The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Project-Based Learning

Hey there Super Teachers!

Welcome to the third article in our series How to be an Educational Superhero.  Our first article, Why This One Basic Teaching Principle is Holding Your Students Back,  talks a bit about the motivation behind this series.  In order to be a superhero in your classroom, it is important to facilitate and not dominate.  Our second article, 10 Ways to Stop Sending Students to the Principal, talks about the most basic way to shift from teacher-directed to student-directed in the classroom: classroom management.  Today, I want to talk to you a little about a word that’s been buzzing around: Project-Based Learning.

Are you tired of throwing things at the wall to see what sticks? Are you burnt out from all the resources, research, and restarts? Join us as we walk you step by step through how to have the most impact you have ever had in your classroom. No burnout necessary! CLICK HERE to get started.

What the heck is this PBL business?

So far as I have researched, Project Based Learning is a term derived from a concept “project learning” developed by a man named John Dewey WAY back in 1918(Larmer 2015).  Since then, it has taken many forms:

  • Case-based learning
  • Challenge-based learning
  • Community-based learning
  • Design-based learning
  • Game-based learning
  • Inquiry-based learning
  • Land-based learning
  • Passion-based learning
  • Place-based learning
  • Problem-based learning
  • Proficiency-based learning
  • Service-based learning
  • Studio-based learning
  • Team-based learning
  • Work-based learning
  • and…Zombie-based learning

All of these are centered on the same single premise: using real-life application and or research to solve a potential real-world problem or something of equal complexity.

Why Does This Matter?

  • Students are more engaged.  “Education researchers increasingly realized that when students are bored and unengaged, they are less likely to learn (Blumenfeld et al., 1991, document at the top of the page).”  PBL creates student engagement through the presentation of a problem, the constant asking of questions that require deeper thought, and ultimately a tangible collection of all data into some type of public representation.
  • Students acquire a number of life skills.  

    • First of all, students learn how to do proper research before the age of 15.  In a study from May 2014, Imagine easy solutions and found that elementary and middle school librarians thought 60% of their students had only rudimentary web research skills(et al. 2014).  PBL integrates those skills in a format that involves the students.
    • Deeper learning and application of information.  “Students demonstrate better problem-solving skills in PBL than in more traditional classes and are able to apply what they learn to real-life situations. (Finkelstein et al., 2010)(”
    • Collaboration. “Through PBL experiences, students improve their ability to work collaboratively and resolve conflicts. (Beckett & Miller; ChanLin, 2008)(”  Students can learn one another’s strengths and weaknesses and work as a team to create the best outcome.
  • Students learn better.  “In specific content areas, PBL has been shown to be more effective than traditional methods for teaching math, economics, language, science, and other disciplines. (Beckett & Miller, 2006; Boaler, 2002; Finkelstein et al., 2010; Greier et al., 2008; Mergendoller, Maxwell, & Bellisimo, 2006) (”
  • Students of all learning levels and abilities can be successful. 
    • PBL shows promise as a strategy for closing the achievement gap by engaging lower-achieving students. (Boaler, 2002; Penuel & Means, 2000)(
    • “PBL can work in different types of schools, serving diverse learners. (Hixson, Ravitz, & Whisman, 2012)(”



I’m Convinced, Now What?

