Lee Anna Stirling

College/University Professor

Winslow, ME

Interests: 21st century learning,...

  • Posted 4 Months ago
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High Quality PBL IN ACTION: 10 Implementation Steps

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   You have planned project-based learning incorporating high quality project-based learning features in your plan.  But you wonder "How will I organize its implementation?" Or before you begin planning the unit, you are wondering how high quality project-based learning in-action is organized.

What does high quality project-based learning look like in action?

         Teachers have told me they want to provide project-based learning but they are not sure how to implement it - so following is a look at quality project-based learning in action - in 10 steps.

Suggested PBL Implementation Steps   
Project based learning 
can be implemented in ten sequential steps:

1. Hook

2. Unit Overview

3. Challenge Question

4. Know, Need-to-Know, Ideas - connecting to prior knowledge, brainstorming 

   questions and ideas

5. Gather, share and analyze information - further questions, further research

6. Determine solutions

7. Create products and presentations

8. Feedback/self-assessment/revision on draft presentation/product (this can occur 

   earlier as well).

9. Presentations and other Summative Assessments

10. De-Briefing


Quality Project Based Learning Unit - Conserving Energy

            The following project-based learning unit, based on a unit taught by my former workshop participant, Helen Hurgin at Windham Middle School, in Maine, is an example of how high quality project-based learning's implementation can be organized around ten steps.

“I felt their enthusiasm for their unit. I saw the students were engaged. This unit seemed more meaningful to them. I enjoyed seeing students’ purposefulness in this unit. I could feel a difference in the class between the usual hands-on activities we do and this unit.”

- Mrs, Hurgin, Windham Middle School Seventh Grade Science and Math Teacher

         Energy conservation at the Middle School is chosen as the topic based on relevancy to students, potential resources in the school community and wider community, and its ability to forward curriculum objectives. 

         Before beginning the two and a half - three week unit, Mrs. H. provides direct instruction of some of the reasoning skills students will use - for example, experimental inquiry, understanding diverse perspectives and logical decision-making. The students already know how to effectively work in small groups, as they are used to performing experiments collaboratively. They also already have some experience in presenting to audiences. Mrs. H. provides a lesson to students on creating digital slide shows, which is a new skill for many of the students.

         1. Hook. To ensure students’ interest, Mrs. H. begins the unit with three hooks. Students use a process for generating and testing hypotheses to analyze which appliances in their homes use the most electricity. The students watch a video of melting glaciers and discuss why this is an indicator of climate change. The most motivating hook is when the students’ assistant principal comes into their classroom to speak to the students and reads a letter he wrote to them about the school’s need to conserve energy.

         2. Unit Overview. Mrs. H. presents the unit to students, explaining the overall goal - finding ways to conserve energy in their school and the products students will be required to produce. The graded products are a group verbal presentation with a slide show or chart (grades are individual), in some cases an individual presentation, and an essay. Note: Teachers might decide to let students choose their products but a written product should be included. (Other assignments are journals; outline of group's questions, activities, and progress; and self-assessments.)

                   Mrs. H. lists dates products are due, curriculum content standards the unit addresses, the Maine Guiding Principles (success proficiencies) the unit addresses, how students' progress on curriculum standards and Maine Guiding Principles will be assessed. A Project Wall, both physically in the classroom and on a website is created with these items.

        Mrs. H. sends a letter to families with an overview of the unit, and the rationale for this kind of learning, including research findings. Families are asked whether they have expertise or other resources they can share.

         3. Challenge Question. With Mrs. Hurgin's guidance,the class determines the Challenge Question: "How can we conserve energy in our school?" The Challenge Question is important as it serves as a guide throughout the unit. It is put at the top of the Project Wall and on top of the Know, Need-to-Know, Ideas chart. Determining the Challenge Question sets in motion the inquiry process.

         4. Know, Need-to-Know, Ideas - connecting to prior knowledge and brainstorming questions and ideas. Individually and then together, the class fills out a (Think we) Know, Need to Know, Ideas chart. This activity encourages students to tap into prior learning. Inquiry continues as the students brainstorm questions that need to be answered in order to find solutions to the Challenge Question. Students use analysis to determine information needed to solve the problem, form research categories, and identify information sources. Possible energy saving methods students list include quiet time (without lights), motion sensors, energy monitor, solar panels, and power strips.

         5. Gather, share and analyze information - further questions, further research.

“I mostly listened to see where they were headed and made suggestions to help them get the information that would be useful and understandable. Often times I would ask the groups what questions they had for me or if they felt like they were on the right track.” - Mrs. H.

         Groups of four students are formed to address energy saving methods listed in the (Think I) Know, Need to Know, Ideas chart. Students choose a group based on their interest in a particular energy saving method. The students have choices within their groups of what subtopics to research and, within parameters, how to go about researching.  

         Mrs. H. facilitates students’ learning by actively listening, analyzing the direction of discussions and asking open-ended questions to encourage the students’ reflections and deeper thinking. The students, themselves, determine what further questions are needed to be researched in order to solve the original challenge. Individually and collaboratively, the students search for information on the Internet, using both links Mrs. H. provides and appropriate information sites of their choosing. Through Skype, students are connected to an energy professional who responds to their questions. Another community energy professional is available to volunteer in the classroom and he helps with keeping the small groups on track.

Note: Students conducting interviews, as part of their inquiry process, whether with people in their school or beyond is recommended.

         Students’ progress and needs continuously are formatively assessed. As Mrs. H. goes around to each small group, she notes whether or not students are on track and whether they have questions for her. By analyzing students’ discussions, end of class reported-out statements, Thinking Log journal entries, Noteshare (an Apple application) notes, and small group self-assessments, Mrs. H. gains data to determine further content information, process instructions, charts, and graphic organizers that are needed. Based on her assessments of students' needs, Mrs. H. might provide scaffolds such as group work roles chart, energy sources web, a graphic organizer on which students write their questions, and reminders about best interdependent work process.

