Article 1. What is Project-based learning

Project Based Learning is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge. In Gold Standard PBL, projects are focused on student learning goals and include Essential Project Design Elements:

*Key Knowledge, Understanding, and Success Skills – The project is focused on student learning goals, including standards-based content and skills such as critical thinking/problem solving, communication, collaboration, and self-management.

*Challenging Problem or Question – The project is framed by a meaningful problem to solve or a question to answer, at the appropriate level of challenge.

*Sustained Inquiry – Students engage in a rigorous, extended process of asking questions, finding resources, and applying information.

*Authenticity – The project features real-world context, tasks and tools, quality standards, or impact – or speaks to students’ personal concerns, interests, and issues in their lives.

*Student Voice & Choice – Students make some decisions about the project, including how they work and what they create.

*Reflection – Students and teachers reflect on learning, the effectiveness of their inquiry and project activities, the quality of student work, obstacles and how to overcome them.

*Critique & Revision – Students give, receive, and use feedback to improve their process and products.

*Public Product – Students make their project work public by explaining, displaying and/or presenting it to people beyond the classroom.


Article 2. Gold Standard PBL: Project Based Teaching Practices

Adapted from Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning: A Proven Approach to Rigorous Classroom Instruction, by John Larmer, John Mergendoller, Suzie Boss (ASCD 2015)

Teachers who make Project Based Learning a regular part of their teaching enjoy their new role, although for some it might take time to adjust from traditional practice. It’s fun to get creative when designing a project, instead of just using “off the shelf” curriculum materials. Most teachers like working collaboratively with their colleagues when planning and implementing projects, and interacting with other adults from the community or the wider world. And PBL teachers find it rewarding to work closely alongside students, tackling a real-world challenge or exploring a meaningful question.

When transitioning to PBL, one of the biggest hurdles for many teachers is the need to give up some degree of control over the classroom, and trust in their students. But even though they are more often the “guide on the side” than the “sage on the stage,” this most certainly does not mean that teachers don’t “teach” in a PBL classroom. Many traditional practices remain, but are reframed in the context of a project.

Design & Plan

Teachers create or adapt a project for their context and students, and plan its implementation from launch to culmination while allowing for some degree of student voice and choice.

Align to Standards 

Teachers use standards to plan the project and make sure it addresses key knowledge and understanding from subject areas to be included.

Build the Culture

Teachers explicitly and implicitly promote student independence and growth, open-ended inquiry, team spirit, and attention to quality.

Manage Activities

Teachers work with students to organize tasks and schedules, set checkpoints and deadlines, find and use resources, create products and make them public.

Scaffold Student Learning

Teachers employ a variety of lessons, tools, and instructional strategies to support all students in reaching project goals.

Assess Student Learning

Teachers use formative and summative assessments of knowledge, understanding, and success skills, and include self and peer assessment of team and individual work.

Engage & Coach                         
Teachers engage in learning and creating alongside students, and identify when they need skill-building, redirection, encouragement, and celebration.


Article 3. Gold Standard PBL: Essential Project Design Elements

Adapted from Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning: A Proven Approach to Rigorous Classroom Instruction, by John Larmer, John Mergendoller, Suzie Boss (ASCD 2015). This post is also available as a downloadable article.

If done well, PBL yields great results. But if PBL is not done well, two problems are likely to arise. First, we will see a lot of assignments and activities that are labeled as “projects” but which are not rigorous PBL, and student learning will suffer. Or, we will see projects backfire on underprepared teachers and result in wasted time, frustration, and failure to understand the possibilities of PBL. Then PBL runs the risk of becoming another one of yesterday’s educational fads – vaguely remembered and rarely practiced.

To help teachers do PBL well, we created a comprehensive, research-based model for PBL – a “gold standard” to help teachers, schools, and organizations to measure, calibrate, and improve their practice. This term is used in many industries and fields to indicate the highest quality process or product. Our conception of Gold Standard PBL has three parts: 1) Student Learning Goals (in the center of the diagram below) 2) Essential Project Design Elements (shown in the red sections of the diagram), and 3) Project Based Teaching Practices (which we explain elsewhere).