So this is great, you’re on board and you’re excited to do this in your classroom.  Still there are questions like, how often should I do this? with which subjects? how do I assess this? how much extra work do I have to do?  These are all great questions.
Here’s a list from one of my favorite websites to get you started: 20 Ideas for Engaging Projects…
The Buck Institute for Education specializes in this type of learning.  You can click on their name to reach their main site.
Also, you can check out this story about how these concepts are working in a real classroom.
Here’s a simple idea using the basic PBL criteria as defined by the Buck Institute for Education:
Create a Class Store
  • Key Knowledge, Understanding, and Success Skills- As part of a lesson on goods and services, students will learn how to be producers and consumers.  They will use basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division skills in setting a budget for their “store.”
  • Challenging Problem or Question- Students must determine how their business will make money.
  • Sustained Inquiry- Students will do research on successful businesses and how they succeeded.  They will learn how to conduct research on interest level of their product among their peers.
  • Authenticity- Everyone in life has to learn how to make and manage money.
  • Student Voice & Choice- Students will choose a product to make based on their interests and experiences
  • Reflection- When the project is complete, students will write a conclusion that states what they learned, what they thought was beneficial, and what they would change.  Maybe they list factors in their success or failure, and opportunities for improvement.
  • Critique & Revision- Similar to reflection, students will self-assess based on their experience.
  • Public Product- You can either work out a deal with the school where students make their store school wide, or they can put together presentations to explain their learning experiences to a wider audience.  If you so desire, you can have a class blog where they write an article about what they learned and what they would change.
Here’s how it works:
  • Students will come together in groups to decide on a product to create or a service to provide.  In order to determine the potential success of their product, they will need to do market research.
    • First, have them brainstorm a list of products they feel they would like to produce and could produce.  From there, have them come up with a list of about 10 questions that would help them determine which product would be most successful.
      • For example, if they want to make jewelry, maybe they ask a question like: “what type of jewelry do you wear? a)earrings, b)bracelets, c)necklaces, d)none
    • Next, have them talk with other groups about what their thoughts are.  For the purposes of this project, all groups must be honest about what they want to make.  You may even find students collaborating to reduce competition
      • Using the previous example, maybe one group will decide to make earrings and another group will make bracelets.
    • Once they’ve gathered all their information, they can finalize an idea for a product.  They need a sketch and a prototype.
  • After they’ve completed their product idea, they need to create a budget.  The simplest form of budget would probably be production supplies, advertising, and retail space.  Give them each some “startup capital” to use.  The amount will be based on the level of your students.  For older students, maybe $500.  For younger students, $50 or even $20.
    • You can choose whether or not to add this caveat, but some groups may want to provide advertising or retail space to other groups.
    • This is where you can modify for younger audiences.  You will set prices for all the supplies they need, and you will set prices for the retail space they will rent.  You can even provide prices for advertising.  For example, you can charge 5 cents to make announcements about a group’s product throughout the day.  If a group wants to provide advertising, they would have to pay you 5 cents for that advertising space during the day.
      • Pam did the store project with her kids, only she had them bring in items from home they didn’t want anymore.  In this case, there wouldn’t be a production budget.  Only a retail space and ad space budget.
    • Explain to your students that the goal is for them to make money.  This means they have to subtract what they spend from what they earn and their has to be an amount left over.  Based on their grade level, you can give them permission to use calculators or have them do calculations by hand and check with a calculator.
    • You can collaborate with your computer teacher to show them how to make spreadsheets on excel to track their data.
  • From here, they go live.  You can have the store go on for a day, week, couple weeks.  Each day of the store, they will assess their progress, and make adjustments if necessary.  They will write in a business journal about what is going well, and what they may want to change.  After it’s all over, they will either have a profit or not.  Have them compile their findings in a report or presentation of some kind.  You can even have them use Powerpoint if they would like.
  • The final step will be to either recreate the store for an evening and have families purchase, or for students to create a summary presentation as a type of “Business Fair” to show their findings to their community.
  • How to Assess: Devise a list of questions that will test your students’ knowledge of the material.  It’s a test, but they don’t know it.
    • For example: “For this project, did you choose to provide a good or a service?”  “Were you a producer, consumer, or both?” “How would your budget change if the price of paper went from 5 cents to 10 cents?”
  • There is a company called Biztown, that provides some of these real-life situations for you.  Talk to your principal about a possible field trip.  Maybe it will inspire you!
Whoa Nelly, I Have Little Ones!  I Guess I’m Out
Don’t be afraid if you have younger kids.  Any of this can be adjusted and you would be surprised what those little guys come up with sometimes.  I did the store with a group of kids ranging from K-3rd grade and they were amazing.  They drove themselves most of the time because they were so excited about taking the lead on their learning experiences.  We also created a play for Christmastime.  They came up with the plot, chose the songs for us to sing, created scenery, and performed.  There are a number of great ideas out there, and there’s no rule that says you can’t be a part of it.  Explain when they need something explained and be amazed when they show you what they’re capable of.  Regardless of the outcome, they’re learning something.
This Seems Complicated
You’re right, it can be.  It is time-intensive and mind-intensive.  That being said, life can be that way sometimes too.  PBL is an awesome way to teach students about real-life situations, while showing them that learning is far from theoretical.  It’s an awesome way to show teachers how to be superheroes without being at the center of the classroom.  Most importantly, you are building your students’ confidence in themselves as they accomplish on their own, and confidence in you as the awesome teacher that believes in them.
Well, that’s PBL in a nutshell.  Please please feel free to share your thoughts below.  We would love to hear your ideas and also your experiences with PBL in the classroom.

Do you want to try these strategies for independent learning, but feel burnt out from all the resources, research, and restarts? Join us as we walk you step by step through how to have the most impact you have ever had in your classroom. No burnout necessary! CLICK HERE to get started.

Have an awesome week!

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