Originally published Feb 24, 2020 – updated Mar 4, 2021.

PBL Tips - projects and the messy middle

Many teachers find it pretty easy to outline the start and end of a project.

They can most easily imagine the end with the products students will create, and the big finish when students publicly share their work, their solution to a problem, or their answer to a driving question.

And with a little coaching, teachers can plan an effective entry event to launch the project and get students underway on their initial tasks. 

But one of the most challenging parts of PBL is figuring out the “middle part” of a project.

For rookie PBL teachers, sometimes even for veterans, there are many potential pitfalls during the middle of a project, but for now let’s look at some tips for handling the five situations below. 

Note: Many of these tips are more focused on older students, who are able to work independently. 

If student teams aren't working well together...

  1. Discuss what teamwork means with students. Draw from their past experience, and note what it looks like when it goes well and what can go wrong.
  2. Develop clear criteria for teamwork. Create a collaboration rubric or another list of expectations/norms. Post guidelines on the classroom wall.
  3. Form teams carefully by considering who will work well together. If a particular student needs extra support or understanding, put them with the right teammates.
  4. Have each team write and sign a contract. This outlines the group agreements about working together, and the steps to be taken when they don’t (before asking for your intervention as the teacher).
  5. Practice collaboration skills, both before and during a project. For example: use role-playing and team-building activities; fishbowl modeling; or have them practice on short, fun, low-stakes tasks.
  6. Teach about specific skills like how to run meetings, play various roles, use conflict resolution skills, and use decision-making strategies.
  7. Have students self-assess and reflect on collaboration skills at checkpoints. 
  8. Monitor teams closely. Sit in during team meetings. Hold meetings with teams (or team representatives) to check on their progress and teamwork.

If students aren't doing their share of the work in teams...

  1. First, find out the real reason why this is happening! It's often not what we first assume. Maybe the team isn't organized well, or one personality is dominating, or some students need additional scaffolding.
  2. Give students scaffolds. Have them use an organizers or form to plan their tasks and divide up the workload.
  3. Require specific tasks for each student when working on a team product and have checkpoints to be sure this is happening.
  4. When forming teams, avoid putting "best friends" on the same team. They may not be able to tell each other to step it up.
  5. Consider forming teams for the next project by placing low-effort students together, so they’ll be challenged to rise to the occasion.

If one or more students are frequently absent and miss key project events...

  1. First, find out the real reason why this is happening! Again, it might not be what you assume, and there may be legitimate reasons that will affect your response.
  2. Make it the responsibility of the student and team to stay in touch, tell each other when they’ll miss something, and find out how to get caught up. This should be part of the Team Contract!
  3. Have a project center (a place in the classroom or online) where important documents are always available. Don’t let them rely on you to hand them everything.
  4. Remember one of the benefits of PBL... Students who are chronically disengaged or absent may be more motivated to participate if the project is engaging and/or if they have a sense of obligation to their peers.

If students don't know what to do during independent work time, waste time, and/or get frustrated...

  1. Plan a more structured project than what might be your eventual “ideal vision of PBL.” Create a project calendar with regular and frequent checkpoints (even daily!) and with formative deliverables.
  2. Before a project starts, teach students how to plan the use of time and how to organize tasks. Show them how to use forms and templates that will help them during the project.
  3. Provide lots of scaffolds: research note-taking forms, internet search guides, resource logs, etc.
  4. Anticipate the Need to Knows of your students, so you can plan and present lessons and resources on a "just in time" basis. During the project, decide whether it would be a good idea and feasible to deliver these only to the teams that are ready, or to the whole class.
  5. Differentiate daily and weekly tasks for teams that are ahead or behind other teams. Make sure they have next steps to accomplish (“if you finish that, you could do this, or this, or this”).

If the project is taking too long and your calendar was way off...

  1. If possible (and if the project is important enough), adjust your semester calendar to free up more time. ("Of course!" But sometimes we need the reminder.)
  2. Scale back the project requirements. Cut down on the number, length, or complexity of the products students are working on. For example: instead of 10-minute videos, have students produce shorter videos, or even just storyboards and scripts; or have them interview only one expert, not three.
  3. Call for back-up! Bring in other school staff, older students, outside experts/mentors, or parents to help student teams wrap up their work.
  4. Provide resources (websites, experts, reading material) for students instead of asking them to find and sort through them.
  5. Reduce the amount of time allotted for presentations. If possible, have students present simultaneously in different locations—with other adults you’ve recruited to facilitate and assess.

Here’s a good general rule for managing projects: Do whatever you can to make the PBL environment more like a real-world workplace.

If a team is not working well together, what would adults on the job do? If a co-worker gets sick, how might a team handle the situation? If deadlines are being missed and the project is falling behind schedule, how does a project manager adjust? 

And remember, managing a project gets easier over time. 

As you, and especially students, get used to what it means to work in a PBL environment, a lot of management issues go away. If your whole school is using PBL extensively, managing projects will be much easier, as new ways of teaching and learning become part of the culture. Routines get established, desired behaviors become the norm, and troubleshooting becomes the shared responsibility of both teachers and students.

Do you have more tips for any of the above pitfalls? Any special advice for managing projects with primary-age students?

John is an education consultant and writer. He was the editor in chief at PBLWorks for many years.