         Often during the inquiry and research process a class realizes the original Challenge Question should be refined to reflect the complexity of the situation. In this case, students begin to see that some of the energy savings strategies they have found would be expensive. Realizing the school is on a restricted budget, the challenge question is refined to "How can we reduce energy at our school to address both environmental and economic costs?”

         6. Determine solutions. Each of the groups determines whether they will advocate for a particular energy saving strategy. They organize a list of facts and figures that substantiate their decision.

         7. Create products and presentations. Collaboratively, groups plan verbal presentations of their findings. Presentations are required to include a slide show or other visual. In preparing their verbal presentation, groups have a choice of what kind of format to use, for example, a group might choose to include a quiz for the audience, song, or a skit. The groups decide what visual to include with their presentation, a poster or slide show.  Students within groups choose the part of the presentation they will prepare and deliver.

         Note: Though presentation of findings or products to an audience beyond the class is an integral part of quality project based learning, presentations don't always need to be public speaking presentations and presentations don't need to be live - they can be shared through the Internet or distributed as hard copy materials The presentation to an audience can be, for example, a podcast, website, video, brochures, or art form such as a mural, dance, or skit.

         8. Feedback/self-assessment on draft product(s) (this can occur earlier as well). Students meet with peers to get feedback on the logic and clarity of the findings they will present to the audience. Using a feedback protocol, students determine a particular item or question about which they would like a peer to give them feedback. Students know that in giving feedback they should be "kind, specific, and helpful." Students and groups also self-assess, using the rubric that will be used to evaluate their group presentation. Students then make revisions they determine are needed to strengthen their work.

            9. Presentations and other Summative Assessments. The audience for the presentations includes Mrs. H., the rest of the class, the assistant principal, an interested visitor, and the community energy expert volunteer. In their presentations, students cite research findings including statistics they have analyzed to substantiate their conclusions. One group concludes their presentation with an oral quiz of audience members. The adult audience members evaluate the presentations using a rubric the entire class helped to develop. The rubric's elements reflect the unit's target content standards and Guiding Principles (success proficiencies). However, individual student grades are not influenced by the group's presentation.

         Note: A presentation to an audience, ideally an audience that includes people with particular interest or expertise in the topic or, at least, audience members beyond classmates and teacher creates additional motivation to do quality work and makes the entire project more special. Moreover, presenting to an audience of some type is what students will need to do, in their future at work or community so it is a worthwhile activity; and presenting verbally is included in Common Core State Standards.

         The other summative assessment product is an individual essay. The essay demonstrates each student's progress on identified content standards, and also requires students to reflect and self-assess their and their group's process. In their essay students respond to the prompts, “Write what you know about how we can save energy at the Middle School,” “Write how your learning can transfer into your life at home and in the future,” and prompts that elicit positives and difficulties about working with their group. A rubric is used for evaluating the essays. Formative assessment data also contributes to summative evaluation.

         10. De-Briefing. Students have the opportunity to reflect individually and with a peer on what they see as the strong points of their work in the unit and how their work could have been stronger. They also reflect on the unit's strong points and how it might be enhanced the next time it is provided. As a class, volunteers share their thoughts. Mrs. H. also reflects on the unit's strengths, how it could be enhanced and devises plans for refining it, for the next time. Mrs. H. plans the next time the unit is provided, students will engage in a debate.


Students' inquiry takes place throughout the unit and structure should be provided throughout the unit.

         Inquiry. Inquiry is a recursive process of students reflecting, asking questions, finding answers, and asking further questions and is central to quality project based learning. The project begins with a challenge question, for example, "How can we encourage more people in our community to read for pleasure?" Students then list questions that need to be answered in order to address the challenge. Once they find initial answers, new questions emerge. Eliciting feedback, doing self-assessment, and revision/enhancement are part of inquiry.

         Structure. Stated learning goals, assessments, scaffolds, and schedules are important for best quality project based learning (Ertmer & Simons 2006). Students need to know dates various assignments such as drafts, essay, journal, and final presentation are due. A project based learning unit might be three class periods per week for three weeks, but it can be shorter or longer.

                  As a result of this unit, Mrs. H's students progress with deeper learning such as critical thinking, problem-solving, communications, collaboration, creativity, literacy, numeracy, and appropriate use of technology. They learn and will retain content knowledge.Their concept of themselves as lifelong, capable, self-directed learners has been strengthened. Well-implemented challenge-solving projects result in better long-term retention of knowledge and ability to apply it than lecture/discussion approaches (Wirkula & Kuhn, 2011). Moreover, through quality project-based learning proficiencies such as critical thinkingproblem-solvingcommunicationscreativity, collaboration, and growth mindset can be developed and strengthened. When students contribute to the greater good by working to solve a real-life challenge, the positive effects include strengthened agency and motivation for continued learning.     


Ertmer, P.A., & Simons, K.D. (2006). Jumping the implementation hurdle. Supporting            PBL in K-12 classrooms. The Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning,     1(1), 41-56.

Wirkula, C., & Kuhn, D. (2011). Problem-based learning in K-12 education: Is it effective     and how does it achieve its effects? American Educational Research Journal,       48(5), 1157-118.

Video of Helen Hurgin's seventh graders presenting their findings: https://youtu.be/hSCsK9pTPxs

1 Comment

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19 Jan 18, 12:42 PM

Hi Everyone, Do you have experiences with project-based learning? Any tips for organizing its implementation? Pitfalls to avoid?

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