An Introduction to the Principles of Project-Based Learning

“But why do I need to learn about biology? When will I ever need to use algebra? Who cares about what happened in Rome 2000 years ago?” 

If you’ve ever heard these questions, you know how meaningful it is for students to understand why it is important to learn certain subjects, and how they can apply this knowledge in their daily lives. Project-based learning is an instructional method that clarifies this relationship between knowledge and application. 

What is Project-Based Learning? 

Simply put, project-based learning is a teaching method in which students apply knowledge to solve an authentic problem or challenge. Unlike summative projects, which typically occur after students have completed a series of lessons on a topic, in project-based learning, the project is the lesson. Project durations may be short (a few days), or they may cover an entire semester. 

According to the Buck Institute for Education, the “Gold Standard” for PBL must include the following project design elements: 


  • A challenging problem or question


PBL begins by asking a driving question. The question should be meaningful to students and to the real world, and should be appropriate for their age and experience. Effective driving questions are focused and should communicate the purpose of the project. They should also answer the question “Why am I learning this?”


  • Sustained inquiry


A key consideration when developing a driving question is the capacity for sustained inquiry. The project and question need to be rigorous enough to support investigation and application, while stimulating student interest. Questions with simple answers are not well-suited for PBL.


  • Authenticity


Authentic projects are designed to address a real and relevant need, such as providing clean water to a community or planting a pollinator garden. Authentic projects may also involve realistic scenarios, such as mock trials, or the use of real tools such as scale models.


  • Student voice & choice


Open-ended questions give students the opportunity to make choices about which direction they want to take with the project, and allow for a variety of outcomes. 


  • Reflection


Throughout project-based learning, provide opportunities for students to self-reflect on their progress. This includes documenting any challenges and new questions that arise. 


  • Critique & revision


Allow opportunities for peer review. By reading their classmates’ work, students can re-evaluate and revise their own approach to the project.  


  • Public product


Publishing the finished product to a forum that goes beyond the classroom affirms that the work has value in the real world. 

As with any instruction, project-based learning should address standards and objectives that are appropriate for your classroom. PBL is well-suited for in-person and online learning. Support student success by breaking the project into manageable segments, and offer frequent checkpoints throughout the process of research, collaboration, and publication. Use forms or self-assessments to document project work that students do offline. 

So, when a high school student asks why biology is important, consider PBL that focuses on how to apply biology to today’s medical or environmental issues. When a middle school student feels frustrated about why she has to learn algebra, consider PBL that applies algebra to a fundraiser or meal planning. When an elementary student struggles to make the connection between ancient history and today, consider PBL that examines the influence of an ancient society on our modern world.  

Students engage in deeper learning experiences when they work towards the process of solving a challenge. This creative discovery process helps students learn to ask important questions, while taking some of the mystery out of why learning matters.  



“What is PBL?” PBLWorks, Buck Institute for Education.

Brengard, Aaron. “Four Ways to Think about Authenticity – Through the Lens of Gold Standard PBL Videos.” PBLWorks, Buck Institute for Education. 22 Aug 2018.

Miller, Andrew. “How to Write Effective Driving Questions for Project-Based Learning.” Edutopia, George Lucas Educational Foundation. 20 Aug. 2015.

Orlando, John. “Understanding Project-Based Learning in the Online Classroom.” Faculty Focus, Higher Ed Teaching & Learning, 5 Feb. 2016. 

Spencer, John. “How to Make PBL a Reality in a Distance Learning Environment.” 14 April 2020.