Project-based Learning: How to Get Started in Your Classroom


When I transitioned to a new school this fall, I was excited about the innovative philosophy of my administration, who invited me to learn more about project-based learning by visiting other schools who had implemented it.

What Is Project-based Learning (PBL)?

The Buck Institute of Education website gives an overview:

In Project Based Learning (PBL), students go through an extended process of inquiry in response to a complex question, problem, or challenge. Rigorous projects help students learn key academic content and practice 21st Century Skills (such as collaboration, communication & critical thinking).

My First Look

The first aha moment I had as I learned about PBL is that project-based learning is very different from project-oriented learning. Project-oriented learning describes a project that happens at the end of a unit. It’s the project that takes place after the learning has already happened. Project-based learning describes a project that actually facilitates the learning.

What is PBL

What is PBL – Video, High Tech High

I dug deeper into the differences between the two by watching a few helpful videos that I hope you take a look at before getting started.

What PBL is not

What PBL Is Not – Video, High Tech High

I heard from teachers who used PBL that it created meaningful experiences for kids, who became invested in their classwork and learned rigorous academic content alongside rich 21st-century skills. I was immediately taken aback by the beautiful student work I saw.

I was excited to start developing my own projects, but was also intimidated by the process of planning and executing the task. I was also worried that PBL would compromise the structure of my middle school classroom.

Day-to-day Life in PBL

Now, a few months into using PBL, I have learned so much about the planning, process, and assessment of projects. Here’s my advice on how to start your first project and manage the day-to-day work of facilitating PBL while your students take the reins.

Envisioning what my classroom would be like with PBL was one of the hardest steps for me, and, as I mentioned, I was fearful that I would lose structure and that behavior management would become challenging.

Alternating Workdays
Working with middle school students, I have learned that alternating between true independent project “workdays” and other days that are more structured is beneficial. I like to fill in my projects with “mini-projects,” labs or activities that contribute to the learning. The project is always the driving force of these activities, and the learning that happens here is important to the overall success of their final product.

Student Choice
It is critical that your project allows for student choice. Students don’t need choice in everything they do, but allowing them to make decisions along the way gives them a sense of ownership over the final product. This can look very different from project to project, and I would suggest not allowing choice in terms of the people students work with.

Students Helping Students
Set the tone immediately that project groups will be assigned. My students have learned that they need to be able to work with all kinds of people, and we have successfully established a culture of student collaboration. Apart from that, critique has become an active component of our work, and rather than teachers helping students, students are helping students develop beautiful work that they can be proud of.

Getting Started

Getting started can be a daunting task, but as with planning lessons, begin with the end. Think about what you want students to know and be able to do. I did some research online and found a lot of planning resources that helped me get organized. Check out my favorites: a project overview template and a teaching and learning guide available from the Buck Institute of Education.

Planning Forms

Staying Organized

I stay organized by giving my students manila folders that remain in the classroom. My students keep their day-to-day project work here, along with supporting documents like rubrics and assignment sheets.

To help my students stay active and on task in their group work, I include a participation log. Every time we do project work, I give them a score from 0 to 5, and at the end of the project I am able to accurately record a participation grade. With the participation log, my students are motivated to be productive and can actively make changes when they fall off track.

Here is a sample of what I like my participation log to look like: 

Participation Log - PBL

Download Participation Log Word Doc


Collaborate with your colleagues! The most learning happens when projects become interdisciplinary and arts-integrated. This requires an added layer of planning but can be easier than you think. I have found success collaborating with other teachers when there is an overarching topic or idea.

Finally, before you start the project with your students, do it yourself! Not only will you have a sample project to show your students, you will iron out the kinks and know which pitfalls to help your students avoid.

Project Ideas and Resources

Don’t attempt to reinvent the wheel. There are many solid project ideas available on the web for all grade levels and content areas.

My Personal Favorite Resources

One of my favorite resources is In addition to having planning tools and info on PBL, it contains a project database with work from other teachers around the globe.

Likewise, High Tech High, a public charter PBL school in California, shares a lot of their work on their website.

Additional PBL Resources

I did some research on print resources and found a multitude of resources that range in content from PBL planning to project ideas. Here’s a list of some of my favorite books:

  • Project Based Learning Handbook by Thom Markham. This book provides a simple outline of project planning and is equipped with several reproducibles to use throughout the process.
  • PBL Starter Kit by John Larmer. Published by the Buck Institute of Education, this guide contains “to-the-point advice” and a variety of projects created by real teachers.
  •  A Companion to Interdisciplinary STEM Project-Based Learning by R.M. Capraro, M.M. Capraro, and J. Morgan. A book of ready-to-go projects integrating science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and other content areas!
  • Enriched Learning Projects by James Bellanca. I read this one from cover to cover and appreciated the specific advice the author offered on PBL class culture and student grouping.

Check out my previous blog post on a project I developed for my science class, or learn more about integrating technology into your projects with my articles on blogging in the classroom and apps for students.


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