4 Tips for Creating Successful Project-Based Learning Activities

Creating a new project-based learning (PBL) activity to engage and motivate  your students is exciting and filled with endless possibilities–until you need to plan it. Taking on too much at one time or trying to cover too many disciplines are common pitfalls that can turn a 2-3 week learning journey into an 8-week monster. But take heart, with some careful planning and implementation of the tips below, you will be well on your way to creating meaningful and relevant activities to support your students’ learning.

Thoughtful Planning

It may sound cliché, but thoughtful planning is key to success. Begin by thinking about what you want your students to know by the end of the project and work backward from there; soon, you’ll have a classroom-ready project that is mapped to your learning objectives and can be tweaked along the way to meet student needs. Remember to start small and set goals that can be met in a reasonable amount of time. If you’re new to project-based learning, this Essential Project Design Elements Checklist put together by the Buck Institute for Education can provide some guidance.

Pull From Current Events

One of the critical features of any project-based learning activity is real-world connections. According to PBL advocate Suzie Boss (2010), it’s important to “look for messy problems” which are “challenges for which there is no single right answer. You can’t Google a solution.” Newsela, which includes kid-friendly news articles about current events, can be used to help generate ideas for activities.

Apply Your Interests and Passions

What are you passionate about? Animals? Sports? Technology? Great activity ideas often come from our own passions and interests. Do you love being outdoors and exploring the natural world? Create a project that integrates elements of research, science, math, and/or design. For instance, create an activity around camping in which students think about and make decisions regarding supplies, meals, and how much their trip might cost. Students also could research plants and animals they might encounter during the trip. If you’re invested in and excited about a particular topic, chances are, your students will be too.

Generate Enthusiasm

What are your students interested in? What gets them excited? This will depend on grade level, but if you can discover what generates enthusiasm in your students, you can create projects around those interests. For example, teacher Sarah Carter (2016) had her students use historical knowledge gained through their World History class to identify inaccuracies in Disney films. Another educator, David Hunter (2016), used the current zombie trend to create a project that integrates geography. These are just two ways in which tapping into pop culture can turn into a solid and fun PBL activity.

Getting started creating a project-based learning activity may seem like an overwhelming task at first. Starting slowly, thinking backward, and injecting your passions, student interests, and relevant events into the activity can make the creation process enjoyable and rewarding for all. For additional ideas and more information regarding project-based learning activities, check out this Teacher’s Guide to PBL  and complete guide to project-based learning.