Wrap Authentic Project-Based Learning in Inquiry

Discover strategies for introducing project-based learning in a way that sets the stage for authentic, inquiry-based problem solving for students.

Grades K-12 8 min Resource by:
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Have you ever been teaching when a student asks, “Why are we doing this?” or “Why do I need to know this?” Maybe they adamantly stated, “I am never going to use this in my real life!” When students are asking these types of questions or making these types of statements, it’s a sure sign that the learning they are experiencing is not authentic or meaningful to them.


According to John Larmer, John Mergendoller, and Suzie Boss in their book, Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning: A Proven Approach to Rigorous Classroom Instruction, there are four ways that a project can be authentic in project-based learning (PBL). The first is to have an authentic context, the second is to have an authentic task and use authentic tools, the third is to have an authentic impact, and the fourth is to have a project that has personal authenticity for the student(s). When you are planning to engage in or design PBL, you should think about the ways that the project your students engage in will be authentic. Below is more information on the types of authentic learning that may happen in PBL.

  • Authentic Context: The project solves a real problem that is faced by people. It could be other students, other members of the school community, people in the larger community, or even people throughout the world. For example, students could design an accessible playground for their school and share the plan with members of the community.
  • Authentic Task(s) and Tools: Students solve problems in the same way a professional might, and they use the same, or very similar, tools a professional would use. For example, if students are asked to explore student cyberbullying and how students are dealing with it, they might use technology to conduct surveys and then have to analyze the data. They may conduct interviews using a digital conferencing tool and software to collect and analyze the data. Students might create a presentation for the school on cyberbullying, using video editing or presentation software. They may even create a presentation in the style of a TED Talk. Throughout the project, again, students would be using a similar process and tools that adult professionals might use to investigate and present findings on a topic.
  • Authentic Impact: Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Engaging in a project that has an authentic impact allows students to do just that. Having an authentic impact means that the project directly impacts or is used in the real world. For example, if students research, plan, create, and then execute the distribution of emergency preparedness kits for their community, they would be engaged in a project with an authentic impact. Making an authentic impact does not necessarily require monetary resources or expensive materials. Another example would be students creating a website or application to make their school or community a better place.
  • Personal Authenticity: A project that has personal authenticity is focused on a student’s personal problems, issues, concerns, and interests; it is directly relevant to their lives. You may often hear these types of projects being referred to as passion projects.

When a project is authentic, it will increase student engagement, and the project will have more sustainability. Because the project is real and relevant, you’re less likely to hear the “Why are we doing this?” question. Instead, you can ask them why they are doing it, and they should be able to have an in-depth answer that they are motivated to share with you and others.

Sustained Inquiry

In PBL, the project is usually the unit, and in order for it to be a good one, the authentic project needs to be wrapped up with many opportunities for sustained inquiry over a long period of time. In order to provide this opportunity for students, you need to have them continually asking meaningful questions, finding answers to their questions, and applying the information they have gathered to create their public product that answers the driving question or problem. Planning for this type of inquiry takes patience, flexibility, and intentionality around helping students develop good questions and gathering relevant information to answer the questions. One tool that may help you with your planning is the Searching for ANSWERS Inquiry Process. You can access resources and explore more in-depth articles in our AVID Open Access collection, Engage Students Through Inquiry Learning.


As pointed out in our AVID Open Access article, Set the Stage and Get Started With Project-Based Learning, the driving question should be open-ended and allow for many possible right answers. In order to answer the question, there should be lots of collaboration, in-depth research, and investigation. Students should have to engage in sustained inquiry, and the driving question should lead to more questions. Knowing that, where should students start?

Students need to begin by figuring out what they already know and what they need to know in order to answer the driving question or solve the problem. The educator’s role in questioning is to push students’ thinking and coach them in their creation of questions. A great questioning technique that students might use is called the Question Formulation Technique (QFT), which was created by the Right Question Institute. You can go to their website and register for free access to their resources, which will walk you through the QFT process. You can also use this Question Formulation Student Worksheet Template to support the QFT. With the QFT process, students will have help prioritizing and improving questions, as they will be identifying what questions must be answered in order to answer the driving question, which questions are fixed, and which questions are open-ended.

Once questions are prioritized, then students need to find ways to answer their questions. Students need to go beyond just looking up information to answer their questions. Looking up information may be part of the research process, but in order to be truly authentic, students should engage in multiple means to find the answers to their questions. Students might conduct experiments, explore primary sources, interview and survey others, observe events, do a field study, and search for information online. To learn more about how to support students with each of these skills, check out our AVID Open Access article, Search and Seek Credible Information: Step 3 of the Searching for ANSWERS Inquiry Process.