We know PBL’s focus is on student engagement for the purpose of student learning. Heck, that’s why we call it Project Based Learning! Learning should always be the focus of whatever we do in PBL. This ensures we are really doing PBL and not just “a project” or activity—we want the project to drive new learning.

Seven Design Gold Standard Elements with Knowledge circle in the center

However, even when we get the idea of “Main Course” projects, student learning can get lost in the project planning. This might result in products that don’t quite assess what we wanted students to learn, unclear short-term and long learning targets, and a weak sense of addressing standards and outcomes rather than really ensuring students learn them. Here are four tips to consider to tighten up the learning for your PBL projects:

Unpack Your Standards

Many of us already do this. This is a process where teachers analyze meaty standards to break them down into their component parts, to truly understand what the standard is asking students to know and be able to do. It’s important to remember that unpacking standards is not about the product of the process, it is about the dialogue that occurs as teachers do so.

When teachers unpack their standards, they have greater clarity on exactly what students need to learn. Teacher clarity has a .75 effect size on student learning according to John Hattie—it can significantly improve student learning. This is a substantial reason to spend the time unpacking that standards or learning outcomes.

Unpack Success Skills

Remember learning in PBL can and should also be focused on success skills that are not only important, but will also support student learning of content. Just as we need to be targeted on our content standards, we should be targeted and focused on the success skills we want to teach and assess in the project.

Many teachers only target one success skill in a project. Yes, a project might have students collaborating, but the teacher might be focusing assessment and teaching only on communication and/or presentation this time around. Rubrics already exist that help to unpack collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and the like, but it is also important for teachers to have dialogues to further understand what specific indicators might look like or sound like in the classroom to ensure clarity and targeted assessment and teaching.

Specify Achievable Learning Targets

Once you have unpacked your standards or long-term learning outcomes, you can create daily learning targets that are achievable and assessable. Some of us may have been asked to post the standard we were addressing. I had to in my previous teaching job. The intent here is to communicate to students the clear expectations and targets. Unfortunately, a standard being posted does not do that. It is wallpaper, and, from the student perspective, may not be achievable.

Standards have many targets in them, and when teachers create smaller, achievable targets, students will feel success and teachers can assess for progress and differentiate as needed. Remember that learning targets should focus on learning, not simply tasks. Some targets have both, such as “I can explain the cause of ____ by presenting ____.”

Focus Observation Walkthroughs on Learning

While administrators often visit classrooms for quick observations, many schools do Learning Walks or Instructional Rounds. Both of these types of observations may involve interactions with students. I’ve often heard visitors ask “What are you doing?” or “What are you working on?” when they talk with students. I would ask that they not focus as much on these questions. They may solicit evidence of “doing” but not necessarily learning.

Instead, I would recommend asking all students, no matter they are doing, “What are you learning?” Even if students are engaged in constructing or creating a product, it should be evidence of learning. If a student responds they are working on something, follow up with “And what is this helping you learn?” By focusing questioning on learning, we can get students to make connections of project work and instructional activities to learning targets.


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