PBL Pro Tips from John Larmer: How Can Students Make Their Work Public in PBL?

In a typical classroom, who sees a student’s work? Who gives them feedback on it? When they complete an assignment, what happens to it? The answer to these questions is usually (a) the teacher (b) the teacher, and (c) the teacher returns it, with a grade/points and (maybe) some comments. It’s an entirely private transaction.

And after the work is turned in and then given back to the student, it might go into a notebook or portfolio, but often winds up in the trash.

In a PBL classroom, however, things are different. Students make their work public both during and at the end of a project. Students share their work-in-progress with and get feedback from not only a teacher but with peers and, ideally, people beyond the classroom walls. When students complete a product, they also share it with people outside of the classroom, such as experts, community members, end-users, or other stakeholders. They might make a presentation to a live or online audience, display or post their work in a public space, give a product to someone, or perform a service for people.

“Public Product” is one of the six criteria in the Framework for High-Quality PBL. Why is it so important?


5 Reasons to Have Public Products in PBL:

  1. It motivates students and improves the quality of student work.  

    Some students try to do their best in school, but many do not. They may turn in hastily-done assignments just to get a passing grade or credit. When they make a presentation to the class, they might not take it seriously, or they might try to avoid doing the heavy lifting on their team (“I’ll just hold up the poster”).

    In contrast, think of how motivated students would be if they were sharing their work with experts (e.g., adult professionals) who will be critiquing it, or providing a service to their community. Imagine a project where students are presenting a community recycling plan to their city council. When they submit their proposal and speak at a meeting, they don’t want to be embarrassed by shoddy work or not knowing what they’re talking about. 

    In his book Leaders of Their Own Learning, Ron Berger, senior advisor of teaching and learning at EL Education, offered a “hierarchy of audience” for student presentations in PBL. As shown in the graph below, turning in work to the teacher is at the bottom end of the scale–it’s only done to fulfill a requirement. Engagement and motivation to do high-quality work increase when students are sharing their work with audiences beyond the classroom. At the highest end of the scale is when students create work to benefit others or make a real-world impact.
    Blue Modern 3 Points Vertical Bar Chart Graph (2)
  2. It provides an alternative way to demonstrate learning and for a school and students to be proud.

    In traditional schooling, learning is demonstrated by taking a test or completing assignments. Standardized test scores are the primary method for measuring and reporting student achievement. But as educators well know, students can do more than what is measured on tests. When students share project work with peers, parents, other teachers, or community members, they can show what they know and are able to do. A school can point to the work students do in projects and claim, “We’re more than our test scores” and build support for its program. Students can proudly bask in the public spotlight, and their families will see it too.

  3. It is an opportunity to build, demonstrate, and assess future-ready competencies, and speaking and listening skills.

    When students share their products publicly, they’re practicing skills that are valuable in college and careers, such as communication skills and making a presentation. They use critical thinking skills as they decide how to present their work and explain what they learned. They also have an opportunity to show creativity when displaying their work. Students practice speaking and listening skills as they consider their audience and tailor their presentation accordingly, use formal English when appropriate, employ technology and multimedia, and answer audience questions. This meets many states’ English Language Arts standards and Common Core ELA standards for “Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas.”

  4. It allows students to share the process, not just the product.

    When students share their work, they should be asked to explain and defend it. They should answer questions such as, “How did you create this?” “What problems did you encounter and how did you overcome them?” and “What did you learn in creating this product?” In this way, teachers can assess students’ learning–perhaps even more than they can by examining only a product. A public audience should also be encouraged or even prompted to ask questions that probe students’ thinking and creative process. By sharing the process, students are able to demonstrate their project management skills and personal qualities like persistence and responsibility.

  5. It makes student work discussable and useful for improving instruction.

    In typical classrooms, where students turn in work to their teacher and that’s the only person who sees it, the standards for evaluating it are privately held by the teacher. Decisions about what the work implies in terms of future instruction are likewise up to the teacher alone. However, when students’ work is made public, a team of teachers, an academic department, a school, and a community can discuss it. They can arrive at a shared understanding of what “meets standards” work looks like and calibrates their judgment of whether standards have been met. Together they can discuss how to change or improve instruction and their program to better support student learning.

Here are some examples of how students can make their products public in PBL:

  • Make a presentation to a live or online audience, which could include other students in their school or beyond it, experts, families, stakeholders and community members, or more distant organizations.
  • Display their work on a school bulletin board, on the school walls, in the library, or at an exhibition in the gym.
  • Display their work in the community, such as a library, government building, local business, or community center.
  • Send their work to someone in the world outside of school, e.g., a letter/email/social media message to a legislator or other government office holder or agency, local media, an organization, or a business/company.
  • Create a mural or other artwork, signage, or other artifacts for a place in the community.
  • Post their work online for other students, the community, or the wider world to see.
  • Distribute their work to others, e.g., publish a book or create a podcast.
  • Plan and conduct an event and invite guests.
Another way to make products public is to simulate an authentic audience, as I discussed in my PBL Pro Tip on authenticity. For example, you could invite other staff from the school or older students to play the roles of stakeholders on a panel to whom students present their solution to a problem or answer to a driving question. It’s not quite as motivating as a presentation to real stakeholders, but it’s better than just putting a piece of work on the teacher’s desk (or its online equivalent)!

About the Author:  

John Larmer is a project-based learning expert. In his 20 years at the Buck Institute for Education/PBLWorks, he co-developed the model for Gold Standard PBL, authored several books and many blog posts, and contributed to curriculum and professional development. John is now the Senior PBL Advisor at Defined Learning.


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