George Lucas Educational Foundation

5 Keys to Rigorous Project-Based Learning

Well-designed project-based learning (PBL) has been shown to result in deeper learning and engaged, self-directed learners. Learn more about the five core elements of successful PBL.
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Five Keys to Rigorous Project-Based Learning

Voiceover: How will today’s children function in a dangerous world? What means will they use to carve the future? Will they be equipped to find the answers to tomorrow’s problems?

Teacher: When you think about traditional learning you think of a student sitting in a classroom and being talked at.

Teacher: Now I imagine a lot of you are still thinking...

Teacher: They are supposed to be a sponge. The teacher tells them information and they suck it up. That’s not the real world. Having them actively engaged learning about things in their community and doing projects that they care about is giving them that ownership of their learning, it’s making them life-long learners, it’s giving them the critical thinking and problem-solving skills that they need as soon as they walk out of your classroom into the real world.

Peggy Ertmer: So there are a lot of different ways to approach PBL, a lot of different ways to implement it, but really it all boils down to five essential keys: real-world connection, core to learning, structured collaboration, student driven, and multifaceted assessment. The first key component of PBL is real-world connections, and really what this entails is having an authentic problem that drives the curriculum. So students are given this question, for example, “What’s in our water and how did it get there?” And then the students choose different paths to explore that question.

Student: One of the problems in the ocean is that with the higher amount of CO2 calcifying organisms are decreasing and we’re testing to see how well life in the ocean lives without calcifying organisms.

Tom Duenwald: When the students know that what they’re doing in the classroom has an audience outside the classroom it really helps them deepen their thinking on it and I think that is pretty authentic in terms of what the future work world holds.

Student: --four by eight feet.

Peggy Ertmer: So the second commonality is the PBL unit provides academic rigor. This is not something that teachers would add at the end of a unit because they learned all the content they’re supposed to learn already and so this, you know, the fluff that they can do at the end. This is the unit, this is the way that they learn the content.

Teacher: So what’s your standards you’re gonna be covering?

Teacher: We’re gonna do 5a, which is analyzing scenes, and this is huge in this book.

Steven Zipkes: When you can show that you’re incorporating the standards built in these projects that aren’t fluff a lot of eyes and ears open, because people are hungry for that.

Peggy Ertmer: Structured collaboration refers to allowing the students to work together, but giving them a structure within which to work.

David: Our project was to create a aquaponics system and we had several people working on it. In my case I was kind of the team leader. Two members of my group, who were kind of just like the thinkers that would think, “What if we could include this?” And once those two came up with the ideas, it would go through another person who was kind of like the designer to figure out, “Oh, how would we make it?” And then it would kind of go up to me and say-- and I would kinda be like the final decider--

Sheela Webster: We would never put four kids together at a table and say, “Here’s a task. Get it done during this time period.” It’s very carefully scaffolded.

Peggy Ertmer: There’s an interesting shift in roles that happens in a PBL unit. The teacher becomes more of a facilitator and the students take more control.

Teacher: You guys are the Red Cross responders. You already looked at news broadcasts.

Student: Yes.

Teacher: And you took down some notices. You need to take all of this and you need to bring it together.

Student: So I have to write down the aspects of the news broadcast?

Teacher: You got it. Exactly. So Kassim’s got it. Kassim can give you some ideas on how to start.

Peggy Ertmer: But as the facilitator the teacher needs to be able to ask good questions. She needs to re-direct if necessary, you know, give hints but not answers. And that’s really an interesting role for teachers to learn how to do. Multifaceted assessment refers to assessment being integrated throughout the entire PBL unit.

Lisa Zeller: I do a lot of formative assessments. It’s not a test at the end of the week or the end of the unit. You’re doing a lot of small check-ins with the students to see where they’re at and to see that they’re growing along. I think it’s really important to also make sure that the students are assessing themselves.

