effective Project-Based Learning. PBL blogger Suzie Boss describes a variety of project kickoff ideas in How to Get Projects Off to a Good Start.

Design a Plan for the Project

When designing the project, it is essential that you have in mind which content standards will be addressed. Involve the students in planning; they will feel ownership of the project when they are actively involved in decision making. Select activities that support the question and utilize the curriculum, thus fueling the process. Integrate as many subjects as possible into the project. Know what materials and resources will be accessible to the students to assist them. Be prepared to delve deeper into new topics and new issues that arise as the students become increasingly involved in the active pursuit of answers.

Create a Schedule

Design a timeline for project components. Realize that changes to the schedule will happen. Be flexible, but help the students realize that a time will come when they need to finalize their thoughts, findings, and evaluations. Consider these issues when creating a schedule:

"We have to know the curriculum. We've got to know the standards inside and out. Even though it looks like the kids are doing all the hard work, there's a lot of planning that goes on behind it to make sure that the work is there for them." --Patty Vreeland, kindergarten and first-grade teacher, Newsome Park Elementary School, Newport News, Virginia
  • What time allotment will be given to the project?
  • Will this project be conducted during the entire school day or during dedicated blocks of time?
  • How many days will be devoted to the project?

Enable success by practicing the following tactics:

  • Help students who may not perceive time limits.
  • Set benchmarks.
  • Give students direction for managing their time.
  • Teach them how to schedule their tasks.
  • Remind them of the timeline.
  • Help them set deadlines.
  • Keep the essential question simple and age appropriate.
  • Initiate projects that will let all students meet with success.

Also, allow students to go in new directions, but guide them when they appear to digress from the project. When a group seems to be going in a different direction, ask the students to explain the reasoning behind their actions. They may have an insight to a solution you haven't seen. Help the children stay on course, but don't accidentally set limitations.

Check out guest blogger Andrew Miller's post How to Build a Calendar for Project-Based Learning for more tips on scheduling.

Monitor the Students and the Progress of the Project

To maintain control without preventing students from taking responsibility for their work, follow these steps:

  • Facilitate the process and the love of learning.
  • Teach the students how to work collaboratively.
  • Designate fluid roles for group members.
  • Have students choose their primary roles, but assume responsibility and interactivity for all group roles.
  • Remind them that every part of the process belongs to each individual and needs each student's total involvement.
  • Provide resources and guidance.
  • Assess the process by creating team and project rubrics.
"As the number of ideas to consider or the number of procedures that need to be followed increases, students may need to stay organized, track their progress, and maintain a focus on the problem rather than get confused by its elements." --Phyllis P. Blumenfeld and others, "Motivating Project-Based Learning: Sustaining the Doing, Supporting the Learning," Educational Psychologist magazine

What's the difference between team rubrics and project rubrics?

Team rubrics state the expectations of each team member: Watch the group dynamics. How well are the members participating? How engaged are they in the process? Assess the outcome.

Project rubrics, on the other hand, ask these questions: What is required for project completion? What is the final product: A document? A multimedia presentation? A poster? A combination of products? What does a good report, multimedia presentation, poster, or other product look like? Make the requirements clear to the students so they can all meet with success.

Discovery Education offers a great resource; a collection of assessment rubrics and graphic organizers that may be helpful to you as you create your own.

Assess the Outcome

Assessment meets many needs. It

  • provides diagnostic feedback.
  • helps educators set standards.
  • allows one to evaluate progress and relate that progress to others.
  • gives students feedback on how well they understand the information and on what they need to improve.
  • helps the teacher design instruction to teach more effectively.
"Project-based learning is focused on teaching by engaging students in investigation. Within this framework, students pursue solutions to nontrivial problems by asking and refining questions, debating ideas, making predictions, designing plans and/or experiments, collecting and analyzing data, drawing conclusions, communicating their ideas and findings to others, asking new questions, and creating artifacts (e.g., a model, a report, a videotape, or a computer program)." --Phyllis P. Blumenfeld and others, "Motivating Project-Based Learning: Sustaining the Doing, Supporting the Learning," Educational Psychologist magazine

Whenever possible, give the students the opportunity to conduct self-assessment. When a student's assessment and the teacher's assessment don't agree, schedule a student-teacher conference to let the student explain in more detail his or her understanding of the content and justify the outcome. PBL blogger Suzie Boss also wrote a great post on culminating events in How to End Projects on a High Note.

