Many of the teachers we work with find it fairly easy to envision the end of a project – 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 – how to manage the day-to-day work of students and teams.

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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 do not apply to primary-age children, who do not work as independently as older students can be expected to.)

Some student teams aren't working well together.

  • Discuss team work with students, drawing from their past experience, noting what it looks like when it goes well and what can go wrong.
  • Develop clear criteria for teamwork; create a collaboration rubric or another list of expectations/norms. Post guidelines on the classroom wall.
  • Form teams by carefully considering who would work well together. If a particular student needs extra support or understanding – or, shall we say, special handling – put him or her with the right teammates.
  • Have each team write - or give them a template - and sign a contract that spells out their agreements about working together, and the steps to be taken when they don’t (tip within tip: do NOT let the first step be “get the teacher”!). 
  • Practice collaboration skills before and during a project (e.g., use role-plays, team-building activities, fishbowl modeling, or have them practice on short, fun, low-stakes tasks).
  • Teach students how to run meetings, play various roles, use conflict resolution skills, and use decision-making strategies.
  • Have students self-assess and reflect on collaboration skills at checkpoints. 
  • Monitor teams closely; sit in during team meetings; hold meetings with teams or team representatives to check in on progress and teamwork.
  • Only as a last resort, step in to manage the team, or break up the team and reassign members to other teams.

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

  • Step One is to find out why this is happening; don't assume a student is being lazy or is at fault (maybe the team isn't organized well, or one person is dominating and doing too much; perhaps the student has language issues or lacks necessary skills).
  • Give students organizers or forms for planning their tasks and dividing up the workload.
  • Require each student to do specific tasks when working on a team product and have checkpoints to be sure this is happening.
  • When forming teams, do not put best friends together who may not be able to tell each other to step it up.
  • Have students include a “Firing Clause” in their contracts (Note: We do not advise this for very young students!) and specify what will happen – e.g., do the project on your own, work with the teacher as a partner, or do some not-as-exciting alternative assignment.
  • Consider forming teams for the next project by placing low-effort students together so they’ll have to rise to the occasion (one colleague of mine calls this “slacker hardball”) and learn a valuable lesson.

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

  • Again, Step One is to find out why this is happening; there could be legitimate reasons that will affect your response.
  • Make it the responsibility of the student and his/her 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.
  • 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.
  • Remember one of the benefits of PBL: chronically disengaged or absent students may be more motivated to participate if the project is engaging, and/or if they have a sense of obligation to their team – or at least will go along with peer pressure.

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

  • Plan a more structured project than what might be your eventual “ideal vision of PBL.” Create a project calendar with regular and frequent – even daily – checkpoints and formative deliverables.
  • 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.
  • Provide lots of scaffolds: research note-taking forms, Internet search guides, resource logs, etc.
  • Anticipate Need to Knows 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.
  • 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”).

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

  • If possible, and if the project is important enough, adjust your semester calendar to free up more time. (I know, duh, but it needs to be said first.)
  • 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; have them interview only one expert, not three).
  • Call for back-up; bring in other school staff, older students, outside experts/mentors, or parents to help student teams wrap up their work.
  • Provide resources (websites, experts, reading material) for students instead of asking them to find and sort through them.
  • 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?

Please add a comment!

John Larmer, Editor in Chief
John is editor in chief at PBLWorks, where he has helped create professional development workshops and PBL curriculum materials. He writes for and edits the PBL Blog, and is the co-author of several books on PBL.