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A Glimpse at Project Based Learning in the Classroom

by Model Teaching | December 13, 2018.

As an educator, you have probably heard of Project Based Learning, or PBL, but might have been overwhelmed by all it seems to encompass. Take a close glimpse of an actual PBL project in action in the classroom to see that it is completely manageable!  After reading this article, you will have a basic understanding of Project Based Learning and what it looks like in the classroom.

Project Based Learning

Imagine a classroom in which students are engaged in relevant research and persuasive writing as they work to tackle a local community problem. They are learning rigorous content standards, and at the same time, they are practicing 21st century skills like collaboration, critical thinking, and communication. The teacher provides scaffolding as needed, but students are making regular choices about the direction of their learning. If this sounds too good to be true, you should know that it is not impossible! In fact, this description depicts a typical day in a classroom that is engaged in Project Based Learning.

Project-based learning is an instructional approach where students learn by investigating a complex question, problem or challenge. It is multi-disciplinary and consists of multiple weeks or months of work towards a product that will express the student’s learning. It can be done as early as kindergarten, or as late as high school. Project based learning has eight critical components:

  1. A problem that is authentic to the student and their community
  2. Cross-curricular rigorous work based on content standards
  3. Knowledge and skills that can be applied beyond school, also known as 21st Century Skills
  4. Inquiry-based approach
  5. Adult mentorship
  6. Assessment through final products, exhibitions, or portfolios in addition to traditional assessments
  7. Student choice
  8. Ongoing reflection and revision

Let’s take a closer look at a Project Based Learning cycle as it unfolds in a public elementary school with a team of third grade classes.

An Authentic Problem
A team of six third grade teachers came up with the project idea based on a drought their community was going through. Cities were under strict watering restrictions and everyone was feeling the effects the lack of rainfall had brought. In looking at their science content standards, the teachers knew that resources, conservation, and environmental changes were coming up. This tied in well with the social studies standards about humans adapting to variations in their physical environment. They also knew they could incorporate language arts standards through research, expository writing, and persuasive writing. The teachers decided they wanted their students to focus on convincing others (particularly students at their school and their families) to conserve water. They developed this driving question to pose to their students: How can we, as conservationists, teach other to use water wisely?

Cross-Curricular Standards
The teachers planned specific lessons on research skills to begin the PBL cycle. Students used those research skills to learn about the current drought and its effect on people, plants, and animals. They also learned about water, from how much water is available on earth to how much is consumed by an average household. They very quickly realized how much water is wasted and were eager to find ways to conserve water, and to convince others to save water as well. Writing lessons focused on expository writing to share what they learned about the issue, and then persuasive writing to convince others to make a change.

Student Choice and an Inquiry-Based Approach
As students were researching, they naturally formed inquiry groups. Some were focused on the problem of wasting water and its inevitable effects, while others focused on potential conservation solutions. These groups began to brainstorm ways they could inform others of what they had learned. One group elected to create a newsletter about the problem and effects of wasting water. Another group developed a skit about how to conserve water at home. Several small groups of students decided to film PSAs (Public Service Announcements) that could be broadcasted over the school’s morning news show. These student choices led to the teachers regrouping their classes based on student interests and teacher skillsets. Each teacher then developed appropriate lessons to help the students create their final products. As a culminating activity, the third grade students held a school-wide assembly in which they shared their skits, PSAs, and a slideshow presentation based on information from their newsletters.

21st Century Skills
Throughout the entire process of PBL, students were working on a large variety of life skills that will benefit them well beyond the classroom. Through their research and synthesis of the knowledge they gained, they were working on critical thinking and information literacy. By forming small groups, they improved their leadership and social skills. Having so much choice in the project, they increased their flexibility, productivity and learning to take initiative. And finally, with their final products and assembly presentation, the students built their creativity and communication skills.

Adult Mentorship
Adult mentorship was easy to incorporate into this project based learning cycle. The teachers used school resources such as the librarian for research lessons and the instructional technologist to teach video editing lessons. They had a local meteorologist visit with a presentation on the drought. Furthermore, the entire grade level took a field trip to the LCRA (Lower Colorado River Authority) early on in the project to start building their background knowledge about the water cycle.

Throughout the course of the PBL cycle, students had various checkpoints and assessments to monitor their progress, such as a quiz on natural resources and conservation in science, quick checks of their independent research notes for reading, and expository and persuasive letter writing assessed with rubrics for writing. For students not reaching mastery on any of these tasks, teacher-led small groups were formed to provide more support as needed. And of course, students received a summative assessment grade on their final product, which was assessed with a common rubric developed by the team of teachers. Because the rubric was based on content standards, it was able to be applied to multiple products, such as a skit, PSA, or a newsletter.

Project plan revision was built in throughout the process. As students formed their specific interest groups, the teachers had to revise their groupings and lesson plans based on student needs. At the end of the full PBL cycle, the team of teachers completed individual teacher reflections and then discussed those results in a team meeting as they considered how best to improve the process for future PBL cycles.

This particular project took place over a period of about 9 weeks. However, PBL cycles can be shorter or longer than that, depending on the scope of the project. It is also important to note that while this was a third grade project, PBL can be easily implemented into any grade level. Project Based Learning is a flexible instructional approach that will benefit even your most reluctant learners.

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Project-Based Learning Brainstorming Template

This resource provides prompts to help you brainstorm the critical elements of a PBL cycle for your own classroom.


Now that you have a better idea of what a PBL cycle looks like in a classroom, start thinking about how you can incorporate this instructional approach into your teaching. Use our resource “Project Based Learning Brainstorming Template” to start brainstorming ideas for future implementation. Talk to other teachers at your grade level to get their feedback and buy-in. If you want to learn more about the process, visit the websites listed in the resources section, or enroll in our full-length Project Based Learning course.

  • Buck Institute for Education – The BIE’s priority is training teachers to implement PBL in their classrooms.
  • Twenty-First Century Skills – Learn more about the 12 life-skills that are considered 21st Century Skills at this website.
  • PROJECT BASED INSTRUCTION: A Review of the Literature on Effectiveness in Prekindergarten through 12th Grade Classrooms, River Academic Journal – This article reviews research done from 2000-2011 on the effectiveness of PBL in elementary and secondary classroom settings.
  • Implementation and Assessment of Project-Based Learning in a Flexible Environment, International Journal of Technology and Design Education – This article focuses its research on low-achieving students, and shows that after three years of PBL implementation within a flexible environment, these students were able to achieve greater results of meeting college entrance requirements.

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