PBL: Learning How to Learn

Project-based learning is about more than "doing projects."

By: Rachel Erickson

We teach children to ask questions at a very early age, then we send them into the secondary school classroom where we ask them to quietly absorb information without questioning it. Project-based learning (PBL) encourages students to ask questions and explore topics that interest them within the subject. It puts them back into the driver’s seat of learning.

PBL is not simply "doing projects"; it is a process of learning that involves both the students and the teacher. The teacher serves as a guide while the students control the learning.

Project-based learning has five key steps, according to Thom Markham, author of several books and resources on project-based teaching and learning:

Step 1: State the Challenge. Students and teachers work together to identify a problem or challenge. It is important to clearly define learning targets of the project during this step.

Step 2: Define the Question. Teachers pose a question that serves as the focus of the project and identifies the deep understanding.

Step 3: Create the Assessment. Students decide how to show what they have learned, including creating their own rubrics that provide the criteria for assessment.

Step 4: Plan Backwards. Students start with the assessment and map out the plan for the project, end to beginning.

Step 5: Keep the End in Mind. The teacher assesses the students to keep them on the right track.

PBL in Action

Recently, I introduced PBL to my seventh grade geography class. In following with Markham’s five steps, we decided to look at how geography was relevant in students’ lives. We then developed a learning target that addressed this topic: by the end of the project, the students would be able to clearly explain how geography affected the state of North Dakota, as well as each of them individually.

I posed the question that they would explore: "How does geography affect me and North Dakota?" Students individually thought about the assignment, created their own rubric, then partnered with a classmate and combined their individual rubrics into one. Finally the students collaborated to put all of the rubrics together to form one class rubric which they would use to assess themselves.

Spirit of Collaboration

Because students drive the learning in PBL, I allowed them to choose their own groups. Each group decided how they would demonstrate their new-found knowledge. Then, working backward, they created an action plan. Each action plan required a teacher signature as an acknowledgment that the students were on the right track.

With approval, the students were free to work on their projects. Overall, the students had about three weeks to complete the project. They were given full access to the Internet, books, and maps, and were encouraged to interview people who live and work in North Dakota.

As the students completed the project, I introduced the Muddy Point Board to promote collaboration. Students posted questions, "muddy points," and answers regarding their research and presentation ideas. As students reviewed and discussed questions and comments posted on the board, they worked together and became more invested in their learning and the learning of their classmates.

Each group was required to meet with me twice during the project to review the action plans and to evaluate progress. At the end of the first conference, the students created a goal for the next conference.

When each group presented its final project to the class, presenters were responsible for answering questions from classmates. This ensured that each student learned and understood the information their group presented.

The End Products

I was very happy with the students’ projects. Regular meetings with me helped ensure that every presentation answered the required question—with pictures, quotes, and/or music. Because the students were able to choose how they would present their information, there were a variety of projects, including Google presentations, papers, a skit, and even a rap song!

After their presentations, students graded themselves and their work based on the rubric the class created. I used the same rubric to grade each presentation and project, using my score for their final grade. I chose to do that because the students generally were harder on themselves and graded themselves lower, although they had met all expectations.

When I gave the students the second PBL assignment, they were excited because they had enjoyed the previous project and knew what to expect. For this project, the students answered the question, "What would it look like to live in Africa?" Each group chose a country in Africa to use as a basis for answering this question.

The second round of PBL produced far better results than the first because the students were comfortable with the learning process. The content of their projects exceeded the expectations of the rubric they had created for themselves. My students finally had a grasp of how to learn rather than what to learn.

Rachel Erickson is a seventh grade geography teacher in Grand Forks, North Dakota. rachel.erickson@gfschools.org

Published in AMLE Magazine, September 2013.

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7 comments on article "PBL: Learning How to Learn"

I have just started my career in education so Project-based learning is rather new to me. I really like the idea and I am also rather excited to implement it in my Social Studies classrooms. The one thing that I am a little skeptical about is the possibility of individual students "free-riding" on the project. I realize that this is a common problem with all collaborative learning so I am trying to find ways to mitigate it. I liked the question and answer portion at the end of the project to ensure the students knew their information but I am also interested in how you kept the students on task and ensured that they actually participated throughout the three weeks. Also, the implementation of the "Muddy Points Board" was simply brilliant. I would have never thought to allow the students to answer each others questions. Was this an actual "board" or did you have a bulletin board set up? Thank you for the article.

