Good PBL Lesson Plans

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Information Age Education (IAE) is an Oregon non-profit corporation created by David Moursund in July, 2007. It works to improve the informal and formal education of people of all ages throughout the world. A number of people have contributed their time and expertise in developing the materials that are made available free in the various IAE publications. Click here to learn how you can help develop new IAE materials.



“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." (Chinese proverb.)
"Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand." (Confucius; Chinese thinker and social philosopher; 551 BC – 479 BC.)

Introduction

This document is mainly intended for preservice and inservice teachers—and teachers of these teachers—who want to learn more about the use of Project-based Learning (PBL). The document assumes that readers have experienced use of PBL in their own precollege and college schooling. The goal is to help preservice and inservice teachers gain an increased level of expertise in using PBL with their students.

Near the end of this document there is a relatively detailed template that can be of assistance in developing a PBL unit of study. Some readers will want to jump immediately to that template. However, most readers will benefit from reading and thinking about some of the ideas that went into the construction of this template.

A PBL Unit of Study

"You don't just learn knowledge; you have to create it. Get in the driver's seat, don't just be a passenger. You have to contribute to it or you don't understand it." (Dr. W. Edwards Deming; American professor, author, and consultant; 1900–1993.)

Preservice teachers learn how to create lesson plans, how to critique lessons others have created, and how to teach making use of lesson plans developed by themselves and others. The quality of a lesson plan can be judged based on how well it helps students learn and how well it helps teachers teach. However, there can be other important considerations, such as how well it helps the teacher gain in professional knowledge and skills, how well it serves the needs of the community, and so on.

Typically, a PBL unit of study is conducted over a considerable period of time such as weeks or months. However, a project might be small enough to accomplish in a single class period. It can take considerable planning and preparation to put together and conduct an extensive PBL unit.

And, think how hard it is to get a class of students organized and on task well enough so that they can actually accomplish a project (complete a small unit of study based on PBL) in a single class period!

The figure below shows that the amount of written detail in a PBL unit plan depends on the intended users of the plan.


PBL unit plans.jpeg


  1. A personal-use PBL unit plan is a personal memory aid to that takes into consideration one's expertise (teaching and subject area knowledge, skills, and experience). It’s often quite short—sometimes just a brief list of topics to be covered or ideas to be shared and discussed with students. This level of planning is seldom a good approach in PBL, even for a very experienced teacher.
  2. A collegial PBL unit plan is designed for a limited, special audience such as your colleagues, a substitute teacher, or a supervisor such as a principal. It contains more detail than the first category, along with needed handouts, rubrics, and so on. It is designed to communicate with people who are familiar with the school and curriculum of the PBL unit plan writer.
  3. A high quality PBL unit plan is designed for publication and for use by a wide, diverse audience. It contains still more detail than the second category. It is designed to communicate with people who have no specific knowledge of the lesson plan writer's school, school district, and state. It is especially useful to preservice teachers, to substitute teachers in unfamiliar situations, and to teachers of teachers.

This document is primarily intended for people who create and/or make use of the third category of PBL unit plans. It can aid development of a preservice or inservice instructional unit or serve as a guide during a course or workshop concerned with lesson plan creation. In addition, you can use it for self-instruction to strengthen your ability to organize and conduct a PBL unit of study.

PBL Literature

"An educated mind is, as it were, composed of all the minds of preceding ages." (Bernard Le Bovier Fontenelle; mathematical historian; 1657–1757.)

On 9/24/08 a Google search of the quoted expression "project-based earning" produced about 440,000 hits. On 9/28/2012 the same search produced about 1.6 million hits. So, there is a growing amount of PBL material available on the Web.

For those interested in PBL in a specific discipline, Google is a useful resource. For example, a 10/1/08 Google search using the expression "project-based learning" math produced about 95,800 hits. A similar search on 9/28/2013 produced about 645,000 hits.

A 10/1/08 search using the expression "project-based learning" science produced about 237,000 hits, and a similar search on 9/28/2013 produced about 860,000 hits. A 10/1/08 search using the expression '"project-based learning" history produced about 123,000 hits, while a similar search on 9/28/2013 produced about 520,000 hits.

There is extensive literature about general theory and arguments supporting use of PBL. Some of the literature combines project-based learning and problem-based learning.

The George Lucas Foundation, through its publication of the Edutopia Magazine (2000 to 2006), and the edutopia website (http://www.edutopia.org/mission-vision) has long been very supportive of Project-Based Learning.

