The Project Habit: Striking the Right Balance of Habits in PBL

In my third year of teaching science to sophomores, I had likely accrued 300 hours of designing projects.  Through my project-based learning (PBL) courses, I learned that a great project took about twenty hours to create and I stuck to that guidance.  My focus had been on sticking to the fidelity of the project design process and adhering to a project template.  I had an entry event, a sophisticated rubric, a highly structured calendar, and a number of workshops for students.  My colleagues had given me tons of feedback on how to better design projects for student engagement. 

I was prepared to give students the project and then facilitate their learning.  The challenge however was that building a project is a set of “motion” habits and that the part that really makes an impact on student learning is linked to the specific “action” habits that come from rolling out the project.  I didn’t spend much time thinking about implementing high-impact actions.  I was too busy planning and sticking to the fidelity of the latest standard of PBL. 

A “motion” habit is a regular tendency or specific routine linked to planning, strategizing, and learning outside of implementation (i.e. reading a book, reviewing data with colleagues, attending a conference). An “action” habit, on the other hand, is a regular tendency or specific routine linked to engaging in an activity (i.e. co-constructing the driving question with students and providing targeted feedback and monitoring progress with students). 

Motion is preparing for a road trip, finding a gym to work out, and planning for a low-carb meal.  Action is driving, lifting, and eating.  Yes, you need motion but often we stay there and struggle with implementation.  Part of the reason we get stuck is that humans love motion.  

Change sounds great tomorrow just not today.  Motion is preparing to get something done and we feel like we are getting things done but we are simply preparing to practice.  Motion is necessary to a degree, is hard, and we are often busy but it doesn’t yield the results we want.  That’s likely why problem-based learning doesn’t have much of an impact on learning (Hattie, 2009).  Yes, it works but not much. It’s likely because PBL is heavily focused on motion habits. 

Take the following motion habits that are common in PBL:

  • Put students in groups and allow them to solve the problem 
  • Give students the entry event, driving question, and rubric

However, if we tilt the scale to action, we can yield some amazing results.  Contemporary research has shown that Rigorous PBL makes a substantial difference to student learning (year) because the shift from motion to specific actions is what makes the difference. 

Take the following action habits that are common in Rigorous PBL:

  • Students will collaborate to give and receive effective feedback using effective prompts, protocols, and teacher-guided cues 
  • Students will co-construct the problem by analyzing multiple contexts via a teacher-guided lesson

In my classroom, I was working hard but that work was often on preparing for the actual work that made a difference.  Moreover, my colleagues and I were reinforcing the importance of the design of the project.  We were stuck in motion.  I wonder what would have changed if I would have adjusted the percentage of time to spend more time on motion versus action?


How could I have tipped the scale from too much motion to more action? 








Enter the project habits.   

Over the past five years, I have worked with colleagues on distilling the motion and action habits that make the difference for student learning to build student capacity to own their own learning and develop competency across different levels of complexity (I.e. surface, deep and transfer learning)..  The idea was to strike the right balance to enhance student learning, reduce the amount of work on teachers, and ensure any and all teachers (including those who don’t engage in PBL) can engage in habits that enhance student learning.  

Kelley Miller and I created The Project Habits to support teachers in meeting these aims and striking the right motion and action habits (the habits are shown below)


As you proceed in your work, consider the following questions:


  1. How much time am I spending on motion versus action habits?
  2. What next steps can I take to engage in more action-based habits?  What action habits should I focus on? 

To learn more check out The Project Habit coming out in fall 2022. 

About the Author:

Michael McDowell, EdD has been a public school educator for the past eighteen years serving in the roles of a classroom teacher, academic and athletic coach, school principal, assistant superintendent of personnel and instruction, and superintendent.  He is an author, presenter, and facilitator working with educators around the world.



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