Sunday, September 8, 2013

Problem Based Learning in the Classroom

In an effort to better my teaching practices I stumbled upon some really valuable teaching articles that I think everyone needs to be aware of.  Each of them deals with PBL, or Problem Based Learning, and provides specific examples of projects that were used as well as the role of students and teachers in the process.

What is PBL?

To me, the greatest aspect of PBL, is that the students are the ones providing the direction for the project.  In one example in an article entitled, “More Fun Than a Barrel of . . . Worms?!” a class came up with a project on cystic fibrosis. This was adopted as a project when the students, “Became concerned about one of their classmates frequent trips to the hospital.”  The class researched the disease, asked experts and then raised money, which was donated to cystic fibrosis research.  As the mother of the student said, “I think it has given the children a better understanding of what my daughter has to go through on a daily basis.”

In another article, “Geometry Students Angle into Architecture Through Project Learning,” the teacher lays out the guidelines for the project and the actual product that is produced is up to the students to create.  In this instance the students need to develop a school for the year 2050 that fits within the criteria laid out by the teacher.  What the school looks like, how it is laid out, even the landscaping are up to the student to create and validate the reasons for their choice.  Just as before, the students are the ones driving the direction of the project and the final product that is produced. 

As a teacher I was left wondering how does someone assess a project that can take on any form and have any outcome.  Well, that was answered when Eeva Reeder, the teacher in charge of the school design project I just mentioned, stated, “Many forms of assessment determine the grade each student receives.”  She is saying that in order for a teacher to accurately assess what is going on during these projects, constant feedback and suggestions must be provided throughout the experience.  This to me was a relief as an educator, as I hate placing a tremendous amount of points on a final summative assessment.  As all teachers know, some students just do not test well. 

Inside the third article I reviewed on PBL, “March of the Monarchs,” the need for technology is brought up as they discuss the migration on Monarchs from Mexico. “Students at more than 6,000 schools make observations and report their sightings to create a digital map.”  The students are able to collaborate with students throughout the country using a website that traces the migration of the Monarchs as they fly north.  Without this technology, the project would be impossible to accomplish with the same sense of community and instantaneous feedback.  As with the project on cystic fibrosis and the design of the school, technology makes the projects more authentic for the students. 

Also a key component of each of these three PBL projects was the inclusion of experts in the field.  The Journey North website is linked with scientists who work with the students and take questions throughout the migration.  The students working on the cystic fibrosis PBL were able to ask two representatives from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.  Finally, those students who designed the school were able to meet with actual architects who donated their time to come and meet with the students to provide guidance on the project.

In all of these examples certain circumstances and principals were in common.  First, a problem was clearly identified, but the solution to that problem was left open ended for the students to solve.  Second, assessment was used throughout the process in order to get a true gage of students understanding and work levels.  Third, all of the research and work was driven by the students themselves and not the teacher.  This is the opposite of what a traditional project is, as the teacher has the end project in mind, but in PBL the students determine the end.  Fourth, student’s use of technology allows for a deeper more meaningful experience.  Finally, each of these PBL experiences use experts to further the learning of the students and bring the community into the classroom.

Student Impact

This is all fine and great, but how does it impact student learning.  I know that my district is really pushing us towards standards, especially Common Core.  Every lesson needs to address the standards is a mantra that my administration pushes on us all the time.  So as I read through these articles it was with a lens towards how this will benefit the students.  In one PBL, about a stock market , the teacher, “Fulfilled twenty-four state standards . . . including estimating and measuring weight and mass, writing effective narratives and explanations, using evidence to support opinions in oral communication, investigating and understanding the interaction of plants in an ecosystem, and communicating through application software.”   As one PBL teacher states, “We've got to know our curriculum.  We’ve got to know the standards inside and out.”  This focus on real world applications that are rooted in teaching standards impacts the students in tremendous ways.