Sheela Webster: It’s a process that we are really trying to bring back again to the student so that kids are part of the assessment process and that assessment is just not being done to them.

Peggy Ertmer: --are students who would blossom under this approach. They learn that they have voice and choice and teachers would probably in the end find it easier and more fulfilling and we would probably have a whole lot less burnout. I mean this is really an exciting way of teaching.

Steven Zipkes: What we’ve done for the last hundred years direct teaching for some students it works, but for most students it doesn’t. So for us project-based instruction is a way that we can reach all students and get them engaged.

Student: Right now my favorite project is called “Create Your Own Project”.

My favorite project this year was in chemistry and what it was about we were using chemistry and reactions to create a soda.

It’s a video production class and we’re making a kids’ show. We’re calling it “The Dojo Show”.

We’re learning about spatial diffusion, Black Death, the Columbian exchange--

Reactions like double replacement, combustion, things like that.

We’re basically the teachers in this so we’re gonna create a rubric, our group contracts, and we’re gonna launch this project to our class.

We’re learning how to collaborate and also work towards a creative goal. It helps us get into that creative mindset that really is something that’s hard to find in any other high school.

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  • Web Video Producer: Christian Amundson
  • Editor: Daniel Jarvis
  • Associate Producer: Douglas Keely
  • Camera: Christian Amundson, Matthew Beighley, Zachary Fink, Mario Furloni, Daniel Jarvis, Gabriel Miller
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  • Historic Footage: Prelinger Archive
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Special thanks to Buck Institute for Education, Expeditionary Schools, New Tech Network, and Bob Pearlman.

Five Keys Video Series

See Edutopia's core strategies in action with our Five Keys video series. Take a deeper look at each strategy as we share the nuts and bolts of program implementation, give voice to examples from schools around the country, and illuminate the research behind the practices.

Learn more about the Five Keys to Rigorous PBL:

Students gathered beside a river

Establishing Real-World Connections in Projects (Keys to PBL Series Part 1)  Students are more engaged when learning relates directly to the world they live in. See how to extend your projects beyond classroom walls.

Two students study together in a classroom

Building Rigorous Projects That Are Core to Learning
(Keys to PBL Series Part 2)
Project-based learning doesn't mean leaving standards behind. Follow these tips to plan projects that challenge your students and align with core learning goals.

Two girls look at a microscope in class.

Structuring Collaboration for Student Success
(Keys to PBL Series Part 3)
PBL provides a unique opportunity to help students practice critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity. Learn how to optimize the environment for teamwork in your classroom.

Two students give a presentation to their classmates.

Facilitating Learning in a Student-Driven Environment
(Keys to PBL Series Part 4)
When they are directly involved in planning and steering projects, students are more invested in their learning. Get ideas for empowering your students to work independently.

Two students read over a worksheet together.

Embedding Assessment Throughout the Project
(Keys to PBL Series Part 5)
Assessment can be integrated seamlessly into project-based learning. Find tools for measuring student understanding from the beginning to the end of a project.


More Edutopia Resources for Project-Based Learning

  • CORE STRATEGY PAGE: Project-Based Learning

    Use this roundup page to discover why project-based learning is a dynamic classroom approach in which students actively explore real-world problems and challenges and acquire a deeper knowledge.

  • ARTICLE: Project-Based Learning Research Review

    Studies have proven that when implemented well, project-based learning (PBL) can increase retention of content and improve students' attitudes towards learning, among other benefits.

Find more resources and information on project-based learning at the website of the Buck Institute for Education (BIE), or follow BIE on Twitter.

Project-Based Learning Overview

Comments (23) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Don Doehla, MA, NBCT's picture
Don Doehla, MA, NBCT
2015 California Language Teacher of the Year, Co-Director Berkeley WL Project at UC Berkeley Language Center

@Don from Don!

Well said. Your comments are spot on. Since I began creating PBL-aligned units, my students are much more engaged, ask far more complex questions and solving problems more interesting to them. AND the creativity is over the top! Let me share an amazing project with you. I am really proud of these students!

