5 Essentials for Good PBL

Nicole Mathew
Curriculum Specialist
Blog on September 13 2022

As the new school year starts, there are always new initiatives that schools want to put in place. A popular initiative that many schools have decided to take on is implementing more project-based learning (PBL) experiences for students. Many of us have heard of PBL, but what exactly does it mean, and how is it different from regular classroom projects? Many teachers follow the standard unit format of reviewing background knowledge, learning new content, giving assessments, and having students do a group or individual project at the end of the unit to demonstrate that they understood what they learned. Although students are completing a project together, that does not make it PBL. So if that is the case, what makes PBL different? 

1) Authentic, real-world issues

To start, PBL is anchored around a real-world issue. This often manifests itself as a challenge, problem, or complex question that students need to research, and then come up with a solution for to solve the problem or answer the question. This process doesn’t happen overnight or over a few days, as project-based learning is long-term in nature and this real-world problem or question can drive instruction forward. They don’t have to be high-stakes, but they should be something meaningful for students so that the projects they end up creating are purpose-driven, and not just ‘busy work’ at the end of a unit. 

2) Sustained inquiry and purposeful research

As students research their problem/solution or question/possible answers, they are developing a deep understanding of the content and meeting necessary standards. Teachers plan lessons that help expose students to critical information in addition to having them research independently. This way, the project becomes a means of acquiring and learning new information rather than just something pushed to the end of a unit to check off a few boxes. The research is purposeful – students are asked to solve a problem and so, from the start, they know why they are researching and why the content they are studying is important. Other questions, issues, and ideas will naturally occur during the project and students should be encouraged to address these as appropriate and part of their sustained inquiry. This research and problem-solving will continue all through the project creation process until they have their final, unique project.  

3) Reflection, iteration, and improvement

As students research and work on their project, they’ll gain feedback that they can use to make their project even better. The assessments, and the task itself, should be authentic and related to what students may be asked to do. This can help give purpose and answer the “why am I doing this?” question. As students are engaged in the creation process, they should be guided by the teacher to stop, reflect, critique, and improve. Although PBL is primarily a student-led approach, the teacher’s role as facilitator is crucial, especially in helping to guide the process as a whole. Basically, you can think of the teacher as the architect/project manager and the students as the engineers/builders. The teacher creates the general structure, keeping track of progress, timing, materials, and other needs, while the students create the actual content, engage in the conceptualization and creation of the actual projects, and do the work required to make them the best they can possibly be.

4) Collaboration, choice, and skill building

Throughout the PBL process, students should have ample opportunities to practice and build on critical 21st century skills such as critical thinking, creativity, problem solving, digital citizenship, collaboration, and communication. This is not only important for students to become proficient in the use of these skills over time, but can also help contribute to that authentic learning experience. Because these skills are built into the project’s design, students should be afforded reasonable voice and choice. This can help increase student engagement, lead to greater outcomes, and encourage student ownership. 

5) Share with the public 

We frequently have students complete some kind of culminating project and just post the evidence on the bulletin board. With PBL, students should be publicly sharing and explaining their work, whether it is with their class, other classes, the school community, or an even larger audience. Often, the problem or question that begins the process is something that directly affects the students or their surrounding communities. This takes on double-duty, as a way to make learning authentic and meaningful for the students, as well as providing a natural vehicle for making the projects public once they are complete. It has the added bonus of being something that will perhaps be adopted as a solution in a community, thereby increasing student accountability and pride.

Designing a PBL experience for students does require thoughtful and purposeful planning on your part, but once you get started, you will never look back! Watch students deepen their understanding and be able to explain concepts with genuine understanding, rather than sounding like they swallowed their textbook or worse, not remembering the content at all. 

For more tips, tricks, and tools for teaching in and out of the classroom, check out more content on the Teq Talk blog or our YouTube channels OTIS for educators and Tequipment.

We also offer virtual professional development, training, and support with OTIS for educators. Explore the technology and strategies that spark student success — no matter where teaching or learning are happening!

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