A small but growing part of the literature focuses on topics such as intrinsic motivation, constructivism, and brain theory. In any grade level or course at the precollege level, we know that there are large differences among student backgrounds, abilities, preparation, and interests.

Our current educational system tends to be "factory-like" in grouping students and having all students in a group cover approximately the same curriculum. Although many educators talk about student-centered education, student-centered in not a good description of today's typical curriculum content, instructional processes, and assessment. See the National Institute for Student-Centered Education at http://nisce.org.

At the current time, traditional curriculum, instruction, and assessment are not inherently intrinsically motivating to many (most?) students. We know that intrinsic motivation is highly desirable—indeed,internal drive is a very important contributor to high achievement. Such observations provide strong support for well-designed PBL.

Keep in mind that PBL is "merely" one form of teaching and learning environment. There is a substantial overlap between the content, pedagogy, and assessment used in various forms of instruction. Thus, much of the educational research literature is applicable both to PBL and to other forms of instruction.

For example, consider assessment and evaluation. Assessment is a process of gathering data, and evaluation is a process of making evaluation-types of pronouncements and decisions based on the assessment data. Gathering assessment data and using that data to grade a student are two distinct activities.

Indeed, teachers frequently gather assessment data and use it for purposes other than grading. The data might be used to make a decision to provide more or less time on a specific topic being taught. It might be used to provide individual help to a specific student.

A Unifying Educational Theme: Building Expertise

"All things are difficult before they are easy." (Thomas Fuller; English churchman and historian; 1654-1734.)

Informal and formal education help to build increased levels of expertise. A student might gain increased expertise in reading, writing, arithmetic, caring for pets, communicating with friends, or skipping rocks in a pond.

One way to think about various areas of expertise is that some are built into one's genetic makeup. Students have varying levels of disposition and/or innate abilities. Informal and formal education builds on these innate abilities. Consider who initiates the process of a student's gaining a useful level of expertise in an areas. Some areas of learning are initiated by (mandated by) people other than the student, and some are initiated by the student. In summary:

1. Genetic. Our genetic makeup predisposes us to learning oral communication, social skills, and cooperation skills. All were and still are essential to the survival of our species.
2. Mandated. Our society insists that students learn reading, writing, arithmetic, science, social science, and humanities. Knowledge and skills in these area are now considered to be essential to being a responsible adult in most societies of the world. Each country's educational system specifies other topics or discipline areas that are required parts of the precollege curriculum.
3. Learner-initiated. The totality of human collected knowledge and skills is overwhelmingly large and is growing quite rapidly. Each person has the opportunity to develop "islands" or pockets of expertise. A student may have a quite high level of intrinsic motivation to gain expertise in areas that do not fall into the "mainstream" categories of (1) and (2) listed above.

PBL can help provide learning environments that address 1-3 listed above.

PBL and Service to Others

“The aim (of education) must be the training of independently acting and thinking individuals who, however, can see in the service to the community their highest life achievement.” (Albert Einstein; German and American theoretical physicist; 1879–1955.)

A PBL project may be designed to help address large and important problems. For example, suppose you are teaching a health class. Can you think of possible projects that would help improve health in your school, community, or larger region?

More generally, consider the often voiced student question, "Why do I have to do (or learn) this?" Most people have an innate drive to help their fellow humans and to help make the world a better place in which to live. Many people are concerned about local, regional, national, and global sustainability. Such large and challenging problems can be sources of PBL projects in which students do things that make a difference in the world.

PBL and Increasing Expertise in a Specific Discipline

"Try to learn something about everything and everything about something." (Thomas H. Huxley; English biologist; 1825–1895.)

People tend to use the term discipline when talking about a large and inclusive area of study. Each academic discipline or area of study can be defined by a combination of general characteristics such as:

  • The types of problems, tasks, and activities it addresses.
  • Its accumulated accomplishments such as results, achievements, products, performances, scope, power, uses, impact on the societies of the world, ability to attract followers, and so on.
  • Its history, culture, and language, including notation and special vocabulary.
  • Its methods of teaching, learning, assessment, and thinking. What it does to preserve and sustain its work and pass it on to future generations.
  • Its tools, methodologies, and types of evidence and arguments used in solving problems, accomplishing tasks, and recording and sharing accumulated results.
  • The knowledge and skills that separate and distinguish among: a) a novice; b) a person who has a personally useful level of competence; c) a reasonably competent person, employable in the discipline; d) a regional or national expert; and e) a world-class expert.

You might find this list somewhat overwhelming. Part of the reason for this is that the traditional disciplines that people study in school have grown very large—they are overwhelming. A person can get a doctorate through specialization in a small part of a discipline. Continuing diligent effort in a small part of one discipline may lead to a person becoming world-class in that small area. Even that person faces a continuing challenge in trying to keep up!

