Using Pre-Built Performance Tasks to Implement High-Quality PBL with Ease

Many of you know and love meal kits – the kind you can order from Home Chef, Hello Fresh, Blue Apron or many other companies. I think they’re a fitting analogy to the kind of pre-built performance tasks offered by Defined Learning.

A meal kit contains everything you need for a healthy and tasty meal. It has the entrée and side dishes in the right portion sizes, the ingredients for sauces or toppings, the seasoning, the oil or butter or secret sauce or whatever —everything carefully measured—and the step-by-step directions for getting it from your kitchen to your table. Once you get more comfortable with cooking the meals, you might want to add your own touches to it, by sprinkling in some herbs, adding more spices or hot sauce, or tossing in an extra ingredient that would go well with it. And eventually, you might even invent your own recipes based on what you learned! The same goes for a performance task from Defined Learning (DL).

When you open one of Defined Learning's pre-built performance tasks, you will find:
  • The goal, role, audience, situation, and products (the “GRASP” framework developed by Jay McTighe)
  • The standards addressed
  • A vocabulary list
  • Research questions & resources
  • Assessment rubrics
  • Teacher notes

That’s the complete meal; it’s easy to assemble and will result in an engaging, effective learning experience for students. If teachers want to add their own touches, they can customize the task/project based on their knowledge of their students and their learning goals. For example, a teacher can specify which products are required; decide whether students will work individually or in teams; or modify rubrics.

As they guide students in using the performance tasks, teachers are learning too. They’re gaining the skills and using practices they’ll need to become a project-based learning “chef.” They’re learning how to coach students to do research and find their own answers to questions, rather than simply telling them the answer. How to promote deeper learning of concepts and real-world applications, not just memorize information. How to coach students in creating authentic products for a particular end-user or audience. How to use a rubric for formative and summative assessment. How to form student teams and manage group work, if they customize the task in that way. 

All this preparation would make a teacher more willing to take the leap to project-based learning, and more able to do it effectively.

Let’s explore how a teacher who starts with a meal kit – a Defined Learning performance task – could become a chef. Below are the six criteria from the Framework for High Quality PBL. A Defined Learning performance task already has features of all six to some extent. On the right are some ideas for ways to add even more “PBL spices.”


Ideas for Meeting the Criteria of High-Quality PBL with Performance Tasks:

HQPBL Criteria

PBL Features to Add to Performance Tasks

Intellectual Challenge and Accomplishment

Students learn deeply, think critically, and strive for excellence.

  • Include more inquiry; add time, cycles of questioning at greater depths
  • Select products that require critical thinking, then explicitly teach strategies for using the skill
  • Assess critical thinking
  • Emphasize the need for high-quality work; use rubrics and models, include cycles of critique & revision 


Students work on projects that are meaningful and relevant to their culture, their lives, and their future.

  • Connect tasks to students’ personal interests & concerns
  • Involve outside experts, organizations
  • Find local contexts and connections (to community members/organizations, businesses, government, etc.)
  • Include more than one subject area/teacher in the project if it adds real-world connections

Public Product

Students’ work is publicly displayed, discussed, and critiqued.

  • Find outside audiences (or bring in experts) for presentations
  • Find a real-world end-user or stakeholder for whom the product/service is being created
  • Have students share work-in-progress with peers, and with outside experts/end-users/stakeholders


Students collaborate with other students in person or online and/or receive guidance from adult mentors and experts.

  • Require students to work in teams
  • Explicitly teach collaboration skills
  • Have students reflect on their collaboration skills
  • Assess collaboration skills

Project Management

Students use a project management process that enables them to proceed effectively from project initiation to completion.

  • Explicitly teach project management skills
  • Have students use project management tools
  • Assess project management skills


Students reflect on their work and their learning throughout the project.

  • Have students reflect at key milestones, and at the end of a project
  • Use structured reflection processes, with prompts

I could see teachers who think they are not quite ready to try project-based learning use performance tasks for a year or two. At first, they could just use the tasks as they are presented, to become familiar with the Defined Learning platform and the basic customization features it allows. Maybe do one or two tasks per semester. In year two, they could try adding one or two features of HQPBL until they feel more confident about their “cooking skills.” Maybe now they’re doing 2-3 tasks per semester. In year three, they could add some more HQPBL features—and even use Defined’s tasks as the basis for several full-blown, extended PBL experiences. 

By then, I suspect there would be no going back! Once teachers and students get the hang of PBL, they will see its benefits and want to use it as often as possible. They will see that it’s more engaging than much of traditional instruction and that the learning is deeper and stickier. They’ll be like a chef who can’t imagine ever eating a packaged microwaved dinner again, but looks back fondly on those meal kits they started out with. Bon appetit! 

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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