How to Make PBL Your Lifelong Partner

As educators, we often talk about how our job is “all about relationships.” The same can be said of an educator’s relationship with their favorite strategies, methodologies, and overall pedagogy. My favorite instructional methodology is project-based learning.

In my book, Sustainable Project-Based Learning: 5 Steps to Designing Authentic Classroom Experiences in Grades 5-12, I have seen the benefit of project based learning in classrooms that have maintained a long-term commitment to PBL. But there are stages of developing a relationship with PBL, and each is important. Just like a relationship with a life-long partner, there are four stages in a relationship with PBL: flirting, dating, engaged, and married.

Let’s unpack this analogy as it pertains to project-based learning.

Wood people figures holding hands

Stage 1: Flirting with Project-Based Learning Ideas

Sure, you use things like simulations and choice boards in your work already, but you never forget the first time you saw or heard about PBL. Perhaps it was in a college undergraduate class or through a colleague, or across the room at an education conference. There is a lot to be attracted to! Maybe you got project-based learning ideas by reading Wiggins and McTye’s brilliant book, Understanding by Design (ASCD, 2005). Backward planning a unit of study is something that resonated with you.

At first glance, PBL is very attractive. Consider its qualities and features:

  • Inquiry
  • Performance assessments
  • Utilizing outside professional experts
  • Student collaboration
  • Student choice
  • Revision
  • Reflection
  • Integration of key SEL or employability skills such as critical thinking, creativity, self-awareness, self-management, relationship skills, etc.
  • Students transferring their learning to real-world contexts

What is not to love? These qualities intrigue you to want to learn more.

Stage 2: Dating the Steps of Project-Based Learning

After reading some blogs on TCC and PBLWorks, you persuade your principal or curriculum coordinator to let you attend a PBL workshop. The workshop is highly engaging as you do a deep dive into the pedagogy, learning the design elements of PBL. You leave the workshop with project-based learning ideas and a PBL unit design that you are proud of. You have an entry document, you know what outside TCC experts you want to consult. You have a driving question; a plan for student collaboration; and a clear roadmap for key formative assessments or milestones in your project-based learning unit that you want your students to meet. The training has made you feel re-energized. Your PBL unit will be the most amazing educational experience of your life and your students’ lives.

You not only implement the PBL unit you planned at your workshop, but you are ready and excited to implement your 2nd unit.

In this stage of your relationship with PBL, the focus is on the fidelity to the pedagogy. That is to say, the reflection you are asking on your drive home is, “how well was my driving question written for my PBL unit?” As you reflect on your drive home, Mariah Carey’s song Always be my Baby starts playing on your Pandora Station.

You are in euphoria.

Stage 3: Engaged to the Project-Based Learning Unit

The first PBL units you implemented exceeded your expectations. Your student work even made it into an article in your local newspaper. It was the most engaged your students have ever been. The day after your students presented their public products to an authentic audience, you held a reflection session with them. All but 2 of your 150 students said that it was an amazing experience, and they loved it! As a result, you and PBL fell deeply in love.

However, you are now on your 5th PBL unit in the last couple of years, and you have had some ups and downs. Although highly engaged, sometimes you question if your students are truly learning surface-level content, like key academic vocabulary and basic facts, at the level they should. Sure, students can apply their learning and see real-world connections (because your driving questions are always amazing), but you are questioning some aspects of your units.

To add to your doubts about the integrity of PBL, your school recently did a book study on Dr. John Hattie’s book Visible Learning (Hattie, 2008). Your principal and department chairs cite effect sizes like expert statisticians. Every PD session you attend in your building explains how Dr. Hattie’s research has “spanned over 25 years, represents more than 1,850 meta-analyses comparing more than 108,000 studies involving more than 300 million students around the world.” (Hattie, 2021). Hattie determined that any influence with the effect size of higher .40 depicted more than one year’s growth in one year’s time. This research is difficult to argue with, and according to Corwin’s Visible Learning MetaX, PBL has an effect size of .35, and direct instruction has an effect size of .59. (Visible Learning MetaX, n.d.).

You come to the realization that this is just another of many steps in project-based learning, and if you and PBL are going to move forward in a life-long commitment, PBL has some questions to answer and some weaknesses to overcome. For the commitment to be sustainable, your relationship must be grounded in the integrity of the pedagogy and learning for each student.

For therapy and assurance, you come across Dr. Michael McDowell’s outstanding book, Rigorous PBL by Design (McDowell, 2017). McDowell answers some of these same questions. He addresses the gaps in your relationship with PBL in a matter-of-fact and practical manner, and you realize that Hattie’s high impact influences can be incorporated within the context of a PBL unit, such as ensuring that students have:

  • A clear learning intention for the PBL unit
  • Clear success criteria for each PBL unit
  • Clear reading, writing, and speaking tasks for each student

McDowell presents the idea that “Rigor may be best defined as the equal intensity and integration of surface, deep, and transfer learning. That is, knowing things, relating things, and applying things are all important, and rigor is the balance between these three levels.” (McDowell, 2022). You make this connection in your PBL units. What you are lacking is that “equal intensity” of the three levels of learning. Students are able to see some of the transfer connections when they are presenting their culminating public products. Still, a weakness on your side of the relationship with PBL has been intentionally teaching students surface-level knowledge.