A PBL unit of study is typically assigned by a teacher in a particular course that focuses on a specific discipline or part of a discipline. However, the assignment can be designed to:

  1. Allow each student considerable latitude in choice of specific aspects of the discipline they will study.
  2. Allow (force) the student to draw on the knowledge and skills they have developed in other disciplines.

In some sense, all learning is interdisciplinary. Suppose, for example, that a student gains a high level of expertise in one discipline. The student learns what it takes to gain a high level of expertise. The student learns about the time, effort, and persistence. This serves the student well as he or she works to achieve a high level of expertise in another discipline. That is, one's previous high levels of achievement and work supporting this achievement provide a personal benchmark for judging future performance in other areas.

An Example from the Discipline of History

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." (George Santayana; Spanish philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist; 1863–1952.)

History is one of the core disciplines in most school systems. In the United States, for example, all students are expected to study American History. The course of study may extend over several years.

The American Civil War (1861–1865) is an important part of U.S. history. Thus, it is widely agreed that students in the U.S. should study this time period and this specific event. There is less agreement on what students should actually learn in these studies—the types and levels of expertise should result from these studies.

Here are some of the key ideas in the study of history: 1) causality; 2) legacy; 3) responsibility; and 4) sources of information (primary, secondary,etc). These apply to all studies of history, and a student can learn about and practice using these ideas in studying any area of history. Moreover, note that each discipline of study and research has a history. The history of a discipline such as literature or science is a key component of that discipline.

Thus, if a student is especially interested in history, the student might well study the history component of whatever PBL assignment is given in any discipline. In doing so, the student can be gaining increased expertise in understanding and applying ideas and methodologies such as causality in historical research.

Now, returning to the American Civil War example. Here are some questions that might interest various students:

  1. What were schools like during that time period? What did children learn about reading, writing, arithmetic, science, health, history, geography, economics, government, and so on? What roles did our educational system play in events leading up to the American Civil War, the war itself, and reconstruction after the war?
  2. What did children and adults do for entertainment during that period of time? Possible areas to consider include singing, dancing, sports, reading, playing games, telling and listening to stories, attending theaters and other performances, and so on. What roles did our forms of entertainment play in events leading up to the American Civil War, the war itself, and reconstruction after the war?
  3. What was the economic and financial situation during that time period? What did people do for a living and what was the standard of living? How did this affect events leading up to the American Civil War, the war itself, and reconstruction after the war?

While many people enjoy learning about the battles of the Civil War, there are many other non-battle topics that others will enjoy studying. There are a huge number of different things that one might study about the time period of the American Civil War. What was going on in the rest of the world? What was the state of the art of science and medicine? What was transportation like? What was long distance communication like? What did people eat, and how did they preserve food for use at a later date? What clothing did they wear?

Islands of Expertise

"I was bold in the pursuit of knowledge, never fearing to follow truth and reason to whatever results they led." (Thomas Jefferson; third President of the United States; 1743–1826.)

Each of the questions listed above focuses on a sub-discipline or a sub-sub-discipline. For each, a student might have some specific interest and might want to develop an "island" or pocket of expertise. A student may have a quite high level of intrinsic motivation in such a study area.

A student's islands of relatively high expertise can contribute considerably to his or her self esteem. Also, each island of relatively high expertise provides a metric or standard as the student works on developing expertise in other areas. This allows the student to do self-assessment and to take increased responsibility for his or her own learning.

To a large extent, our traditional factory-like model of education does not do well in accommodating individuality in students. However, PBL is well suited to allowing, helping, and encouraging students to develop islands of expertise in areas that they find intrinsically motivating.

Some Key Ideas in PBL

"Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity." (George S. Patton Jr.; American World War II general; 1885–1945.)

The following sub-sections contain brief discussions of some of the key ideas in PBL. These tend to be applicable to a PBL unit of study in any discipline of study. Thus, any PBL unit of study is likely to contain a focus on gaining increased expertise in some discipline or sub-discipline, and each is apt to contain a focus on the ideas in this section.

PBL Can Have a High Level of Authenticity

Authentic assessment has become a buzz phrase in education. Quoting Grant Wiggins, a world-class expert in authentic assessment:

Assessment is authentic when we directly examine student performance on worthy intellectual tasks. Traditional assessment, by contract, relies on indirect or proxy 'items'—efficient, simplistic substitutes from which we think valid inferences can be made about the student's performance at those valued challenges.
Do we want to evaluate student problem-posing and problem-solving in mathematics? experimental research in science? speaking, listening, and facilitating a discussion? doing document-based historical inquiry? thoroughly revising a piece of imaginative writing until it "works" for the reader? Then let our assessment be built out of such exemplary intellectual challenges.

