7 Steps To Plan Project Based Learning

Mar 13, 2024 | PBL

7 Steps To Plan Project Based Learning

by Drew Perkins, Director of ThoughtStretchers Education

In our PBL Workshops, we help educators learn how to design and implement project based learning by engaging in PBL. The workshop Driving Question is usually something like, “How can we create projects that better prepare students for the modern world?” As part of the workshop we help participants learn how to plan project based learning experiences and these 7 steps are a guide to do just that.

It is important to note that these steps should all be completed and generally the order as presented here is useful but the planning process demands iterations and revision based on what surfaces in the other planning steps.

Step 1: Determine Learning Outcomes

Almost every PBL experience should have predetermined academic or learning outcomes. There are occasions, like passion projects, where that’s not the case but in most academic settings there is course content, learning targets, or something similar that teachers want students to learn. Identifying these desired learning outcomes, knowledge, and more is key because it informs everything else in the project.

Step 2: Begin Iterating the Driving Question by Clarifying the Product, Purpose, Audience

We advocate teachers use a ”DQ ‘Starter’ Template” to help clarify the product, purpose, and audience. The initial versions of your Driving Question are likely to feel clunky but as you work through the planning process you’ll return to revise and iterate it to make it more elegant. For more, see How Do I Write A Driving Question For PBL?

Step 3: Determine the Details of the Culminating Event

Many project based learning experiences end with some sort of presentation but that isn’t always the case. Depending on your product and audience, you’ll want to decide what the project endpoint will be. How and when will students demonstrate their learning and share their products with their authentic audience? This can, and probably should, include individual summative assessments that might look quite traditional. Once you have that clarified you can begin to work backward.

Step 4: Sequence the Calendar and Milestones

As you plan backward from the culminating event you’ll want to develop some sort of project calendar. This should include the daily lessons and learning targets that should show up as ‘Need to Knows‘ as well as any larger milestones important to project completion. This part of the planning process is too often overlooked and teachers end up in “build the plane as you fly it” mode.

Step 5: Plan Scaffolding and Assessments

Along with step 4, this planning is crucial for a successful project based learning experience but is commonly de-emphasized for a variety of reasons. Some teachers become too narrowly focused on the logistics of the project and neglect the granular planning of lessons and assessments. In other cases, some PBL advocates lean into the myth that teachers don’t need to do much teaching inside of a project. I couldn’t disagree more.

I like John Hattie’s idea of ‘teaching with intent‘ and aligning your teaching approach to the surface, deep, and transfer learning you should have identified in step 1. This means that you’ll combine direct instruction principles like those summarized by Rosenshine, inquiry exercises like the Question Formulation Technique, and collaborative group activities depending on which learning outcomes you target throughout the project lessons.

⇒ Click to View our PBL Project Planning Starter Doc ⇐

Step 6: Plan Your Entry Event for the Launch

Project based learning doesn’t have to be a moonshot kind of experience. It can be brief and fairly simple but regardless, it is important to be thoughtful about how you’ll launch and enter students into the project. This Entry Event doesn’t have to be overly complex either but sometimes using a memorable experience can be helpful to capture student imagination. Regardless, the launch is the time you’ll make it clear what the project is about, who the authentic audience is, and perhaps help students understand why this is something worth working on.

Step 7: Plan for Productive Group Work

PBL typically sees students working together in groups and you’ll want to prepare them for success and productivity with tools and systems. To avoid the prevalent and maddening problem of social loafing we advocate for group contracts and some other tools for student accountability. Learning to collaborate well with others is important and we want to be proactive so we’re not short-circuiting project progress and learning with dysfunctional groups.

As I mentioned, these steps are to be used as a working guide, with each one to be revised and refined as you work on the others. Our 5 Phases of PBL is a useful companion to these planning steps and if you’re looking for more of a deep dive, our PBL Workshops and PBL On-Demand online course can be great next steps.

One piece of advice that I share regularly is to be diligent in your planning process before launching projects with your students. Don’t make the mistake of prioritizing behavioral engagement over cognitive engagement. If students aren’t thinking and learning about important academic content and concepts throughout the process you’re likely doing a project instead of robust PBL.


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