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Eight Essential Elements of Project-Based Learning

EducationWorld is pleased to present this article by Dayna Laur, who has been a high school social studies teacher for 14 years. She is a National Faculty Member for the Buck Institute for Education and an educational consultant and writer. In this article, Laur describes elements for educators to consider when planning project-based learning experiences for their students.

This article originally appeared in TechEdge, a quarterly magazine published by Naylor LLC for Texas Computer Education Association members. To join or for more information, visit

So you’ve tried projects in your classroom. Maybe you’ve had your students complete a public service announcement using iMovie or Audacity, or create a pamphlet using Pages. Perhaps students exhibited their learning about what to do in the case of a natural disaster emergency or a plan to reduce crime in their county.

You, the teacher, graded the project for content and creativity. Many students performed well, but there were those few who only did just enough to pass. In fact, several waited until the last minute and didn’t use their time wisely. Overall, you were pleased with many of the products, but you just weren’t sure about whether to try implementing the project the following year. You’ve asked yourself how to increase both the rigor and relevance of the project.

Essential PBL Elements

  1. Significant Content
  2. 21st-Century Skills
  3. In-Depth Inquiry
  4. Driving Question
  5. Need to Know
  6. Student Voice & Choice
  7. Reflection & Revision
  8. Public Audience

Taking a project and turning it into project-based learning requires some effort and backward planning. However, using the 8 Essential Elements of PBL, as designated by the Buck Institute for Education, will allow you to design a learning experience that goes beyond the mere memorization of content and promotes student engagement as 21st-century skills are honed.

As you read through the descriptions of the eight elements and the sample sixth/seventh-grade ELA project “Code Maroon,” provided by White Oak ISD in east Texas, make it your goal to take a project and turn it into an engaging project-based learning experience for your students.

A solid PBL experience places equal emphasis on significant content and 21st-century skills. A “content light” project that is fun for students is not worth the time and energy that goes into its completion. Determine the significant content and where the natural curricular connections between the standards and even units occur. Let this be the basis for the creation of your PBL experience.

Then, determine how you will promote critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity in the experience. In “Code Maroon,” sixth-graders in Cindy Coones’ classroom read “The Cay,” while seventh-graders in Jody Velde’s classroom read “The Blizzard of 1887.” These pieces of literature and the final project plan focused on the TEKS related to researching, synthesizing, organizing, presenting, listening and teamwork.

Students met during “working lunches” to discuss the books and their ideas for implementing a natural disaster plan for the town of White Oak. Students used critical thinking skills to identify the lessons of survival learned from the participants in the novels, and then they applied those lessons to scenarios set in the present day and in their own hometown. In addition to the working lunches, students also shared information via Google Docs and Edmodo, in a truly technology-rich PBL unit.

The driving question of a project must be open-ended, engaging, and crafted so that the inquiry process is initiated. In today’s world, if students can Google an answer, what’s the point in building a project around it? Additionally, if a question posed sounds like an essay question on a test, it isn’t going to prompt students to engage in inquiry.

The driving question of the White Oak project was, “How can we create an effective emergency response plan for a natural disaster in White Oak, Texas?” This question certainly is open-ended and engaging, and it launched the inquiry process with the students. Additionally, one of the major reasons I like this question is that it gives students a direct task to work toward. While this is not required in PBL, I tend to create my driving questions in this manner, as I find my students have a clear direction in which they must navigate during the project.

Rather than starting a project at the end of a unit, PBL creates a need to know for students in which they are engaged from the onset of the project. This starts with an entry event that is designed to spark student interest in the project and promote the inquiry process discussed in the next paragraph. This is really having your students begin with the end in mind. Students in the “Code Maroon” project were shown a variety of YouTube videos of natural disasters to spark their interest. You can imagine the “oohs” and “ahs” the videos got from these middle-school students.

In-depth inquiry is launched from the start of the project and connects the need to know from the entry event to the driving question. Students create a list of questions they must investigate and on which they will focus over the course of the project. From the list, students will search for answers, ask additional questions, and eventually create a new solution, product, or idea for implementation.

The inquiry was launched in the “Code Maroon” project as students began to connect the lessons learned from their novels to the present day. Comparisons were made and possible disaster plans were investigated throughout the project. Additionally, students created a survey that was used in the community to assess the current level of disaster-planning understanding within White Oak.

Allowing a level of student voice and choice in a project is important for creating ownership of a project. The level of voice and choice in a project may vary, depending on the grade level of students and the project itself. However, students learn independence when they are asked to make decisions in a project. In the “Code Maroon” project, students ultimately created their own disaster plan. An open-ended project such as this is an ideal example of providing students with the ability to exercise creativity, rather than focusing on teacher-imposed constraints.

Reflection and revision is an element frequently incorporated in English Language Arts classrooms, and the White Oak example is no exception. Students must continually refer to the driving question, reflecting upon and revising it as needed. The inquiry process prompts the need to answer additional questions, and students must actively engage in reflection and revision in order to fully answer these questions.

White Oak students worked collaboratively during the working lunches to continually reflect upon and revise their work. This was a unique experience, as students didn’t have the opportunity to interact with one another during class time. Students also maintained a learning log during the project process. This is an excellent way in which teachers can promote student reflection to prompt any revisions that may need to take place during the execution of the project.

A public audience is the final element of PBL. It can enhance the final product, taking it to a higher standard of professionalism. Moving beyond simply completing an end product for the teacher or their peers propels students to take a pride in the conclusion of their PBL experience. It also places students in a situation where they must use their 21st-century skill of communication.

The public audience can take many forms, including writing and sending a letter to a public official, preparing an exposition for community members and parents, or giving a formal presentation to a panel of professionals. In the White Oak example, students presented their natural disaster plans to a panel that included the chief of police, the chief of the fire department, the school superintendent, and the county emergency management coordinator. The response of the White Oak students was phenomenal. In fact, upon reflection, they only wished they were able to present off-campus in a “less comfortable” and more authentic setting.

This example of project-based learning can be an inspiration to all teachers at all grade levels and in all curricular areas. Thinking outside of the box is a requirement when designing a PBL experience. Yet, following the 8 Essential Elements of PBL from The Buck Institute for Education will lead you and your students toward PBL success.


Related resource

Site Review: Project-Based Learning for the 21st Century


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