Researchers on authentic assessment frequently point out that authentic curriculum content, instructional processes, and assessment need to be aligned. This is a tricky situation, because we want students to develop expertise in doing transfer of learning and in generalizing from what is being covered in specific lessons taught in school. Thus, authentic assessment may well include assessing how well a student does when confronted with questions that are related to but significantly different from those that have specifically been taught in class.

In PBL, students are actively engaged in doing things such as creating a product, creating and doing a performance (e.g., TV, music, dance, theater), and developing a document (hard copy or electronic) designed to communicate with (be presented to) a specified audience. The processes involved in this "doing" are authentic. The product, performance, or communication is assessed by teachers, students, outside experts, parents, and so on.

PBL is a Team Activity

Individual commitment to a group effort—that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work." Vince Lombardi; American football coach; 1913–1970.)

PBL is a team learning and doing activity. Nowadays, a PBL team consists of:

  1. One or more people (most often, students) who are in charge of the project. In this document we assume that the actual members of a team are students. They may be widely dispersed in location.
  2. People, such as peers, siblings, parents, teachers, and so on. They serve as advisers, sources of information, and sources of formative and summative feedback.
  3. Virtual and physical libraries. (The Web is a virtual library.)
  4. Tools, including computers, computer programs, and other Information and Communication Technology (ICT).
  5. Other resources such as materials, money, facilities, and environments in which a project is being carried out or is focused on.

At first glance, this may seem like a strange way to think about membership on a PBL team. The idea being emphasized is that PBL is always done in a team environment, even if there is only one student directly involved. Even a one-person team draws upon the accumulated knowledge and skills of a huge collection of people and other resources. The Web, for example, represents the past and continuing work of many millions of people. The tools (including computer tools) we routinely use represent the thinking and production work of a large number of people.

One of the most important goals in PBL is learning to make effective use of these five different types of members/resources of a PBL team. It is a valuable life skill. Notice that this goal is independent of any specific content area that a project might focus on. The expertise one develops in working in this team environment readily transfers to other projects.

Another important goal is for students to gain increased confidence in their own ability to accomplish complex tasks that would probably be beyond their ability to accomplish without the aid of other "members" of the team. Such accomplishments help to build self esteem.

PBL is Action-Oriented

In a PBL lesson, a PBL team is faced by a challenge that involves one or more of:

  • Solving a problem or accomplishing a task.
  • Developing and carrying out a performance or presentation.
  • Producing a product or service.

All of these types of activities have the characteristic that a team can be involved over a considerable length of time, that progress can be incremental, and that the quality of the final results can be appropriately assessed. As in writing, a really important aspect of doing a project is continuing formative evaluation of what one has done so far, and revision to improve the previous work whenever it makes sense to do so.

Projects Are Usually Extensive

This document focuses on projects that an individual student or a team of students will be engaged in over an extensive period of time—usually weeks or months.

During this time, a team makes incremental progress. In addition, a team can review the progress it has made and improve on the work that has been done. This is akin to writing a paper over a period of time that is long enough to allow a student to "revise, revise, revise." Writing teachers know that such revision is an essential component of the process of producing a well written document.

Incremental progress, formative assessment, revision of work that has been done, and mid-course corrections in one's overall plan of action are all essential aspects of doing a project. Thus, one of the goals in any PBL unit is for students to become better at carrying out such activities. Knowledge and skill in carrying out such project activities transfers to projects a student may encounter in the future.

Roles of ICT in PBL

A PBL unit of study invariably involves communication among people and retrieval of information. Thus, Information and Communication Technology (ICT) has contributed to significant changes in PBL. Nowadays, knowledge and skill in use of ICT is usually part of the prerequisite for a PBL unit, and good access to PBL facilities is an important part of the needed resources in doing a project.

Moreover, PBL can provide a good environment in which students gain increased expertise in using a variety of ICT tools. For example, many projects can make effective uses of digital videography. This is huge and challenging discipline of study. A PBL unit of study might well include specific instruction in digital videography.

Similarly, consider the information retrieval skills of a modern research librarian. One goal in education is to help students gain some of the expertise of a research librarian. Almost any PBL unit can contain explicit instruction that is designed to help increase student expertise in information retrieval.

