The 8 Elements of Project Based Learning: A Model Project

As most of you know, the uber gods of PBL are BIE. I was first introduced to the BIE PBL ‘model’ from mate Dean Groom who handed me over what I still refer to as my ‘PBL Bible’ – a ring-binder full of the BIE Freebies that help teachers plan effective projects and keep students on track as they move through the different phases of each project. The cool thing is that you can use as much or as little as you want … PBL is a very personal process that (like all good teaching) should be tailored to the expertise and needs of the teacher and students. However, there are 8 Elements of Project Based Learning that can be called the ‘essential elements’ of PBL … keeping an eye on these and ‘testing’ your project design based on them can help you determine if what you’re creating isn’t just a ‘project’. I really like this statement from BIE contrasting PBL and traditional ‘projects’:

A typical unit with a “project” add-on begins by presenting students with knowledge and concepts and then, once gained, giving students the opportunity to apply them. Project Based Learning begins with the vision of an end product or presentation. This creates a context and reason to learn and understand the information and concepts.

I ripped the image below from the BIE website, you should really visit it cos it outlines the 8 Elements in a super-clear way: What is PBL?

So like I said above, whilst I’m not one for structure or rules, I do think that sticking to the above 8 elements of a quality PBL project is super important. Like BIE say, this makes for ‘rigorous, meaningful and effective Project Based Learning’. Anyway, I offered to share one of my PBL projects with the lovely Dayna Laur from BIE because she is showcasing how PBL can help teachers meet the Common Core standards at ISTE. In an email she asked if I could explain how my project meets all of the above 8 elements. So I thought it’d be nice to share that with you guys too … here goes! (Oh, and I rewrote the elements as questions … just so ya know.)

The Emo Project

Here is the project outline that I gave my students:

Does the project teach significant content?

Obviously a key component of the required content for English teachers to ‘teach’ is poetry. In Stage 5 (students in Year 9 and Year 10) we can choose whatever poets and poetry we like to teach however because my class is the Extension English class I wanted to challenge them to engage with more rich, complex poetry – that of Yeats, Auden and Eliot. Our Syllabus also requires Stage 5 students to spend time composing persuasive and analytical, critical texts that reflect their growing capacity to evaluate literary texts. This project required students to engage critically with the poetry and then develop their own personal response to it in light of the driving question. They had to present their interpretations in their essay and in their podcasts. Finally, our Syllabus requires students to stregthen their understanding of the ways in which texts reflect the world in which they were composed as well as relevance of the texts’ ideas to the students’ own world and experience. The decision to use a sub-culture they were all familiar with, ‘emo’, and then encourage them to consider how poets from a different era may be classified as ‘emo’ really engaged students in the process of researching context and connecting to the poetry as young 21st century kids. 

Does the project require critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and various forms of communication?

The students were confronted with a number of opportunties to engage in critical thinking and problem-solving during this project. The Driving Question is so open-ended that students were forced to ask a series of sub-questions in order to answer it. They did this through the use of a KWL table. Students spent time solving the problems of defining ‘emo’ and considering cliche, stereotypes and prejudice in relation to the ‘emo’ sub-culture. They had to think critically about the poets selected as possibly being ‘emo’ and consider why and how they might fit this genre of artistic expression. Of course students also had to work out how they would write an essay in response to the question, requiring serious criticism of the poets, their poetry and their intentions. Often students collaborated online via edmodo and face-to-face in class to try and solve the problem of ‘how to write an essay’. Finally, students were required to collaborate on the podcast which was created in small project teams and a big challenge for all of the students was understanding the podcast form, its features and considering the expectations, needs and interests of their online audience. Lots of problem-solving went into this part of the project!

Does the project require inquiry as part of the process of learning and creating something new?

As pointed out in the last paragraph, students were pretty much responsible for their research into the poets’ context and the poems themselves. They also had to use all of the resources at their disposal to work out how to make a quality podcast – this meant looking online for tutorials and examples as well as collaborating as a team. What I found the most exciting about this project was the fact that I did not know one of the poems set for the students – had never even read it – and yet the students’ essays about it were phenomenal! The same can be said for the podcasts, I didn’t know how to make them, or what technology to use … the students had to do the research themselves, had to ask each other good questions and solve any problems they encountered in order to create something new – their podcast and their essays!

Is the project organized around an open-ended Driving Question?