Student Learning Goals

Student learning of academic content and skill development are at the center of any well-designed project. Like the lens of a camera, our diagram puts the focus of PBL on preparing students for successful school and life experiences.

Key Knowledge and Understanding

Gold Standard PBL teaches students the important content standards, concepts, and in-depth understandings that are fundamental to school subject areas and academic disciplines. In good projects, students learn how to apply knowledge to the real world, and use it to solve problems, answer complex questions, and create high-quality products.

Key Success Skills

Content knowledge and conceptual understanding, by themselves, are not enough in today’s world. In school and college, in the modern workplace, as citizens and in their lives generally, people need to be able to think critically and solve problems, work well with others, and manage themselves effectively. We call these kinds of competencies “success skills.” They are also known as “21st Century Skills” or “College and Career Readiness Skills.”

It’s important to note that success skills can only be taught through the acquisition of content knowledge and understanding. For example, students don’t learn critical thinking skills in the abstract, isolated from subject matter; they gain them by thinking critically about math, science, history, English, career/tech subjects, and so on.

We recommend all projects include a focus on these success skills: critical thinking/problem solving, collaboration, and self-management. Projects may also help build other skills, habits of mind and work, and personal qualities (such as perseverance or creativity), based on what teachers, schools, parents and communities value, but we argue that the ability to think critically, solve problems, work with others and manage oneself and one’s own work are crucial stepping stones to future success.

Essential Project Design Elements

So what goes into a successful project? Based on an extensive literature review and the distilled experience of the many educators we have worked with over the past fifteen years, we believe the following Essential Project Design Elements outline what is necessary for a successful project that maximizes student learning and engagement

Challenging Problem or Question

The heart of a project – what it is “about,” if one were to sum it up – is a problem to investigate and solve, or a question to explore and answer. It could be concrete (the school needs to do a better job of recycling waste) or abstract (deciding if and when war is justified). An engaging problem or question makes learning more meaningful for students. They are not just gaining knowledge to remember it; they are learning because they have a real need to know something, so they can use this knowledge to solve a problem or answer a question that matters to them. The problem or question should challenge students without being intimidating. When teachers design and conduct a project, we suggest they (sometimes with students) write the central problem or question in the form of an open-ended, student-friendly “driving question” that focuses their task, like a thesis focuses an essay (e.g., “How can we improve our school’s recycling system, so we can reduce waste?” or “Should the U.S. have fought the Vietnam War?”).

Sustained Inquiry

To inquire is to seek information or to investigate – it’s a more active, in-depth process than just “looking something up” in a book or online. The inquiry process takes time, which means a Gold Standard project lasts more than a few days. In PBL, inquiry is iterative; when confronted with a challenging problem or question, students ask questions, find resources to help answer them, then ask deeper questions – and the process repeats until a satisfactory solution or answer is developed. Projects can incorporate different information sources, mixing the traditional idea of “research” – reading a book or searching a website – with more real-world, field-based interviews with experts, service providers and users. Students also might inquire into the needs of the users of a product they’re creating in a project, or the audience for a piece of writing or multimedia.


When people say something is authentic, they generally mean it is real or genuine, not fake. In education, the concept has to do with how “real-world” the learning or the task is. Authenticity increases student motivation and learning. A project can be authentic in several ways, often in combination. It can have an authentic context, such as when students solve problems like those faced by people in the world outside of school (e.g., entrepreneurs developing a business plan, engineers designing a bridge, or advisors to the President recommending policy). It can involve the use of real-world processes, tasks and tools, and performance standards, such as when students plan an experimental investigation or use digital editing software to produce videos approaching professional quality. It can have a real impact on others, such as when students address a need in their school or community (e.g., designing and building a school garden, improving a community park, helping local immigrants) or create something that will be used or experienced by others. Finally, a project can have personal authenticity when it speaks to students’ own concerns, interests, cultures, identities, and issues in their lives.

Student Voice & Choice

Having a say in a project creates a sense of ownership in students; they care more about the project and work harder. If students aren’t able to use their judgment when solving a problem and answering a driving question, the project just feels like doing an exercise or following a set of directions. Students can have input and (some) control over many aspects of a project, from the questions they generate, to the resources they will use to find answers to their questions, to the tasks and roles they will take on as team members, to the products they will create. More advanced students may go even further and select the topic and nature of the project itself; they can write their own driving question and decide how they want to investigate it, demonstrate what they have learned, and how they will share their work.