Individual and Team Self-Assessment

One of the really important goals in a PBL unit is to help students become better at self assessment and in taking responsibility for their own work and learning. Another equally important goal is to learn to interact with fellow team members to provide useful feedback (especially, formative assessment). It is not easy to learn to provide or accept such feedback. It is a valuable life skill!

In PBL, journaling can be useful both to students and to the teacher. Students are asked to write in their journals both about what they are doing and learning individually, and what the team is doing and learning. These are progress reports include a critical analysis of the progress. The teacher then reads these reports, gathering assessment information used for formative feedback, and perhaps also using the journal entries to help evaluate individual and team work.

These types of activities tend to require making use of higher-order knowledge and skills. All tend to be interdisciplinary in nature, drawing on a wide range of knowledge and skills that a student may have learned both in school and outside of school.

In summary, one of the really important goals in PBL is for students to learn to self-assess their own work and the work of other students on the team, and to take responsibility for the solving, developing, accomplishing, producing, and other actions being done by the team.

A Learning Environment for Teachers

Teachers and schools that focus on the use of PBL tend to think in terms of the benefits to students. They often overlook the potentials for teacher learning.

Student-centered education changes a teacher's position from being a "Sage on the stage" to being a "Guide on the side." In this guide position, the teacher has an opportunity to learn from students and to participate in the processes of students gaining knowledge and skills in areas that are outside of the teacher's range of knowledge and skills.

We are all familiar with the idea that a grade school student may become interested in a topic such as dinosaurs or sports stars, and gain a higher level of expertise on the topic than that of their teachers. This is also true in a number of different aspects of ICT. As students use and build upon personal areas of interest and expertise, a teacher can "ride the student's coattails" to gain considerable new knowledge and skills. Indeed, a PBL team can be given a challenge of helping the teacher to gain new knowledge and skills.

One-student Versus Multiple-student Teams

Some projects lend themselves well to one-student teams. Moreover, having only one person on a team removes the challenge of learning to work with others and assessing the individual contributions of each member of the team.

There are a number of important learning goals that can be addressed in PBL units where groups of two or more students work together over an extended period of time.

Teams of three to four students are common. However, teams consisting of the whole class, the whole school, the whole school district, and so on are desirable in some situations. For example, consider the problem of sustainability, and a school or school district that desires to become more "green." Such a project might well involve hundreds or thousands of students over an entire school year—or, still longer period of time.

In school classroom settings, teams of 3 to 5 students facilitate ongoing student interaction and close cooperation in working to accomplish a task. For example, consider a team of several students working together on an extensive writing and publication project. It is a major challenge to learn to work effectively in a group that is deciding on details of a writing project, doing the needed research, organizing the materials, writing, copy editing, content editing, and doing desktop publication.

This is a personal note from David Moursund. The very first book that I helped to write had three authors. A representative from McGraw-Hill, the publishing company, warned me that in many cases of multiple authors, the authors ended up hating each other. Indeed, I found multiple authoring to be a stressful challenge. However, over the years I have been an author in a large number of such writing projects and found it is a rewarding experience.

One of the challenges to a teacher who decides to do a PBL unit with teams of two or more students is to decide how to form the teams. You need to think carefully about the learning goals for the project, and how team makeup contributes to achieving these goals.

As an example, suppose that you are "into" Howard Gardner's ideas of multiple intelligences. Then you might want to make team assignments in a way that gives each team strength in several different types of intelligence.

If you know your students well, you might want to form teams so they have relatively equal strengths and so no team has two members who are strongly antagonistic toward each other.

There are many other possible approaches. For example, you might use a random selection process or you might have students form their own teams. Whatever you do, keep in mind that the makeup of a team can strongly affect the learning outcomes for the members of the team.

Finally, consider the possibility of a PBL team having members from different schools—perhaps schools located thousands of miles apart. Nowadays, it is quite useful for students to learn to work on teams whose members communicate extensively though use of telecommunications.

PBL Unit Goals

"If you don't know where you are going, you're likely to end up somewhere else." (Lawrence J. Peter; educator and author of "Peter's Principles"; 1919–1990.)

The starting point for planning a PBL unit is to think about the educational goals that will form the foundation of your PBL unit plan. A PBL unit can have a variety of goals. Presumably your decision to make use of a PBL unit is based on your belief that PBL will be equally or more effective than other teaching approaches to achieve the learning goals that you have in mind.

As noted in the previous section, some possible PBL goals might well be best achieved using one-student teams, while others might well be best achieved using teams of two or more students. Thus, first think about the the learning goals you want to achieve in a PBL unit and then make a decision on the size of teams and the team makeup.

