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PBL project

16 Feb Charting a Course for Project-Based Learning

By Laura Davis

Planning successful student projects is not always easy. While assigning any number of creative projects will likely increase student engagement, project-based learning (PBL) aspires to see students increase engagement and accomplish grade-level learning outcomes. Achieving this aim requires careful curricular planning by teachers before embarking on a PBL journey in the classroom.

To ensure a PBL project meets the unit’s learning objectives, we created a Project-Based Learning (PBL) template in Atlas to serve as a guide when designing PBL curriculum for any grade level.

Curriculum designers can draft ideas in each box, receive collegial feedback, and revise their thoughts as the project idea evolves. What follows is a brief description of the categories used in the PBL template.

PBL projects

Project Description & Key Objectives

The Project Description provides a short summary of what students will do during the course of the PBL project. The Key Objectives section outlines the skills and knowledge students will be able to demonstrate throughout the course of the project.

Questions to help brainstorming Project Descriptions and Key Objectives:  

  1. What are students going to do in this project?
  2. What are the key elements of the project?
  3. What will the final exhibition look like?
  4. What are the key learning objectives of the project in your own words?

Essential Questions

Essential Questions are the questions the entire PBL project is designed to provoke students to answer. Because projects often run for extended periods of time and have many facets, the essential question can serve as a north star guiding the focus of the learners. Many teachers post the essential question on a classroom wall for easy reference throughout the project.

The best Essential Questions are:

  • Open-ended and provocative
  • Written in “kid friendly” language
  • Designed to focus instruction for uncovering the important ideas of the content

Standards & Benchmarks

Standards and Benchmarks target the specific skills and competencies students are expected to demonstrate throughout the course of the project. Focusing on the standards helps curriculum designers narrow projects down to ideas that are relevant to a particular course or grade level.

Standards and benchmarks uses language identified and targeted by administrators, whereas the key objectives section is teacher-created and tends to use language that is more kid-friendly.

Curriculum designers whose institutions don’t align to standards might use school-specific learning outcomes or consider borrowing language from national or state standards. PBL projects often link to large quantities of standards because their timelines can stretch from weeks to months and their interdisciplinary nature causes them to address standards in other disciplines.

21st Century Skills

The 21st Century Skills published by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning fit well in most PBL units. The real-world aspects and collaborative nature of many projects make the PBL classroom a place where students are practicing the Innovation, Collaboration, Life, and Career Skills targeted in the 21st Century standards.

Formative Assessments and Student Activities

Formative Assessments and Student Activities is a list that includes all formative assessments that support the project’s summative assessments. These work well in a list of steps students will complete from the launch of the project all the way to the final reflection. Curriculum designers can attach detailed plans for each step in an accompanying googledoc, for example.

Assessments (Summative)

Assessments lists the summative assessments in the project. This section forces curriculum designers to match the targeted standards to specific summative assessments. The sample unit shows details of two summative assessments (a persuasive essay and a presentation at the final exhibition) with the class-created rubrics attached to each.

Public Audience

The public audience section lists any scheduled visitors who will contribute to student learning during the PBL project. Including a real audience is key to inspiring high quality work from students.

  • Early on: A public audience can be presented early on in the project through the presence of guest speakers who are experts in some element of the project.
  • During the project: It is helpful to have guests visit class and provide feedback on drafts of student work. Older students in different classes are excellent for this role as well.
  • End of the project: Final exhibition audiences can include community members, parents, administrators, or other classes.

Exhibition Resources

Exhibition Resources include any rooms, additional staff, field trips, or physical materials that will be necessary to make the PBL project successful. Planning ahead and reserving these resources in advance helps avoid a lot of scrambling leading up to the final exhibition.

This template is just one example of how you can organize your PBL project for optimal alignment and collaboration. Our advice: as with any journey, PBL or otherwise, starting off with a clear plan helps guarantee that we stay the course and make it to our final destination.

Ready to learn more about PBL? Check out the other blogs in our PBL series.

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