John Dewey, whose ideas continue to inform our thinking about PBL, wrote, “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.” Throughout a project, students – and the teacher – should reflect on what they’re learning, how they’re learning, and why they’re learning. Reflection can occur informally, as part of classroom culture and dialogue, but should also be an explicit part of project journals, scheduled formative assessment, discussions at project checkpoints, and public presentations of student work. Reflection on the content knowledge and understanding gained helps students solidify what they have learned and think about how it might apply elsewhere, beyond the project. Reflection on success skill development helps students internalize what the skills mean and set goals for further growth. Reflection on the project itself – how it was designed and implemented – helps students decide how they might approach their next project, and helps teachers improve the quality of their PBL practice.

Critique & Revision

High quality student work is a hallmark of Gold Standard PBL, and such quality is attained through thoughtful critique and revision. Students should be taught how to give and receive constructive peer feedback that will improve project processes and products, guided by rubrics, models, and formal feedback/critique protocols. In addition to peers and teachers, outside adults and experts can also contribute to the critique process, bringing an authentic, real-world point of view. This common-sense acknowledgement of the importance of making student work and student products better is supported by research on the importance of  “formative evaluation, ” which not only means teachers giving feedback to students, but students evaluating the results of their learning.

Public Product

There are three major reasons for creating a public product in Gold Standard PBL – and note that a “product” can be a tangible thing, or it can be a presentation of a solution to a problem or answer to a driving question. First, like authenticity, a public product adds greatly to PBL’s motivating power and encourages high-quality work. Think of what often happens when students make presentations to their classmates and teacher. The stakes are not high, so they may slack off, not take it seriously, and not care as much about the quality of their work. But when students have to present or display their work to an audience beyond the classroom, the performance bar raises, since no one wants to look bad in public. A certain degree of anxiety can be a healthy motivator. But too much anxiety can of course detract from performance – the trick is to find the sweet spot, not the sweat spot – so it’s important that students are well prepared to make their work public.

Second, by creating a product, students make what they have learned tangible and thus, when shared publicly, discussible. Instead of only being a private exchange between an individual student and teacher, the social dimension of learning becomes more important. This has an impact on classroom and school culture, helping create a “learning community,” where students and teachers discuss what is being learned, how it is learned, what acceptable standards of performance are, and how student performance can be made better.

Finally, making student work public is an effective way to communicate with parents, community members, and the wider world about what PBL is and what it does for students. When a classroom, school, or district opens itself up to public scrutiny, the message is, “Here’s what our students can do – we’re about more than test scores.” Many PBL schools and districts reinforce this message by repurposing the traditional “open house” into an exhibition of project work, which helps build understanding and support for PBL among stakeholders. When the public sees what high-quality products students can create, they’re often surprised – and eager to see more.


Article 4. Top 10 Reasons Why Teaching Key Competencies with PBL is a Good Idea

1. Our graduates will be better prepared for college, careers, and citizenship.

2. Students will still learn academic content (and remember it better).

3. Our test scores will be fine, and our students will be better able to meet today’s more demanding standards.

4. Students will get better at managing their time and staying

5. Students will learn how to work together to get things done, just as they will need to do on the job.

6. Students’ public presentations will be fun to watch, and give them a chance to develop communication skills.

7. Students will be more engaged and take more responsibility for their own learning.

8. Students’ creativity might lead to improvements in our

9. Parents and community members can share what they know as a content expert, guest speaker, or project consultant.

10. Students will have interesting things to say when asked, “What did you do in school today?”

Adapted from PBL for 21st Century Success, Buck Institute for Education © 2014


Article 5. Project-based learning and key competences in schools: So what does effective project-based learning look like in schools?