Another thing to think about is whether some (or all) of the students will make use of the PBL unit of study to develop an item in their student portfolios. Individual and group PBL can be used in a student's portfolio. This is a form of self assessment, and often it includes attempting to determine the long-term residual impact of one's learning and work. Nowadays, work on a portfolio often involves using video to help capture both the ongoing work in a project and the final results.

Many teachers find it helpful to begin with a set of general-purpose goals that might fit well into a PBL unit. These are then refined so they are more specific to and appropriate for the discipline areas and students they are teaching. Here are some general-purpose possible goals in a PBL unit.

1. Discipline-specific and Interdisciplinary Content Goals

1a. To help students increase their level of "traditional" content knowledge and skills in a specific course (discipline) content area.
1b. To help students increase their level of interdisciplinary content knowledge and skills in a combination of two or more specific courses (disciplines) content area.
1c. To provide an opportunity for students to develop or improve islands of expertise in areas they find personally interesting and intrinsically motivating.
1d. To foster individual and team creativity and higher-order thinking in problem-posing, problem recognition, and problem solving. While doing a project draws on a wide range of lower-order and higher-order skills, typically learning lower-order skills is not a major goal in PBL. However, PBL can provide an environment in which lower-order skills improve through repetitive use in dealing with challenging, higher-order tasks.

2. Process and Learning to Learn Goals

2a. To help students gain knowledge and skill in working and learning in a PBL team environment that includes a variety of powerful tools, people, and other resources.
2b. To help students learn to plan for and take personal responsibility for use of their time and other resources in an extensive, challenging activity.
2c. To help students gain increased skills in cooperative learning and collaborative work. This includes giving and receiving constructive feedback, doing self-assessment, doing and receiving peer-assessment, and learning from each other.
2d. To help students gain knowledge and experience in self-directed, just-in-time learning. This includes learning to recognize when such learning is needed.

3. Learning Goals for Teachers

3a. To gain increased pedagogical and pedagogical content knowledge about teaching in a student-centered PBL environment. This includes gaining increased expertise in formative and summative assessment and evaluation in a PBL environment.
3b. To gain increased content knowledge from students.

Notice that the above list is independent of any specific academic discipline or grade level. Thus, a social studies teacher and a science teacher will interpret these suggested goals in ways that fit with their personal insights into the specific disciplines they teach. Also notice that each of these goals is open-ended. A student can develop a steadily growing island of expertise in each of these areas. Finally, notice that these goals are independent of any particular grade or maturity level of students. Students can be introduced to PBL in the early grades of elementary school, and PBL is an important teaching/learning vehicle in higher education.

A good PBL Unit Plan

"...we discovered that education is not something which the teacher does, but that it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being. It is not acquired by listening to words, but in virtue of experiences in which the child acts on his environment. The teacher's task is not to talk, but to prepare and arrange a series of motives for cultural activity in a special environment made for the child." (Maria Montessori; Italian physician, educator, and philosopher; 1970–1952.)

Before you start developing a PBL unit plan, do a needs assessment. The needs assessment will help to determine two types of information that are needed in developing a specific PBL unit plan. These are:

  • The current knowledge and skills (levels of expertise) of students in the content areas to be stressed in the unit of study.
  • The current level of student knowledge and skills (levels of expertise) in working in a PBL environment.

This needs assessment may be quite informal. For example, it may be based on your observations of your students in addition to an informal class discussion about their previous experiences with PBL.

Here is a Level 3 general-purpose template for PBL unit plans. It is laid out in a linear fashion consisting of 11 steps. In reality, most people do not develop a complex lesson plan in a linear fashion. The different parts of a PBL unit are highly interdependent. The planning process involves lots of jumping to different parts, many small revisions, and sometimes major revisions.

1. Title and short summary. Think of a PBL unit plan as being like a chapter in a book. A detailed PBL unit plan begins with a title and a short abstract or summary. The title and short summary serve as an advance organizer. The short summary should include information about the content area, the intended audience of students, the time-length of the project, and a recommended team size. It might include a recommended team selection process. It should include a brief statement of the most important goals of the PBL unit.

2. Alignment with standards.Discuss how the PBL unit is aligned to or contributes to various local, state, and national standards. If the PBL unit include goals that are not aligned to standards, make these clear and explain the importance of these goals. Presumably you will make use of the most recent Standards Development Projects. In the early 2010's, for example, the Common Core State standards initiatives in the United States are making significant changes in the disciplines of math, science, English language arts, and social studies (history). See http://www.corestandards.org. Indeed, you might want studetns to do projects in which they study porposed changes in standards and how they will affect students, teachers, and parents.