9/29/2014 4:14 PM

A lot of what you have described in this article sounds like what I learned as "constructivist" teaching. I had heard of Markham's 5 steps for Project-Based Learning before, but, since I am not yet a teacher, I have not had a chance to implement this teaching style, so I really appreciate your description of how the project went in your class. It sounds like PBL was a useful tool for engaging your students in learning about geography. I will definitely be using some of your ideas, especially the conferences and the "muddy board." Thank you for writing this article!

10/7/2014 1:44 PM

I think project based learning is very important. I think it helps students learn how to be life long learners and self-sufficient. Last year I read "Finnish Lessons," a book about the school system in Finland and it seems very similar to this. Students there are very successful and Finland has one of the most innovative and technology driven societies in the world.

what age, always learn best when they experience it and not just hear it. I hope to have mostly

10/13/2014 12:08 AM

This is an awesome article! I have observed another teacher that has done this same type of learning and has also found it very productive and successful. I love how you give the students the drivers seat. They get the chance to pick their interests and make a project with their own imagination. The students are engaged and want to show off the project that they have been working so hard on, because they want to! It is a great way to get your students engaged by giving them the option to bring their interests into the classroom making each project different. This project-based learning promotes self-sufficient learners which is so important starting at the middle school level and will hopefully carry beyond. With giving them this freedom, you also have to check up on them to make sure that they are following the standard or the backbone of the project. This is so important because the students need feedback. This makes sure that students are all on the right track and they can also hear that positive reinforcement throughout the project giving them motivation to keep going! I am not a teacher yet, but I love the idea of implementing project-based learning in my classroom! Another point that you made that was incredible was giving the class a chance to make a rubric. First of all, this gives the students a good idea of what you want as the end result because they made the rules. Second, it is a way that they can evaluate themselves while doing the project as well as looking over their end result. I love this idea! I would like to bring this into my classroom because it gives the students control of their learning!

Ms. Jordyn Holle

3/4/2015 3:22 PM

Ms. Erickson,

I am also a believer in Project based learning. I love the idea of the teacher guiding or facilitating and the students taking ownership of their own learning. I think this leads to a truly successful future. The sooner you learn how to learn the better. Its encouraging to hear that it went even better the second time around. With Project based learning not being the norm I worry about students questions and wondering why they are doing it differently. You seemed to have combatted that well with it being so fun and lots of learning taking place.

I am a teaching in training and I really enjoyed your article.



3/6/2015 12:12 PM

Ms. Erikson,

I couldn't agree more with your findings and with the manner in which you presented the subject of Project Based Learning. I really enjoyed the five steps of PBL: State the Challenge, Define the Question, Create the Assessment, Plan Backwards, Keep the End in Mind. It seems completely logical that PBL would teach students to ask questions about topics of interest. In turn, that would motivate them to dig deep to find the answers to those questions. Another thing I enjoyed about the article was how much you allowed the students to play an active part in their learning. I've seen many studies that prove students are more motivated and driven to complete a task or follow the rules if they are included in the rule making process (in this case, the rubric). From my days in secondary school, I was able to experience very similar things. Project Based Learning has helped me to learn the material as opposed to simply reciting information for the upcoming exam. It's exciting to hear about your stance on PBL and, as a future educator, can't wait to implement similar things into my classroom.


3/8/2015 5:26 PM

Ms. Erikson,

I absolutely love this article. I agree completely that in students working on something that they are passionate about, they will be able to learn even more. I particularly liked how you stated that it is not just about assigning projects, but it is about learning what our students like. This is so incredibly crucial in the realm of a productive classroom and through knowing what our students like we can more aptly gear lessons towards those likes. My only hesitation about utilizing this method completely in my classroom is behavior. While I assume good behavior increases in a PBL classroom, there is always the possibility of students becoming unfocused or off-topic with their group. I think that effective monitoring while utilizing PBL can be very effective in learning.

3/9/2015 1:52 PM

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