4 Tips for Implementing Project Based Learning in the K-12 Classroom

By Kelsey Bednar


One of the many initiatives that districts across the U.S. are working toward is the successful implementation of project based learning (PBL). If you are looking to incorporate this strategy for the first time or enhance your current PBL curriculum, this article will review four important elements you should consider.


4 Tips for Planning PBL: 


  1. Content Selection

This is the most important consideration in the planning process. The challenge is to create and/or find projects or performance tasks that are authentic, connected to the real-world, interesting to your students and most importantly, tied to your curriculum. If you are interested in designing your own PBLs or performance tasks, there are many resources that can help you in this undertaking. Jay McTighe’s paper on Designing Authentic and Engaging Performance Tasks is one I would recommend that helps explain what a well-designed performance task looks like and provides a template for designing your own. Also, be sure to look around your community for inspiration on meaningful projects to engage your students that require the application of content knowledge and skills.


While designing your own tasks can be an exciting challenge, there can be pitfalls. One thing to watch out for is that sometimes, what seems like a very cool project or performance does not actually require students to deepen their learning related to academic content and skills. To help avoid this issue (and save tons of time!), consider using pre-made resources. There are multiple organizations which have created authentic PBLs/performance tasks that are tightly aligned to standards and provide a variety of support material as well. Two notable examples are the Buck Institute for Education’s Project Search where you can search for PBL projects by source, content area, and grade band.  Defined STEM is another great PBL resource with an online library of over 300 authentic performance and literacy tasks ranging across grades PK - 12.


  1. Student Mindset

A roadblock that often appears when students experience PBL for the first time is the “Give us the right answer.” mentality. Your students may not have had opportunities to be creative and innovative without worrying about grades.  Or, they may not have been previously able to cultivate grit or perseverance in an academic setting due to a variety of factors, like time.


Here are tips for how you can ease students into PBL or performance task scenarios over time:

  • Keep the first performance task simple
  • Only ask students to create one product/performance and select a task that requires the application of content knowledge and skills you know they have already mastered
  • Work together as a whole group on the first task of the year. From there, you can gradually release the responsibility and ownership of the learning to small groups by their 3rd or 4th experiences. This gives students time to observe and learn the processes and mindsets that will eventually allow them to tackle “messy” real-world problems independently


By carefully selecting projects/performance tasks and planning for the reality of what your students’ mindsets may be, you will have already addressed half of the planning elements necessary to implement PBL.


  1. Inquiry

I have worked with teachers who were very excited about the possibilities of PBL in their classroom, but were hesitant to implement because their students “don’t know how to research”. They were understandably concerned about the amount of time it might take students to engage in the inquiry process– an important facet of PBL. To plan for a positive PBL experience, it is imperative to think through the inquiry process and how it might look with your students.


  • Reflect on your students’ prior inquiry experiences. Will they know how to develop research questions, gather information from credible sources or synthesize and interpret information? What will you need to do to scaffold that process?
  • Work collaboratively. Is it possible to team up with a colleague, perhaps from the English, Library or Technology departments? Doing this can help alleviate concerns over time and resources. It’s possible that students may be doing a task in science, but receive mini-lessons on research during their ELA time. Or, perhaps students’ library media or technology curriculum addresses how to use digital search tools responsibly so it would be natural to complete the necessary task research during that time instead of science time.
  • Consider available resources. What do you have access to in your building that can facilitate the inquiry process? Do your students have their own laptops or tablets? Can you reserve a technology cart for your class? Is there a computer lab available? If you do not have access to technology, think about how you will supplement with print resources or set specific parameters for the inquiry process that will allow students to successfully research within their means.


  1. Classroom Organization

The last element you should consider when planning for PBL this year is the physical organization of your classroom. There are some space configurations that lend themselves to student collaboration, communication, and creativity more than others. While it is likely that there are constraints on the way you are able to design your classroom, aiming to incorporate one or more of these changes can enhance students’ PBL experiences:


  • Have materials available and within reach.  Consider what materials you have available for students to work with and where they are located in the room. Are the materials organized and labeled? Are they within students’ reach? If your classroom has available technology, how can students access it? As PBL presents students with opportunities to apply their academic content in new ways, it will be critical that students understand what materials are available to aid this work and where to obtain them. Thinking about and preparing for this ahead of time will allow your students to problem solve and communicate more effectively during the year.
  • Ditch the desk. In a PBL classroom, students will be working on engaging, rigorous challenges and will need plenty of space that is designed for them to work together. Ask your principal if it would be possible to switch from desks to tables to encourage collaboration and communication. If this is not feasible, organize individual desks into groups so that they feel like tables. Get ideas on how to set up a learning space that supports PBL in this inspiring video by Apple Distinguished Educator and TED Innovative Educator, Anthony Johnson.
  • Create other spaces for collaboration. Regardless of if you have desks or tables, it is important to incorporate other spaces in the room where students can work in comfort.  This might mean using carpet, bringing in bean bag chairs or perhaps cushions for the seats. While students may have to learn how to engage responsibly in these spaces, these setups can benefit creative and innovative thinking. If you do not have room to create inviting, comfortable spaces for students to work on the floor, consider if there is another space in your building where there is room to do so.

Project-Based Learning represents a shift in teaching and learning that helps our students develop a deep understanding and application of the 21st-century skills that can better prepare them for the demands of their futures. But this type of shift is one that must be carefully planned. When teachers consider the four elements of content selection, student mindset, inquiry, and classroom organization, they enhance the success of project-based learning in their classrooms.






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