3. Prerequisites and remediation. Prerequisites can be grouped into three areas:

3a. Content area prerequisite knowledge and skills. Think of these in the same way you would think about content area prerequisites in a traditional lesson plan. How will you handle needed remediation?
3b. PBL prerequisite knowledge, skills, and experience. Students may well have widely varying backgrounds in learning about and doing projects. How will you handle needed remediation?
3c. Information and Communication Technology knowledge and skills. Although many adults believe all children are whizzes in using computers, in reality many (most?) precollege students may have relatively poor academic-use ICT knowledge and skills. How will you handle needed remediation?

Be aware that having the PBL done by teams of several students, it is possible to create an environment in which students can learn from each other in areas where some of the students lack the initial desired prerequisites and in areas where some of the students have far more than the minimal prerequisite knowledge and skills.

4. Accommodations.Specify special provisions needed for students with documented or observed exceptionalities. Remember, some students have dual exceptionalities. The special needs of students with exceptionalities may play a major role in how teams are selected.

5. Student learning objectives. General learning goals need to be stated more carefully as measurable learning objectives or measurable behavioral objectives. This section of a PBL unit plan needs to provide measurable objectives that are consistent with (aligned with) Section 2 of the PBL unit plan. Here are three major categories of possible objectives:

5a. Discipline specific, interdisciplinary, and discipline-independent content knowledge and skills. Give careful thought to helping students gain long-lasting knowledge and skills that transfer across many disciplines and that tie in well with previously-gained knowledge and skills.
5b. PBL process knowledge. Give careful thought to helping students gain long-lasting process knowledge and skills that transfer across many disciplines and that tie in well with previously-gained knowledge and skills.
5c. Keep in mind the steadily growing importance of Computational Thinking and general uses of Information and Communication Technology in all disciplines. Stress how computational thinking is used to develop mental and computer models of problem situations to be explored and possibly solved in each discipline. Help students learn the capabilities and limitations of brain/mind versus calculators and computers in representing and working to solve challenging problems and to accomplish challenging tasks.

6. Materials and resources. These include reading materials, assignment sheets, worksheets, tools, equipment, CDs, DVDs, videos, etc. You may need to begin the acquisition process well in advance of teaching a PBL unit, and it may be that some of the resources are available online. Keep in mind Marshall McLuhan's statement, "The medium is the message." If you want students to learn to be proficient in an adult world where ICT facilities are ubiquitous, strive to create such a teaching, learning, and assessment environment in your classroom.

7. Instructional plan. This is usually considered to be the heart of a lesson plan. It provides instructions to the teacher to follow during the PBL unit of study. The instructional plan provides details of what the teacher, individual students, and teams of students will do over a period of time to achieve the content and process learning goals. It draws heavily on the needs assessment that you have conducted prior to starting on the development of the PBL unit plan.

7a. Develop a calendar-like simplified time line for the PBL unit of study. Include very brief notes on what you expect to do and what you expect your students to do on each day of the project.
7b. Decide on what handouts you want to provide to students and when you want to provide them. Develop these handouts and make appropriate numbers of copies. Note that from time to time you will likely find it desirable to develop an additional or modified handout. (This will likely occur less frequently the second and subsequent times you teach a specific PBL unit of study.) It can be quite helpful to many students if these materials are also made available on a project website.
7c. Work out a very detailed step-by-step lesson plan for the first day or two of the project. Be over prepared. Remember the adage: "As the twig is bent, so grows the tree." During this initial phase of instruction, students need to gain an understanding of the learning goals and how they will be assessed.
Note that a PBL unit can include components that are taught in a "stand and deliver" mode of instruction. Moreover, as a project progresses, from time to time the teacher will likely find it highly desirable to pause student in-class work and deliver a brief amount of instruction focused on specific difficulties or successes that various teams are experiencing.
7d. Each team should have regularly scheduled time for team meetings. Part of this time, should be devoted to the team assessing its own progress. (This may well be a good time for the teacher to listen in on a team's deliberations.) Part of this activity may well be a brief written report as well as an oral report from each team member on his or her progress and contributions to the team's work. The teacher may require that these brief written progress reports be turned in, so the teacher can use them in providing formative assessment feedback.
7e. A PBL unit timeline includes benchmarks or milestones. These are important, coherent components or requirements of a project that are to be met by specified dates. Often a milestone includes a requirement that teams and/or individuals prepare and turn in progress reports and other evidence that the benchmark or milestone has been met. These reports may well be an important component of formative assessment or formative evaluation, with timely feedback to individual students and their teams.
7f. It is common to end a PBL unit with team presentations, performances, or displays of their work. This is the final milestone that teams work toward. The expectations for this final milestone need to be quite clear to students from the beginning. Typically, teams need to carefully plan and then practice for a presentation or performance. A PBL unit may well have a special rubric just for this activity. The rubric needs to be suitable for use by students (who will be expected to assess the presentations), visitors or outside experts, and the teacher.