You realize that, instead of asking the reflection question, “How well was my driving question written for my PBL unit?” The real question should be, “What is the evidence of student learning as a result of my driving question?” For example, what were students saying they needed to know in order to answer the driving question? Were those “need to knows” going to the heart of the content?

Now, your focus is on the fidelity of the pedagogy as well as the integrity of the evidence of student learning that is taking place.

It dawns on you that this relationship is going to have some challenges. When you were dating, you thought that you “had arrived” and that you fully understand all things education. You now realize that the focus transcends beyond just the pedagogy and is truly on the individual student learning. You will need to make personal adjustments to recognize your own biases and bad habits to meet the needs of your students.

The relationship is getting very serious.

Stage 4: Married to Project-Based Learning

As you make this final commitment to PBL, you reminisce about when you were dating; the PBL workshop you attended is still a fond memory. However, that was only one date. To make a connection to lesson or unit planning, the PBL workshop was the anticipatory set, or in PBL lingo, the entry event. The commitment to PBL truly lies in the ongoing conversations about learning you have with your students and colleagues before, during, and after your PBL unit implementation.

Just like in marriage, the focus should be on love; in PBL, your focus should always be on the evidence of student learning. To be married to PBL, it takes conducting ongoing teacher action research and focusing on three action research questions:

Action Research Question 1:

What is the Evidence of surface, deep, and transfer learning?


This action research question ensures the focus is on student learning and not just the pedagogy. Transfer learning was one of the qualities that attracted you to PBL. Still, evidence of surface and deep levels of learning are equally as important to maintain sustainability in the relationship.

Examples of actions that could be taken:

  • Designing project benchmarks/milestones to show evidence of student learning at each of the three levels (surface, deep, transfer).
  • Designing formative assessments to assess students at each of the levels
  • Using teacher collaboration/PLC time to analyze student work from each of the three learning levels

Action Research Question 2:

How are we defining SEL or employability skills and being intentional about giving students feedback in their growth in those skills?


The key to this question is to add clarity around the SEL skill. For example, if the SEL skill is self-awareness, co-define what that means with your students within the context of the PBL unit you are implementing.

Examples of actions that could be taken:

  • To make this manageable, simply choose one SEL/employability skill per PBL unit to intentionally focus and give students feedback on their growth.
  • You might find using some of the resources from the CASEL framework helpful.

Action Research Question 3:

How are we ensuring one year’s growth in one year’s time?


Hattie poses a great question in his research, considering the majority of our schools are based on having students for one year. As educators, no matter how much we debate how we assess students, we can all agree that individual student growth is important. Perhaps Dr. Hattie’s quantitative formula for measurement is too overwhelming for some, or some disagree with using effect size. Nonetheless, we should all measure how students are growing in their knowledge, understanding, and application when they are in our classrooms.

Examples of actions that could be taken:

  • Vertical articulation conversations between grade levels to determine where students should be when they begin the year and where they should be when they begin the year and where they should be at the end of the year specific courses.
  • Writing rubrics on formal writing assignments such as research papers, expository essays, literature reviews, etc.
  • Intentional use of PSAT 9, PSAT, SAT data to determine individual student growth.
  • Pre-assessments and most assessments for each unit are conducted in a way that students can see and reflect on their individual growth in surface, deep, and transfer learning levels.
  • Use some of the resources that are provided on the Visible Learning website, such as the achievement calculator tool.

Being married to PBL means being committed to reflecting on these three questions and having ongoing conversations around these three questions. This will lead to a long-term, healthy and sustainable relationship with PBL. These three questions go way beyond “puppy love” and ensure that the relationship is grounded in the evidence of student learning.

Cue the Mariah Carey.


Wiggins, Grant. McTye, Jay. (2005) Understanding by Design 2nd Edition. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Hattie, J. A. C. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.

Visible Learning+. (n.d.). The visible learning research. Accessed at on May 21, 2021.

Visible Learning MetaX. (n.d.). Global research database. Accessed at on February 21, 2022.

McDowell, M. (2017). Rigorous PBL by design: Three shifts for developing confident and competent learners. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

McDowell, M. (2022). 3 Strategies for Setting Up Rigorous Expectations with Students. Edutopia. Accessed at on February 25, 2022.

Innovate and Impact Instructional Practice through Rigorous PBL by Design

Rigorous PBL emphasizes three key shifts to project design and implementation:

  • CLARITY of learning outcomes and leveled success criteria at surface, deep, and transfer.
  • CHALLENGING students at their learning level through targeted instruction and feedback.
  • ENSURING a culture that focuses on students taking ownership over their learning.
Learn More!