The US notfor-profit organisation BIE suggests that the following essential elements need to be in place at school level for project-based learning to be effective: Essential elements for project-based learning:

  • Significant content – At its core the project is focused on teaching students important knowledge and skills, derived from standards and key concepts at the heart of academic subjects.
  • 21st century competences – Students build competences valuable for today’s world, such as problem-solving, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity/innovation, which are explicitly taught and assessed.
  • In-depth enquiry – Students are engaged in an extended, rigorous process of asking questions, using resources and developing answers.
  • Driving question – Project work is focused by an open-ended question that students understand and find intriguing which captures their task or frames their exploration.
  • Need to know – Students see the need to gain knowledge, understand concepts, and apply skills in order to answer the ‘driving question’ and create project products, beginning with an ‘entry event’ that generates interest and curiosity.
  • Voice and choice – Students are allowed to make some choices about the products to be created, how they work, and how they use their time, guided by the teacher and depending on their age and experience of project-based learning.
  • Critique and revision – The project includes processes for students to give and receive feedback on the quality of their work, leading them to make revisions or conduct further enquiry.
  • Public audience – Students present their work to other people, beyond their classmates and teacher.

How can this all be translated into a project? Using an example project drawn from BIE’s project databank we can see how a project can cover an element of the curriculum and a wide range of key competences/21st century skills, whilst giving students some control over their work and the opportunity to present their work to an audience.

Project: High school students took on the key roles of Chief Financial Officer, the Director of Research and Development and the Director of Marketing in a company making stuffed animals. They research the marketability of various stuffed animals, setting this data out in a matrix and answering questions from their CEO. They prepare a presentation of their research and their recommendations including TV and radio commercials. In this example the significant content relates to the use of matrices to represent data and to solve problems. The 21st century skills or key competences include mathematical and digital competences and a wide range of skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, team work and creativity. The students use a variety of ways to communicate their findings: oral, written and multimedia.


Article 6. 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. Edutopia’s PBL research review explores the vast body of research on the topic and helps make sense of the results. In this series of five articles, learn how researchers define project-based learning, review some of the possible learning outcomes, get our recommendations of evidence-based components for successful PBL, learn about best practices across disciplines, find tips for avoiding pitfalls when implementing PBL programs, and dig in to a comprehensive annotated bibliography with links to all the studies and reports cited in these pages.

What is Project-Based Learning?

Project-based learning hails from a tradition of pedagogy which asserts that students learn best by experiencing and solving real-world problems. According to researchers (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008Thomas, 2000), project-based learning essentially involves the following:

  • students learning knowledge to tacklerealistic problems as they would be solved in the real world
  • increasedstudent control over his or her learning
  • teachers serving ascoaches and facilitators of inquiry and reflection
  • students (usually, but not always) working inpairs or groups

Teachers can create real-world problem-solving situations by designing questions and tasks that correspond to two different frameworks of inquiry-based teaching: Problem-based learning, which tackles a problem but doesn’t necessarily include a student project, and project-based learning, which involves a complex task and some form of student presentation, and/or creating an actual product or artifact.

These inquiry-based teaching methods engage students in creating, questioning, and revising knowledge, while developing their skills in critical thinking, collaboration, communication, reasoning, synthesis, and resilience (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008). Although these methods of inquiry-based teaching differ slightly, for simplicity they’re combined in these pages and referred to as project-based learning or PBL.

Learning Outcomes

Studies comparing learning outcomes for students taught via project-based learning versus traditional instruction show that when implemented well, PBL increases long-term retention of content, helps students perform as well as or better than traditional learners in high-stakes tests, improves problem-solving and collaboration skills, and improves students’ attitudes towards learning (Strobel & van Barneveld, 2009Walker & Leary, 2009). PBL can also provide an effective model for whole-school reform (National Clearinghouse for Comprehensive School Reform, 2004Newmann & Wehlage, 1995).

A 2016 MDRC/Lucas Education Research literature review found that the design principles most commonly used in PBL align well with the goals of preparing students for deeper learning, higher-level thinking skills, and intra/interpersonal skills (Condliffe et al., 2016).