At a Virginia school, “Between 1997 and 2000, the percentage of fifth graders passing the Virginia Standards of Learning test increased from 35 percent to 65 percent in math, from 52 percent to 79 percent in science, and from 53 percent to 65 percent in English.” For those students in the class that design the school building, the teacher reports that, “She consistently scores the highest retention rate in geometry classes in the math department.”  To me what this boils down to is this: When students can see the meaning and real world application of what they are doing, they are more interested.  This leads to higher engagement, which in turn leads to a deeper understanding and as a result higher achievement on assessments.  This increase in knowledge, in real world settings allows for the transfer of knowledge or as a student stated, “If you find it yourself, it stays in your brain.” A parent of a child using the PBL approach summed it up best when they stated, “It gets these kids excited about a subject both inside and outside of school.  There’s actually a visible hunger to learn.”  With the desire to learn and with it “staying in your brain” the students are able to take what is learned in one discipline and apply it to other areas.  Again, I think back to the teacher who hit 24 standards in one lesson, and am amazed at the potential for growth that could occur if I adopted this strategy in my own room.


For a PBL project to work the roles of the both the teacher and the student must be clearly defined.  Again, these articles provide a clear understanding of what is expected of both.  For the teacher, it is necessary to, “create a program that meets student’s academic, emotional, and creative needs.”  It is also important to provide the students with the scoring guidelines and the start of the project, allowing them to tailor their project to the standards being assessed.  Finally, this type of assignment requires, “Flexibility and the ability to take a kernel of an idea and set it off in a productive direction.”  Basically, the work that a teacher puts into a PBL project is very front loaded, allowing the students the creativity they strive for inside a clearly defined framework.  I know that for me, my biggest fear in this process would be for the students to produce something that truly has no value, or does not meet the standards that you envisioned.  However, the process in which to engage the students and prevent this from happening is also laid out.

The role of the students is defined by Sylvia Chard, a professor at Canada’s University of Alberta.  She lays out three phases for the students to follow in a PBL classroom.  “Phase 1 involves engaging children in an initial discussion of a topic, allowing them to share any experiences that relate to the topic, and coming up with a list of questions they want to investigate.  During phase 2, students do field work, meet with experts, gather information from the Internet and other sources, and them compile the information in a variety of forms, from written and picture portfolios to Web pages and computer-generated brochures.  Phase 3 concludes with a presentation.”  By having the students follow these three phases they are able to produce a product that is their work and fits the standards of the assignment.  However, the most important part of the process is the reflection.  As the teacher in charge of the school design stated, “We learn by doing and by thinking about what we’ve done.  It’s like learning twice when you reflect.  It unquestionably deepens understanding.”

By having the teachers adequately prepare the project by doing the amount of work to clearly define the goals, standards and expectations of the students, the students will know what is expected.  This is further reinforced by providing students with the scoring criteria at the start of the unit.  Armed with this information the students are able to take their creativity and explore the assignment within the guidelines that have been established by the teacher.  As the students conduct their field work they are depending on themselves and their partners to come up with the answers.  Finally, the students need to reflect on their work providing the reflection and last area of learning for the project.


After reading this post, I hope that you have come to the conclusion that PBL is worth implementing in your own classroom.  It provides students with an opportunity to be creative in a structure in which they can also be creative.  As a teacher the standards you are assessing are clearly defined and the project to the students is more real.  However, the best part of PBL is that it provides an honest assessment of the students understanding.  This is achieved because you as the teacher are monitoring and providing feedback throughout the entire process, and not just focusing on one project at the end of a unit.  The most important thing is this, when students are interested in what they are doing, their engagement increases, and as a result, so does their learning.


Armstrong, S. (2002). Geometry students angle into architecture through project learning.  Retrieved from

Curtis, D. (2002). March of the monarchs: Students follow the butterflies’ migration.  Retrieved from

Curtis, D. (2001). More fun than a barrel of… worms?!  Retrieved from




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  2. Excellent post and review of PBL exemplars! Student engagement plus deeper learning is, indeed, a powerful combination.