8. Assessment and evaluation. In a traditional unit of study, all students are studying the same content. Student evaluation (grading) is often done through the use of quizzes, a final exam, and required graded homework assignments. The uniform content, uniform gathering of assessment data, and uniform evaluation of the assessment data are all considered desirable—and, they help to describe a factory model of education.

However, a traditional unit of study may well also include a written paper or some other extensive activity in which the student has at least a modest amount of choice in deciding on content. The paper or other extensive assignment has some of the characteristics of a PBL unit in which each team contains only one student. A teacher who assigns papers or other somewhat individualized and extensive activities becomes quite experienced in "grading" this type of assignment. Frequently this grading process is a form of summative evaluation, with students receiving feedback well after the unit of instruction has ended.

PBL has a strong emphasis on students learning to do and to receive self and peer assessment. It has a strong emphasis on formative assessment and feedback. Learning to do these assessment activities can be (indeed, likely should be) an important goal in a PBL unit. These are all valuable lifelong skills.

PBL also has a strong emphasis on the teacher doing formative assessment. This data is used to provide formative feedback in a timely manner so that individual students and their teams can do mid-project corrections. A common technique for this formative assessment and feedback is by a teacher visiting with teams as they work, perhaps actually entering into the discussions and work of a team. Anther common approach is by having students do journaling in which they write about their individual work and the work of their team. These journal entries are read by the teacher and can be used for assessment and for evaluation.

PBL does not lend itself to uniform quizzes or uniform final exams. However, as noted in 7c, some components of a PBL unit may consist of traditional whole-class instruction. These parts can be assessed via uniform quizzes and tests.

9. Extensions. A good PBL unit is both challenging and open-ended. The time and resource limits mean that perfection (whatever that means) will not be achieved. A good PBL unit helps students to learn about excellence and striving for excellence. In a well-designed PBL unit of study with its rubric or rubrics for assessment, there should be clear information about what constitutes a very high level of excellence in doing the project. In most situations, this obviates the need for having extra material on possible extensions of the project.

10. Teacher learning and follow-up. View each PBL unit of instruction as an opportunity to increase your own pedagogical and content knowledge and skills. Set specific learning goals and objectives for yourself. After teaching a PBL unit of study, reflect on what you have learned. Add some notes to your PBL unit plan that reflect your increased knowledge and skill. Do some of the revision work that will be necessary for the next time you teach using the PBL unit.

11. References. The reference list might include other materials of possible interest to people reading the lesson plan or to students who are being taught using the lesson plan. Your reference list might contain suggested readings and links to appropriate and useful websites for your students.

Author or Authors

The initial version of this document was developed by David Moursund.

References

Edutopia (n.d.). Project-based learning. Retrieved 10/6/08: http://www.edutopia.org/teaching-module-pbl.

Gorman, Michael (9/12/2010). Ten free Project Based Learning resources that will place students at the center of Learning. Technology and Learning. Retrieved 9/29/2013 from http://www.techlearning.com/default.aspx?tabid=67&entryid=509.

Moursund, D.G. (2006). Web-based PBL annotated references. Retrieved 9/29/2013 from http://uoregon.edu/%7emoursund/PBL/bibliography.htm.

Moursund, D.G. (n.d.). Good math lesson plans. Retrieved 9/29/2013 from http://iae-pedia.org/Good_Math_Lesson_Plans.

Perkins, D., & Salomon, G. (September 2, 1992). Transfer of learning: Contribution to the International Encyclopedia of Education, 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Pergamon Press. Retrieved 9/29/2013 from http://learnweb.harvard.edu/alps/thinking/docs/traencyn.htm.

PBLnet.org (n.d.). Exemplary project list. Retrieved 9/29/2013 from http://www.xmarks.com/site/www.wested.org/pblnet/exemplary_projects.html.

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Added Notes

This is where I list ideas that might be incorporated into the manuscript.

In a successful PBL lesson, students gain learning useful to themselves and they share their learning with others. Thus, part of evaluation might focus on student insights into what they learned that they consider useful to themselves and to others, and how they shared this with the "others."