Keys to Project-Based Learning Success

Researchers have identified several components that are critical to successful PBL (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008; Ertmer & Simons, 2005Mergendoller & Thomas, 2005Hung, 2008). While project-based learning has been criticized in the past for not being rigorous enough, the following features will greatly improve the chances of a project’s success:

  1. A realistic problem or project
    • aligns with students’ skills and interests
    • requires learning clearly defined content and skills (e.g. using rubrics, or exemplars from local professionals and students)
  2. Structured group work
    • groups of three to four students, with diverse skill levels and interdependent roles
    • team rewards
    • individual accountability, based on student growth
  3. Multi-faceted assessment
    • multiple opportunities for students to receive feedback and revise their work (e.g., benchmarks, reflective activities)
    • multiple learning outcomes (e.g., problem-solving, content, collaboration)
    • presentations that encourage participation and signal social value (e.g. exhibitions, portfolios, performances, reports)
  4. Participation in a professional learning network
    • collaborating and reflecting upon PBL experiences in the classroom with colleagues
    • courses in inquiry-based teaching methods

You will find much greater detail on these four key components, along with step-by-step instructions on how to put them into place, in the next section.


Article 7. Project-Based Learning Research Review: Evidence-Based Components of Success

What boosts PBL from a fun and engaging exercise to a rigorous and powerful real-world learning experience? Researchers have identified four key components that are critical to teaching successfully with PBL (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008Ertmer & Simons, 2005Mergendoller & Thomas, 2005Hung, 2008). All of these play a role in the curriculum-design process.

Carefully Calibrated Project Design

In general, PBL projects begin by presenting a driving question, one that focuses on intended learning objectives, aligns with students’ skills, and appeals to students’ interests. PBL can range from being highly structured — to guide students toward the most efficient, optimal solution — to having multiple or even no clear solutions (for example, a study of climate change).

If you are new to PBL, it’s best to start with smaller projects that are already part of the curriculum (Ertmer & Simons, 2005). Based on an analysis of studies demonstrating successful PBL, Hung (2008) proposed a model for designing problems or projects, which focuses on content, context, calibration, researching, reasoning, and reflection, or 3C3R. According to Hung (2008), PBL is ineffective when: a) the skills needed for solving a problem are either above or below the learner’s abilities, and/or b) the problem asks students to study content that is outside of the content objectives, but required for solving the problem. Teachers can avoid both common mistakes by following a seven-step procedure that sets up the problem for students (adapted from Hung, 2008).

  1. Define the Content.What do you want students to learn by the end of the assignment? Expectations should correspond with students’ current research and reasoning skills.
  2. Identify the Context.Brainstorm a list of real-life activities in which learners could apply the intended content. Be aware of any time or location constraints in these situations.
  3. List Possible Problems.Create a list of problems or projects that could occur in each context from Step Two. Select the problem or project that best presents the content objectives and that will be appealing and relevant to learners.
  4. Describe Potential Solutions.Fully describe the most viable solution to the problem or project, as well as possible alternative solutions. Identify the known and unknown variables. Note the most realistic path of reasoning and the knowledge (concepts, principles, procedures, and facts) that would result from the most viable solution. Next, identify alternative paths of reasoning and knowledge that would evolve from alternative solutions to the problem. Based on these possible solutions, what researching and reasoning skills will learners need for solving the problem or creating the project? What is the best framework for building students’ knowledge? (That is, how do concepts required for solving the problem relate to each other?)
  5. Calibrate Your Project.Using the solutions from Step Four, check to make sure that the knowledge and skills generated by the most viable solution match the intended knowledge and skills from Step One. For instance, you might create a chart comparing the intended knowledge and skills with those necessary to solve the problem. To better match intended content with students’ level, add or remove problem conditions. To make a problem easier, focus learners’ attention on the target knowledge. To make a problem harder, focus learners’ attention on peripheral knowledge. To make the problem more realistic, add time, budget, or location constraints that might occur in an authentic professional situation.
  6. Describe the Task.To create a description of the task, remove information from the most viable problem solution from Step Four. If researching or reasoning a critical piece of information is beyond students’ problem-solving skills, this information should be presented to the learners rather than have them struggle to learn it.
  7. Reflect on the Learning.Reflect students’ learning by including multiple opportunities to check their progress in the initial assignment and adjust instruction accordingly (for example, let them know they need to keep a journal and report to their supervisor on a weekly basis). The final assessment should also be clearly described in the assignment (for example, a final report, presentation, or follow-up question or problem) and should allow learners to reflect upon their overall learning and problem-solving process. Designing assessments is very important, and is described more fully in the assessment section.

