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7 Key elements of PBL

Friday 31 August 2018, by JMC

1) A Driving Question

Every project begins with a question that drives subsequent learning. A driving question is a “well-designed question that students and teachers elaborate, explore, and answer throughout a project” (Krajcik & Mamlok-Naaman, 2006, p. 3).

According to Krajcik and colleagues, a driving question should be 1) feasible, 2) worthwhile, 3) contextualized, 4) meaningful, and 5) ethical (Krajcik & Mamlok-Naaman, 2006; Krajcik & Shin, 2014). In addition, we believe that effective questions must be thought-provoking, challenging, authentic and above all open-ended.

2) Deep learning

With PBL, the project is the central element of the learning, not merely the outcome or a diversion. Projects are not simply “fun activities” or “hands-on experiences” requiring minimal intellectual effort. A high quality project requires learners to think critically about a complex problem, question, or issue with multiple answers, and then work on that project over the course of days, weeks, and even months. To complete a project successfully, learners need to learn important academic content, concepts, and skills. They should also be challenged to produce the highest-quality work possible and guided and supported as they try to do so.
In authentic PBL, “projects carry the full subject matter load of the course. They are not sporadic activities or culminating activities that come at the end of an instructional sequence, nor are they lively interludes inserted periodically into traditional recitation” (Parker & Lo, 2016, p.3)

3) Learner-focussed

PBL is predominantly learner-centred, not curriculum-centred, with the intention of helping learners to become self-directed and to apply sound higher-order thinking skills. Wherever possible, projects are defined and driven by the learners, with teachers acting as “resources, facilitators and guides” in order to activate learning (Holm, 2011, p.2).

Nevertheless, at E2 we recognise that strategic teacher intervention, including through direct instruction, is also important for optimal learning to avoid learners reinforcing misconceptions or enduring multiple “false starts” (see for example Blumenfeld, et al., 1991; Bransford, 2000; Kirschner, Sweller & Clark, 2006).

4) Authenticity

PBL is based on real-world experience. To motivate learners and show them the relevance of what they are learning in school, projects should be experienced as “real.” They should “embody characteristics that give them a feeling of authenticity” (Thomas, 2000, p.4). A high quality project makes explicit connections to the real world beyond the classroom, using the tools, techniques, and technology found there (Polman, 2012). It also connects learners to other people and communities, as well as to their own interests and concerns. As a result, it is motivating and engaging.

5) Collaboration

An essential element of PBL is its collaborative nature, because in a globalized world, learners need to be able to work with others. Collaboration supports learners’ capacity to “engage in meaningful learning that will allow them to manage the fast-changing, knowledge-based society of the twenty-first century” (Darling-Hammond et al, 2008, p. 196). Collaborative activities also "mirror the complex social situation of expert problem solving” (Krajcik & Shin, 2014, p. 276).

Working in flexible, non-differentiated groups allows learners to develop their collaborative skills as well as construct knowledge together, using their different perspectives and skill-sets. This does not mean simply dividing up project tasks, completing them individually, then putting it all together at the end with no synthesis or discussion. When learners truly collaborate, they are contributing individual voices, talents, and skills to a shared piece of work, while respecting the contributions of others.

6) Reflection, critical revision and assessment

“We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.” John Dewey

A key benefit of PBL is that it includes processes for learners to give and receive feedback on the quality of their work, leading them to make revisions or conduct further inquiry. Unlike in industrial education, assessment in PBL is always fed back to the learner in order to help them to understand how to improve, for as the quote from Dewey above makes clear, it is only through reflection that we can learn. Learners also “become critical friends by giving constructive feedback to each other, which helps them become aware of their own strengths and improve on their interactions with each other.” (Bell, 2010, p. 43).

As well as reflection on individual learner’s work, projects include reflection on the success of the project itself and how relevant it was to the wider world, as well as how learners have developed their learning through the project, a process commonly referred to as metacognition, or ‘learning to learn’.

