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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. If you're new to project-based learning, watch our intro video here.
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Building Rigorous Projects That Are Core to Learning (Keys to PBL Series Part 2)(Transcript)

Steven: A lot of people think that Project Based Learning is fluff. So what we did, instead of having a three-column rubric that has "Unsatisfactory, Proficient and Advanced," we added a fourth column. It is the "Standards," what has to be taught.

Peggy: Students are going to address the content that they need to learn through this PBL approach. PBL provides the meat of the curriculum. It's not a side thing you do at the end of the unit for fun. It's really how you're engaging students in that content learning.

Lisa: I start with the standards in mind. It's called "Backwards Design." And so you start with the standards, you start with what the final exam would look like. Again, we still do have final exams, and unit exams at the end of each topic that we're learning, because they need that practice. And so I make the test ahead of time, and then I plan all of the appropriate activities that we're going to do for the project.

Steven: Our students still take assessments, district assessments, and benchmarks. We still have that accountability factor. And when our students then perform very well on those, it shows it works.

Peggy: There's really two main reasons that a teacher should use a PBL approach. And one is that the students will learn disciplinary content. I mean, that's critical. But the second equally important reason to use it is that students develop critical thinking skills while they're learning the content. They learn to collaborate with others. They have the opportunity to be creative in the way they think about the problem, and then to put their own spin on their solution to the problem.

Steven: It's a shift in the delivery of instruction. Students at this school not only get the knowledge, but they learn the application. So the knowledge then becomes relevant when they have to apply it to a real-world situation.

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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.

 Click here to watch "Five Keys to Rigorous Project-Based Learning

Learn more about the Five Keys to Rigorous PBL: 

  • 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.

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Katie M's picture

Hello! Thank you for these videos! They have been very helpful in teaching me more about implementing Project-Based Learning! I'm still struggling though with how you actually test students. Most specifically, how can you plan a test ahead of time if you're not entirely sure about the projects students come up with? I'm also not sure about how I would put grades like this in my gradebook. It sounds like not all students are receiving the same exact thing, per say, to help him or her with their part of the project? Thank you for any and all suggestions!

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 Katie! Assessing PBL can be tricky, but it gets simpler if you focus on the content you want students to have at the end and the process skills you want them to practice. Then the "stuff" they make and do becomes fodder for teaching the content and skills and you can assess how well they've attained them based on what they do at the end. For us, that means setting up something we call "Quality Criteria," which are simply what the work will look like and what it will show the student knows when it's done and done well, along with what the student will demonstrate he/she can do while working. (We can them Form, Content, and Process Criteria respectively.) The grades in the grade book are then drawn from those criteria. So let's say students are trying to figurer out a way to teach the community about how to conserve water. Some kids decide to make a brochure, others a website, another a video, and another a display for the public library. The Form criteria might vary (if you wanted to go beyond "Typed, no mechanical errors, able to be understood without additional explanation") but the Content Criteria (what you want them to know about water conservation, the water cycle, and water use patterns in your region) would all be the same. Process Criteria might focus on communication, collaboration, organization- pick one- and spell out in observable, measurable ways what it looks like and sounds like when someone does that thing well. Students get a grade for demonstrating they can do that- while you're watching and they're working in class- as well as a grade for the Content and the Form of their work. I have a little book that I put together to use with my Assessment students at Antioch- it might help. You can download it for free at

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

Hi Katie,

As Laura has mentioned, it can be tricky, but only at first, at least as I see it. I found that there is a learning curve to PBL, but once you get going, it becomes almost addicting! I sure could not ever go back to the ways I taught and assessed before I become a PBL, or in my case, a PBLL (1) junkie! Please forgive my extended metaphor... :-)

As I have become more skilled as a PBLL-oriented teacher, I have developed a ton of rubrics, some of which have become the main ones I tend to use most. I have rubrics for content proficiencies, and I have rubrics for particular skills. This is similar to what Laura has mentioned. In my case, my skills rubrics focus on critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration. Many teachers also have rubrics for communication skills, i.e., presentation skills. As a World Languages teacher, since our content area is so much about communication, I have moved my communications rubrics to the categories for our language-based communication skills: interpersonal, interpretive and presentational communications, in oral and written forms, and according to fluency levels: novice, intermediate, advanced. Again as a World Languages teacher, I also assess content knowledge about cultures, including intercultural skills. I have rubrics for these as well, when they apply to a PBLL-aligned project. So, to sum up so far, I make use of rubrics in all these areas to guide assessment for projects, and both my students and I participate in the scoring process.

As for other kinds of assessments, however, more can be said. I do still give formative and summative assessments, aka, tests, quizzes, and exams. However, I only do so insofar as they are really necessary. If my students can demonstrate mastery of content knowledge, interculturality and skills by creating a product through a PBLL process, I don't need to test them any further. Why would I? I actually don't even have the time to do that!

On the other hand, when I do need to assess further, I tend to plan for oral and/or written assessments, which students do after projects have been completed and presented.

As for my gradebook... I have categories for grades: communications in three modes (interpretive, interpersonal, presentational), collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking. I have a grade for agency, sometimes also called practice and participation. What I do not yet have, and I hope to have, is a category for interculturality. Each category is weighted, to make up the whole, so the various skills and content categories, balance out appropriately to provide students clear information about their assessed abilities.

My last comment is really about the question regarding knowing what to assess when student projects can be so varied. I think that if my rubrics are well designed to guide students regarding what they are to show what they can do, and what they know, by creating a project product, I don't need to be concerned about the content of my tests. I make tests based on the expected outcomes, not based on the students' projects. When my students do their projects well, and when I do my part by creating meaningful and engaging projects, my students tend to do better on their assessments than otherwise. It all comes together!

I hope these few comments will help you as you sort out how to implement PBL in your own classes. Let us know if you have other questions! We're here to help!


(1) i.e., project-based language-learning

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