What considerations are important when incorporating a Project-Based Learning (PBL) approach into the classroom?

When considering PBL in the classroom, teachers need to understand:
A) What the qualities of a successful project are;
B) The issues that are specific to PBL instructional strategies; and,
C) What types of students will be successful in a PBL environment.

Describe the qualities of a successful project.

According to Larmer and Mergendoller (2012) a project is meaningful, and therefore successful, if it fulfills two criteria:

• Students must perceive the task as being personally meaningful which means the project should matter to them and be something they want to do well.

• The project must also fulfill an educational purpose (Larmer & Mergendoller, 2012).

To meet the criteria stated above Larmer and Mergendoller (2012) recommend that teachers consider the following 8 essential elements:

1. Significant content (involves important knowledge; ties concepts to standards)
2. A need to know (engages student interests; initiates questions)
3. A driving question (that is open-ended, complex, thought-provoking, and links to student learning)
4. Student voice and choice (allows student choices and personal expression)
5. 21st Century competencies (develops collaboration, communication, problem solving, critical thinking)
6. In-depth inquiry (involves investigating questions, discovering answers, testing ideas, and drawing conclusions)
7. Critique and revision (includes review and critique of personal/peer work; refer to rubrics; coach and provide feedback; emphasize high quality work)
8. Public audience (present work to an audience whether community based or online)

Hung, based on an analysis of successful PBL, proposes a model for designing projects that focus on content, context, calibration, researching, reasoning, and reflection, or 3C3R (Vega, 2012, Evidence-based components of success). This model asks teachers to match content to students’ research and reasoning skills, identify real life activities (that can be integrated into the project), calibrate project by examining possible problems and solutions, describe the task clearly to students, and allow for reflection throughout and at the end of the project (Vega, 2012, Evidence-based components of success).

Hung, Larmer and Mergendoller share common views as all of them believe that a successful project places importance on meaningful content, student accessibility and interest, in-depth inquiry, 21st Century competencies (collaborating, communicating, critical thinking, problem solving), and reflection.

What issues must a teacher consider that are specific to PBL instructional strategies?

The keys issues that must be considered when implementing PBL in the classroom are:

1. Time management

PBL can seem overwhelming to both teachers and students because it often involves in-depth inquiry, which means everyone involved must manage their time effectively. It is easy to get off task in the pursuit of answers or testing ideas; therefore, it is important to set goals, create a schedule and review it regularly, and establish team or individual benchmarks based on curriculum standards (Baron, 2010).

2. Communication problems within groups

De Graaff and Kolmos (2003) state that group work is important as it involves the development of the following skills: dealing with problems as they arise, showing understanding and respect for one another, reflecting on personal development, and strengthening communication and listening abilities.

However, problems arise when students fail to listen to others’ ideas and attempt to split work into individualized and non-interactive tasks (Vega, 2012, Avoiding pitfalls). Working in groups requires full attention and active listening, which means the teacher must model both skills and allow students time to practice these skills (Vega, 2012, Avoiding pitfalls). Regular feedback and review also helps.

Student created rubrics that focus on developing and strengthening communication skills within groups can enhance collaboration skills (Larmer & Mergendoller, 2012). Furthermore, Stalin (2008), as cited by Vega, recommends implementing team rewards or goals that are dependent on the growth of each individual’s skill and knowledge (Vega, 2012, Evidence-based components of success).

3. Student commitment

Because PBL is student centred some worry about student commitment to learning and the projects’ process and outcome. Students are more likely to commit to a project if they see themselves as part of the process and how this process relates to the school and their lives. Baron (2012) recommends that teachers share project goals and expectations with their students and let them know what they are learning and how it will come together in the end. If possible, provide exemplars.

4. Assessment

Critics like to point out that assessment of PBL is difficult if not impossible to assess. However, if the teacher creates rubrics for each major product in the project, and uses these rubrics to guide students the project will be successful. Of course, the teacher must include content standards and skills that allow students to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of the subject matter and show competence in essential skills (Baron, 2010)

Barron and Darling-Hammond (2008), as cited by Vegas, state that the criteria for success needs to be clearly defined at the start of the project and should include continuous feedback, ongoing reflection and much-needed revision (Vega, 2012, Evidence-based components of success).

What types of students will be successful in PBL environments?

Based on the 8 essential components of PBL, it would seem that students should possess the following qualities and abilities:

• willingly ask questions and discover answers
• be curious and inventive
• be active listeners and good communicators
• actively participate in learning process (engagement and motivation)
• work collaboratively with others
• work independently, when needed
• manage time effectively
• possess research and reasoning skills
• set and meet goals / benchmarks
• be able to critique their work and the work of others (and revise it)
• embrace ownership of project
• willingness to demonstrate and share knowledge with others

Of course students, especially if the school has not embraced PBL, may not possess the above qualities and abilities. However, what is clear is that PBL, if done correctly, can develop and strengthen these skills. All classrooms have students with mixed abilities. That is a reality. However, if a teacher provides students with clear guidelines for success, using rubrics and examples that demonstrate the intended learning outcomes, then students should embody the above qualities, abilities or skills (Vega, 2012, Evidence-based outcomes for success).


Baron, K. (2010, March 15). 10 Takeaway Tips for Project-Based Learning. Edutopia. Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/stw-maine-project-based-learning-ten-key-lessons

Graaff, E. D., & Kolmos, A. (2003). Characteristics of Problem-Based-Learning. International Journal of Engineering Education, 19(5), 657 – 662. Retrieved from http://www.ijee.ie/articles/Vol19-5/IJEE1450.pdf

Larmer, J., & Mergendoller, J. (2012, March). 8 Essentials for Project-Based Learning. bie.org. Retrieved from http://bie.org/object/document/8_essentials_for_project_based_learning#

Vega, V. (2012, December 3). Project-Based Learning Research: Avoiding Pitfalls. Edutopia. Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/pbl-research-avoiding-pitfalls

Vegas, V. (2012, December 3). Project-Based Learning Research: Evidence-Based Components of Success. Edutopia. Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/pbl-research-evidence-based-components

PBL Resources

How does PBL work?
What is PBL?
Why PBL?
Project-Based Learning: An overview (video)
Work that matters