Metacognition and self-regulation approaches have “consistently high levels of impact” on learners’ progress, although they “can be difficult to achieve in practice as they require pupils to take greater responsibility for their learning and develop their understanding of what is required to succeed.” (EEF, 2018, p.1)

7) Public Outcome

A final but important part of PBL is ensuring that learners present their work to other people, beyond their classmates and teacher (Darling-Hammond et al., 2008; Ravitz, 2010). A public outcome can take a wide variety of forms, such as a display, performance, publication, set of posters, community event, festival or film), or simply an explanation of a solution to the driving question.

As Thomas notes, creating a product for a relevant audience is one way in which a PBL approach can meet his authenticity criterion (2000). However this public process also has several other benefits. Firstly, it is motivating as it encourages learners to deliver their best work, as well as presenting opportunities for feedback (Darling-Hammond (p. 215); Krajcik & Shin, 2014).

Secondly, a public outcome makes what they have learned tangible and thus, when shared publicly, discussible. Instead of only being a private exchange between an individual learner and their teacher, the social dimension of learning becomes more important. This helps to create a “learning community,” where learners and teachers discuss what is being learned, how it is learned, what are acceptable standards of performance, and how that performance can be made better.

Thirdly, making learners’ work public is an effective way to communicate with parents, community members, and the wider world about what PBL is and what it does for learners. When the public sees what high-quality outcomes learners can create, they’re often surprised, and keen to get further involved.

Finally, a public outcome often allows learners to develop their social and emotional skills by developing their confidence, communication and other competences.


Bell, S. (2010). Project-Based Learning for the 21st Century: Skills for the Future. The Clearing House, 83(2), pp. 39-43.

Blumenfeld, P., Soloway, E., Marx, R., Krajcik, J., Gudzial, M., & Palinscar, A. (1991). Motivating project-based learning: Sustaining the doing, supporting the learning. Educational Psychologist, 26(3&4), pp. 269-398.

Bransford, J. (Ed.) (2000) How People Learn: Brain, Mind Experience and School. Washington, D.C.: National Academy of the Sciences.

Darling-Hammond, L., Barron, B., Pearson, P., Schoenfeld, A., Stage, E., Zimmerman, T., Cervetti, G. & Tilson, J. (2008). Powerful learning: What we know about teaching for understanding. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

EEF (Education Endowment Foundation) (2018). Metacognition and self-regulation. Teaching and Learning Toolkit. Retrieved from https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence-summaries/teaching-learning-toolkit/meta-cognition-and-self-regulation on 29/07/2018.

Holm, M. (2011). Project-Based Instruction: A Review of the Literature on Effectiveness in Prekindergarten. River academic journal, 7(2), pp. 1-13.

Kirschner, P. & Clark, R. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Learning, 41(2), pp. 75-86.

Krajcik, J. & Mamlok-Naaman, R. (2006). Using driving questions to motivate and sustain student interest in learning science. In Tobin, K. (Ed.), Teaching and learning science: A handbook (pp. 317-327). Westport, CT: Praeger.

Krajcik, J. & Shin, N. (2014). Project-based learning. In Sawyer, R. (Ed.), The Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences (2nd ed.) (pp. 275-297). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Parker, W. & Lo, J. (2016). Reinventing the high school government course: Rigor, simulations, and learning from text. Democracy & Education, 24(1), pp. 1-10.

Polman, J. (2012). Trajectories of participation and identification in learning communities involving disciplinary practices. In Dai, D. (Ed.), Design research on learning and thinking in educational settings: Enhancing intellectual growth and functioning (pp. 225-242). Routledge.

Ravitz, J. (2010). Beyond changing culture in small high schools: Reform models and changing instruction with project-based learning. Peabody Journal of Education, 85(3), pp. 290-312.

Thomas, J. (2000). A review of research on project-based learning. Retrieved from https://documents.sd61.bc.ca/ANED/educationalResources/StudentSuccess/A_Review_of_Research_on_Project_Based_Learning.pdf