Engage Students Through Project-Based Learning

Grades K-12 10 min
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Discover how Project-Based Learning can engage your students and motivate them to solve authentic, real-world problems during remote and hybrid learning.

According to PBLWorks, Project-Based Learning (PBL) “is a teaching method in which students learn by actively engaging in real-world and personally meaningful projects.” PBL empowers and engages students in authentic real-world problem-solving that spans a single content area. Students learn about and use 21st century skills, such as critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, communication, and creativity, to solve an authentic problem. In PBL, students will deeply engage in writing, inquiry, collaboration, organization, and reading, and also be able to apply what they have learned to their future careers and lives in a way that traditional learning does not allow.

PBL usually requires work on a long-term project that involves in-depth inquiry into a topic. PBL is not a single lesson or a project done at the end of a unit. In PBL, the project is the unit. As the teacher, you will design the project (hopefully collaboratively) and decide on clear standards and learning goals that you want your students to achieve. You will also decide how in-depth and long the project is, be aware of the resources needed, and decide which components of PBL you will have students engage in. Although it will take a lot of planning upfront, students will and should be doing the heavy lifting during the project. Learning should be student-centered! For many teachers and students, this is a shift that will require a growth mindset and grace. However, the shift will empower students and engage them in authentic learning that will truly prepare them for college, careers, and life.

There are several different frameworks for PBL, but no matter which one you choose to follow, they all focus on using a driving question that is open-ended and often student-generated, long-term inquiry, authenticity, student voice and choice, reflection and revision, and the creation of some type of product that is shared with others. To learn more about PBL, consider visiting the websites, or reading the books, below:

  • Websites:
  • Books:
    • Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning: A Proven Approach to Rigorous Classroom Instruction by John Larmer, John Mergendoller, and Suzie Boss
    • Project Based Teaching: How to Create Rigorous and Engaging Learning Experiences by Suzie Boss and John Larmer
    • Hacking Project Based Learning: 10 Easy Steps to PBL and Inquiry in the Classroom by Ross Cooper and Erin Murphy

How is PBL different from a project?

Projects are usually only done after the teacher has taught a unit in the traditional way. It is the culminating event or possibly the formative assessment tool. Projects are often done alone and don’t reach beyond the classroom walls. Projects, especially end-of-unit projects, are most likely not connected to an authentic problem in a student’s life, school, community, and/or the real world. In PBL, the project is the unit and starts on day one. PBL is done in groups and requires critical thinking, collaboration, and communication. PBL empowers students and provides voice and choice in how students learn and how they create solutions. In addition, there are usually several cycles of feedback and revision in PBL, not just one chance before moving on to the next facet. Here is a simplified example between the two. In a project, students might use paper to make the state flag that they just learned about in a unit. In project-based learning, students may have researched and learned about their community, used what they learned to design their own school or community flag, and then pitched their idea to the principal or mayor so that the flag could get made and used in the school or community.

To learn more about the differences between a project and PBL, consider examining PBLWorks’ “Doing a Project” vs. Project Based Learning webpage and then taking their Projects vs. Project Based Learning quiz.

How can PBL be powerful during remote and hybrid learning?

One thing is loud and clear from teachers around the world: They want to know how to increase student engagement in remote- and hybrid-learning environments. PBL is an answer. All of the components of PBL can be done in remote- and hybrid-learning environments. Students will be involved in solving an authentic problem that they are likely invested in and care about. In a time when so many students are not feeling connected to others and their community, PBL allows them to create, feel connected, and be part of a solution to a problem that goes beyond themselves. PBL will greatly increase student voice and choice, while fostering creativity and elevating student boredom and the feeling that school is monotonous. It is arguably easier than ever before to connect with people who live and work in spaces outside of the school building/environment. Students have access to guest speakers, interviewees, virtual field trips, and so much more. There should always be non-tech options available for students, but there is more access than ever before to technologies available to collaborate, inquire, and create amazing products.

PBL is student-centered and, therefore, allows the teacher to relinquish control. This works well in a situation where the teacher is not always present and available. Many teachers currently have less face-to-face and/or synchronous time with students. Engaging students in PBL creates a culture of student inquiry that is guided by the individual student. Because it is student-centered, students are engaged in independent work time based on their inquiry, and they can then collaborate with a team in many ways outside of face-to-face and/or synchronous time with their teacher. Furthermore, PBL is cross-curricular. With less time for each subject area, it is incredibly beneficial that PBL engages students in standards and learning goals that span subjects and content areas.

To learn more about using PBL in a remote and/or hybrid environment, consider using the following resources from PBLWorks:

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