Structured Student Collaboration

Compared to traditional instructional methods, students engaged in small-group learning achieve higher grades, retain information longer, and have reduced dropout rates, improved communication and collaboration skills, and a better understanding of professional environments (Johnson, Johnson, & Stanne, 2000Springer, Stanne, & Donovan, 1997Terenzini, Cabrera, Colbeck, Parente, & Bjorklund, 2001; cited in Oakley, Felder, Brent, & Elhajj, 2004). Collaborative learning promotes time on task as well as friendships across diverse groups, such as race, ethnicity, gender, or school cliques (Johnson & Johnson, 2009). Collaborative learning benefits students across grade levels, academic subjects, gender, ethnicity, and achievement level (Slavin, 1996).

To increase the success of group work, team rewards or goals should depend on growth in each individual student’s skills and knowledge, with measures that account for such growth. Researchers recommend three- to four-person teams for most collaborative learning assignments (Johnson & Johnson, 2009). Lower ability students tend to work best in mixed groups, medium ability students in homogeneous groups, and for higher-ability students, group ability levels make no difference (Lou, Abrami, Spence, Poulsen, Chambers, & d’Apollonia, 1996).

Two ingredients are critical for successful collaborative learning (Slavin, 1991):

  • Team goals and/or rewards based on individual learning growth.When the team goal is tied to the learning of each individual, team members care about others’ learning and actively help each other. Assigning interdependent roles to students has been shown to increase students’ learning and engagement through teamwork (Slavin 1996; Johnson & Johnson, 2009).
  • Individual accountability.To increase group-work success, team rewards or goals should depend upon growth in each individual student’s skills and knowledge. Individual learning growth must be measured in relation to each student’s past performance in order to ensure that everyone has an equal chance of success. For example, teams might be awarded points based on each member’s meeting or exceeding past performance, based on individual assessments.

Veteran teachers recommend tracking group progress with clear benchmarks and due-dates, meeting with groups regularly, and making evidence of group progress visible and public by using planning sheets and/or group folders (Mergendoller & Thomas, 2005). Public or classroom presentations also encourage full participation and help to promote accountability (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008). Group contracts also help to keep students accountable. Typically, groups collectively agree upon norms and expectations at the beginning of projects, while reflecting on the group process and product throughout (Oakley et al., 2004; Mergendoller & Thomas, 2005).

Assessments That Support Students’ Success

Criteria for success on PBL tasks need to be clearly defined at the start of the project, and should include multiple opportunities for feedback, reflection, and time for students to revise their work (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008). At the start of a PBL assignment, teachers should provide students with clear and challenging criteria or guidelines for success, using rubrics and examples that demonstrate intended learning outcomes from local professionals or former students (Ertmer & Simons, 2005; Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008). Students who have clear criteria for success spend more time discussing and evaluating content, and these conversations increase student learning (Cohen, Lotan, Abram, Scarloss, & Schultz, 2002; cited in Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008).

Inquiry-based learning is most productive when teachers provide students with frequent assessments and redirection through project benchmarks and reflection activities (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008). Providing students with feedback that they act upon produces significant learning gains (Black & William, 1998aHattie, 2008). Frequent feedback enables teachers to adapt their instruction to target students’ learning needs, while providing students with information to develop their work. What’s more, by emphasizing the process, effort, and strategies involved in accomplishing a task — as opposed to focusing solely on the final product — students come to understand that learning is the result of cumulative effort. This, in turn, improves their resilience and academic achievement (Dweck, 2000).

Barron and Darling-Hammond (2008) recommend providing students with several opportunities to review and revise their project work (as a way of delivering a polished performance) and providing comments rather than grades during these assessments to focus attention on the quality of work rather than the worker. For example, students might write a research plan, listing the questions they will need to address and sources they will read, before heading to the library or conducting an Internet search (Mergendoller & Thomas, 2005).

Researchers also recommend end goals that reflect professional practice, such as public exhibitions, portfolios, and presentations, which signal the social value and relevance of student work (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008). The final (summative) assessment should use many different criteria that reflect the various skills involved in the task, and these criteria should be communicated openly to students (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008; Thomas, 2000). To ensure that students truly understand final assessment criteria, teachers can ask students to help define the criteria (Mergendoller & Thomas, 2005).