Evaluate the Experience

Little time for reflection is available in the busy schedule of the school day, yet reflection is a key component of learning. How do we expect our students to synthesize new knowledge if they are not given time to reflect on what they have discovered? Too often, we teachers do not allow ourselves that time, either. Designate a time for reflection of the daily activities. Allow for individual reflection, such as journaling, as well as group reflection and discussion. (For example, validate what students have learned and make suggestions for improvements.)

To enable effective self-evaluation, follow these steps:

  • Take time to reflect, individually and as a group.
  • Share feelings and experiences.
  • Discuss what worked well.
  • Discuss what needs change.
  • Share ideas that will lead to new questions and new projects.

Continue to the next section of the guide, Workshop Activities.

Comments (15) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

mery's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

hi, i'm a student in BALI. I Have homework to find a journal about Project based learning. can you help me to find this journal? please answer my comment thanks

Mandy's picture

I am doing this project where I have to send a single potato chip in a box made of a sheet of cardstock so it arrives via the U.S. Postal service to my teacher unbroken. I must only use five household items: votton balls(3-5) q-tips or toothpicks (maximum 6), scotch tape (12 inches), toilet paper (8 sheets), and a mystry food item with no limit (I plan to use pop corn). It has to be sent in an envelope (buble wrap or not).

Materials I will use are:

Cardstock size: 8.5 X 11
1 kettle chip
box must have top and bottom.

I have three Project-base learning (PBL) framework questions that I need answers to:

1. What are your ideas or predictions? ( in a class of 33 students how many of the chips will arrive unbroken).
2. What do you need to find out? Where can you find answers?
3. What is your action plan? Restate the problem in your own words.

Sue Hicks's picture
Sue Hicks
6th and 7th grades Science Teacher from Topeka, KS

Science Fairs are really project-based-learning. I do not do them now, but I used to ask students to pick an area of interest, define the question, etc. They were very engaged. I am going to study up this summer and come back to school with a short project to get my feet wet again. Do you do science fairs in middle school?

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Sue, I've seen science fairs across from grades 3 through 12. The thing to watch out for is that there are a lot of cookie-cutter science fair experiments available on the internet. If you're like me, you'll want to see the students explore their own interests, rather than copying-and-pasting them.

Terry Smith's picture
Terry Smith
Teacher Education Professor; Project-based classroom teacher

It's been a while since I posted on Edutopia - here's a shared thought on PBL. I taught in the elementary classroom for 14 years before going to higher ed, where now I'm in elementary teacher education. I used project based learning as my main approach in the elementary classroom, almost always combined in some way with technology and also connecting the students with other classrooms throughout the USA and the world. Besides integrating so many academic areas in project form, PBL is a high-interest learning environment that the students enjoyed. Having all students participate in the learning experience has always been a goal of mine - and PBL is a natural approach for this to happen - everyone in class, all ability levels and/or students with various IEPs can participate in one way or another - differentiating fits comfortably and seamlessly. Cooperation and collaboration are normal parts of the projects, so learning is quickly shared and spread among the students. And when the year is done and the students are asked what they remembered about their 4th grade year- they all remember the projects (and the associated academic content). This is what I model and teach to my teacher education candidates today.

Sarah Scott's picture
Sarah Scott
Curently Grade 3 LA Teacher

I originally hail from the British teaching system where I was a self-contained teacher teaching Grade 3 to Grade 5. I am now teaching in the American system in a (high achieving private) school which is in the process of adopting a full PBL approach. Although I am pleased that PBL will direct teaching towards a more child-centered, authentic approach (which is along the lines of the British system), I am concerned that I won't have time to teach much-needed skills. I also wonder if this way of teaching will reduce the opportunity to teach wonderful concepts and ideas that may not be related to the real world, but nevertheless develop children's sense of wonder and imagination. I'd really appreciate any advice.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Hi Sarah- thanks for chiming in! I find that the big time issue is in the planning, not the teaching. Designing learning experiences (and assessment) that target both academic content and process skills via meaning problems is incredibly rewarding- but it takes time to learn how to do it and then to do it well. At Antioch (where I teach) we use something called the Critical Skills Classroom ( to do it. Our teachers find that they're able to achieve exactly what you describe. Check it out and let me know if you have questions or need some materials or resources- I'm happy to help! (lthomas at antioch dot edu)

Sarah Scott's picture
Sarah Scott
Curently Grade 3 LA Teacher

Thanks Laura Thomas too! I will check out the link and really appreciate you taking the time to reply.

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