Here is what they did. Working in groups, students researched a Maison des jeunes (Youth center) in a Francophone city of their choice. This group chose Lyon. They researched what the youth center offers by way of activities and services. They chose a role to play (in this case, a news reporting team and the people who work at the youth center). They then chose an audience (in this case, a TV viewing audience). Then they chose a product to make (in this case, they chose to make a news broadcast/ documentary report). They made a video, and posted it on YouTube. I hope you enjoy the video!

And thanks for posting your reflections. Best wishes on your continued studies!


ARain's picture

This is a great video but not all schools have access to the same resources. PBL that includes up to date technology is very important in keeping students engaged.

Don Doehla, MA, NBCT's picture
Don Doehla, MA, NBCT
2015 California Language Teacher of the Year, Co-Director Berkeley WL Project at UC Berkeley Language Center

We aim to please, Leona! I am glad that these were useful for you. Best wishes,

judyd123's picture

Project based learning seems to be a good concept. Students do thrive more when they some control of learning. It also promotes team cooperation and assuming responsibility which are life lessons. The video only showed this approach with older students. How do you use it with younger students? Also, it seems to be a time consuming project. How does it fit in with schedules?

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

judyd123, It works incredibly well even with younger students. The younger the students, the more you need to support them by facilitating the situation. It really depends on what you are trying to accomplish. I also know that whatever I do in 1-2, helps them continue to do PBL in a deeper sense when they get older. So I see much of my work as laying the foundation for student learning through PBL. There are times when I need to hold the hands of my students and times when they simply take off and go someplace where we have never gone. Thsi is when it is really amazing. When I do PBL with my grade 1-2 students I have to remember the skill levels they bring including the focus, independence (or lack there of), and overall abilities. That being said, it is incredible to see young children get so excited about project/problem based learning. You have to keep in mind that the real world connections can be a bit more challenging as they have far fewer experiences and knowledge to draw on than older studnets, but it can be done. Here are some links with some solid advice and project ideas for PBL on the elementary level.

Antioch New England K-3 Kit- ideaa:

I did one on Space- scroll down to the Space Unit description:

Let us know what specific questions you have and good luck!

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

judyd123, with regard to your question about time consuming and fitting it in the schedule- when done well, PBL covers multiple curriculum areas so you get more bang for your buck. It may look like it takes more time and it probably does. However, when done well you get not only authentic hands-on solid learning but you can cover quite a bit of standards in the process. Often times I begin a project and it changes as we go and I find ways to integrate more standards into the work. In the beginning of the school yearn you will need to spend time establishing expectations and explicitly teaching some skills necessary (the amount varies by the grade level.) No matter what, start small and test the waters. If your familiar with Responsive Classroom and the First Six Weeks philosophy, PBL is similar in that there are many expectations and skills that much be taught in the first part of the year. PBL does work best when done school-wide so economies of scale may be realized and each year the students add to their skill set so they can go deeper with their PBL work.

JAVI BRAVO's picture

I'm really very interesting in PBL, but i'm working in Chile, in a rural school; how make it? how make it without much money? . PBl can work in 3rd world, in the emergent world?. You say yes...., proof it!!!. THANKS A LOT!!!

Liv Reeb's picture

Yes, PBL will take a lot of time and facilitation. I know my concern is always spending too much time on one standard and not being able to address everything that my course should cover. However, because it is such a long project, there are opportunities to hit a lot of standards in the project that you may not even know are being hit. While it is good to start with a standard and build off of it, you should also go through the standards for your course and see if your project happens to meet other standards, too! Students could work on their projects solely in class or you could facilitate an after-school program for them to work on it as well.

markbarnes19's picture
Education author/speaker

Plenty to be learned here. Too bad you called it "rigorous". There's no need for rigor in education. Vigorous, challenging? Sure. Rigorous? No thanks.

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