For final (summative) assessment criteria, Hung (2008) recommends these six items:

  1. necessary knowledge acquisition (for example, “need to knows,” or content objectives)
  2. depth of study
  3. effectiveness and efficiency of research methods
  4. logical and effective reasoning
  5. conceptual integration of knowledge
  6. effective problem-solving strategies

Barron and Darling-Hammond (2008) recommend assessing these six items:

  1. use of evidence
  2. accuracy of information
  3. evaluation of competing views
  4. development of a clear argument
  5. attention to writing conventions
  6. collaboration

A Supportive Network for Teachers’ Professional Development

It should be noted that “the curriculum approach by itself cannot do it all,” (Kolodner, Camp, Crismond, Fasse, Gray, Holbrook, Puntambekar, & Ryan, 2003, p. 542). The success of PBL also depends on motivating and supporting teachers in new roles of facilitating inquiry. Teachers learn PBL by collaborating with colleagues, introducing PBL in the classroom, and reflecting on their experiences (Krajcik, Blumenfeld, Marx & Soloway, 1994).

A number of online networks support teachers as they collaboratively develop their expertise in PBL methods. For example, PBL teachers share project ideas, receive feedback, and interact with other PBL classrooms using the Buck Institute for Education’s (BIE) Project-Based Learning network on Edmodo and Edutopia’s PBL discussion group. BIE also offers a wealth of free project-based-learning resources and online professional-development courses in PBL.

Providing teachers with professional development courses in inquiry-based teaching methods is critical for achieving positive PBL results on a district-wide scale (e.g., Geier, Blumenfeld, Marx, Krajcik, Fishman, Soloway, & Clay-Chambers, 2008Finkelstein, Hanson, Huang, Hirschman, & Huang, 2010). For more information on effective professional development practices, see Edutopia’s Teacher Development and Leadership page.

Although the transition to teaching with project-based learning can be challenging and time consuming, several studies show that teachers ultimately find the PBL approach to be more rewarding and enjoyable than traditional teaching methods (Strobel & van Barneveld, 2009). Longitudinal research also indicates that when teachers create the interactive and engaging classroom environments typical of inquiry-based learning, students are more successful over the long term (Darling-Hammond, 1996Zimmerman, 2002).


Article 8. Project-Based Learning Research Review: Avoiding Pitfalls

There are many potential barriers to implementing successful project-based learning — it requires serious student and teacher commitment, adequate planning time, and buy-in from the top down. But with these practical tips based on research findings, you can stay away from the most common mistakes educators make, and be confident you are getting started on the right foot with PBL.

Don’t Be Afraid to Make Mistakes

Wrong turns often lead to some of the most memorable learning experiences. Like students, teachers must be ready to analyze tasks and adapt teaching tactics as a way of modeling those skills for students (Ertmer & Simons, 2005).

Model Active Listening and Full-Group Attention

Working in groups, students often fail to listen to each other’s ideas, and may attempt to split up group work into individualized, non-interactive tasks. Truly effective collaboration requires the attention of everyone, which teachers can support by carefully describing and modeling what active listening, joint attention, and coordinated activity look like (Barron, 2003).

Encourage Students to Explore Discrepancies

Students should be ready to dig in to discrepancies that appear in a variety of resources — and they should be provided with sufficient time to do so. Discussing differences and contradicting information that result in a variety of sources and evaluating the evidence that led to different conclusions, are important exercises in developing critical-thinking and self-directed learning skills. Barron and Darling-Hammond (2008) recommend presenting students with wide-ranging types of evidence (books, lectures, films, field trips) representing different perspectives and providing sufficient time for investigating, applying, discussing, sharing, and revising their conclusions.

Be Realistic and Flexible in Planning

If you are new to PBL, start with smaller teaching units before attempting larger, more complex ones, and look for potential problems to solve or projects that are already part of the curriculum (Ertmer & Simons, 2005; Kolodner, Camp, Crismond, Fasse, Gray, Holbrook, Puntambekar, & Ryan, 2003). Veteran teachers recommend setting the number of days expected to achieve a milestone, then building in a 20 percent overrun; teachers should be prepared to provide alternative instruction to reinforce subject matter and to know when to enforce deadlines (Mergendoller & Thomas, 2005).