3 Tips for PBL First-Timers

This school year, I’ve implemented a project-based learning curriculum.  As with trying anything for the first time, the students and I have been learning from our mistakes, but I can say without a doubt that it is worth trying out.  Students have been engaged and I’ve seen a marked increase in the quality of work I’m getting.  Here are some tips I have if anyone wants to try it out.  To help contextualize these tips, I’m using a project we did this year during the first marking period, the MyPhilly Project (scroll down to check it out).

1. Explain the Purpose

This tip applies to anything students will be doing in the classroom, but it is especially important for PBL, which can often be a far reach from what students are used to doing on a daily basis.  Especially for the first PBL unit you do, you’ll not only have to explain the purpose of the project, but the general benefits of the PBL approach.  These general benefits have been written about by others, but these are the benefits I focus on when explaining PBL to students: 1) the chance to cater one’s learning to one’s interests and background; 2) improved research and digital literacy skills; and 3) the chance to create something meaningful and learn the skills necessary to set and reach goals.  For the MyPhilly Project in particular, I told students the purpose was to 1) share their perspectives on where they are from to enlighten others; 2) use a variety of computer applications to improve digital literacy even more; and 3) to improve creative writing and oral storytelling.

2. Scaffold the Steps

With something as student-centered as a PBL unit, I found it really helps my students to have a step-by-step breakdown of what they will need to do to reach the end goal.  By outlining these steps, students can still learn independently (the student-centered aspect) without feeling overwhelmed by how much choice is available to them.  This scaffolding could be drawn back as students get more comfortable with PBL. For the MyPhilly Project, I broke it down into the following steps: 1) research what creates divides between cultures and any other research questions you have related to this project; 2) take pictures around your neighborhood; 3) write a vignette about your neighborhood (inspired by your pictures and your favorite vignettes from The House on Mango Street); 4) create a PowToon slideshow of your pictures; and 5) narrate your vignette and add the recording to your PowToon slideshow.  Breaking down the project makes it much less overwhelming for students and gives the teacher designated times to check in with students.

3. Frequent Check-Ins

Between each step of a PBL unit, it’s super important to check in with students and let them know what is expected for the next step.  These check-ins could be class-wide or they could be individual based on the way the project is set up.  I’ve found a combination of group and individual check-ins is the best way to keep students accountable and help them one-on-one without eating up too much class time.  The great thing about PBL units is that they involve enough independent work that teachers have significant time to speak with students individually.  For the MyPhilly Project, in addition to group check-ins in which I explained the goals and structure of the upcoming step, I spoke with students individually about their research and their vignettes as they were preparing to record their narration.

The first time implementing PBL can feel overwhelming, but following these tips won’t only help students succeed, but they will help you manage the project and stay focused as you guide students. There will be hurdles for students to jump over, but learning how to overcome those obstacles is an important part of the process! Stick with it, and you’ll be inspired by what your students can do.  I wasn’t sure how the MyPhilly Project would turn out, but I was proud of the work my students put in, and I think the final product reveals that hard work:


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