Yes! The driving question wasn’t easy to write, even though it seems so simple: Why do emos write poetry? Let me tell you, there were so many versions of this question before I pared it right back to what it is now. I think the question is good because it is open-ended and I really was impressed by the range of responses the students developed. I loved the task of getting the students to write their initial hypothesis in response to the question and posting this to edmodo to share with the class. They then had to ‘test’ this hypothesis through the process of inquiry. It was also really worthwhile having them look back at their original hypothesis at the end of the project to see how their ideas had changed. I think a good driving question should have the possibility of being answered multiple ways as well as encouraging further questions.

Does the project create a need to know essential content and skills? 

Yes! As outlined above the students instantly had a bunch of questions that they wanted to know the answers to – these were put in the ‘I want to know/I wonder’ column of their KWL table. Because the students knew what the final product and presentation were they could easily identify the content and skills that they had to master in order to succeed. Every lesson the students were driven by their need to know something new in order to complete the project – they were encouraged to write a quick ‘goal’ at the beginning of each lesson that helped them focus on what they needed to do. Each student had a different ‘goal’ depending on what part of the project they were working on each day. At the end of the lesson they reflected on their learning and if they achieved their goals they got a ‘medal’ and if they didn’t, or they identified another need to know, they listed this as a ‘mission’ for the next lesson.

Does the project allow some degree of student voice and choice?

This project probably had less student choice than others but there was heaps of opportunity for student input. The students could select which poems they wrote about in their essays and podcasts. They also had the choice of whether to create a podcast or a vodcast (one team elected the vodcast). The format of the podcast and its content was completly up to the students as well which resulted in very different products – the perfect result of a PBL project!

Does the project include processes for revision and reflection?

I am a massive advocate for providing students with timely and effective feedback. This is particularly important with more formal writing tasks like essays where students can become quite anxious about content and form. Students submitted essay plans and drafts to edmodo and received teacher feedback on both. The drafts were particularly important as I used the annotate feature in edmodo to give them feedback on elements that needed some more work. Using edmodo students also shared their essays to get peer-feedback and ask for help from their peers. Students also used a self-assessmet checklist that clearly outlined the ‘goals’ for a good essay as well as room for the student and teacher to indicate the ‘medals’ (what they mastered) and the ‘missions’ (what they needed to work on). You can see that document below. I had a number of students continue to resubmit their essays until they were deemed ‘perfect’. This saw students achieve an unprecedented level of success in essay-writing that they had never experienced before. At the end of the project students all completed a project evaluation that helped them reflect on how the project helped them to learn, what they found hard etc. This was super useful information for me too because I ensured some of the questions related to my pedagogy!

Does the project involve a public audience?

Yes – the students presented their podcasts to their class and to our project ‘rock-star’ - author Craig Schuftan. You can read more about that by clicking on the link further down. The students’ evaluations of this project revealed that having Craig come and listen to the presentations as well as giving the students feedback as a professional meant heaps to them. It made them see that this was an authentic learning task – people really do write about poetry and create podcasts about literature!

Here is a link to completed emo podcasts.

Here is the letter I got from Craig Shuftan – our ‘rock-star‘, woot!

Here is the rubric for the essay and the feedback checklist using Petty’s ‘Goals/Medals/Missions’ scaffold.

Here is an exemplar student essay.

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9 thoughts on “The 8 Elements of Project Based Learning: A Model Project

  1. This is a very nice “full” post with lots of great stuff to show newbies and others who are not quite sure what PBL is supposed to look like. As you said, the folks at BIE have created materials that we all can use to become a better PBL teacher and, in turn, our students will obtain knowledge at a much deeper level. Nice post!

    • Thanks Chris – as always, appreciate your feedback! I hope it helps some teachers who are umming and ahhhing about using PBL cos of a concern that it might not meet the outcomes/standards :)

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  4. My class summative assessments are project-based, but I have really been flying by the seat of my pants. Your blog helped me think through crucial elements of a project, as well as ways to communicate with my students. This semester I teach a class in Church history for juniors (yep, a Catholic high school) and a class in social justice for seniors. It’s the Church history one that hasn’t been all that much fun for the kids. The perception is that history is dull and consists of memorization and that Church history is even worse. I am going to have them choose teams and provide them with some provocative questions to research (they choose one). I’m giving them the questions this time, but they will design their own question for the end-of-semester project. For this first project I was thinking of having them do a Common Craft style video. But a vodcast is an interesting alternative. Your blog has given me ideas for framing the project for them. Thanks!

    • Thanks so much for your kind words, Laura! PBL really is a very difficult, hands-on, time-consuming pedagogy but it is also very rewarding! What a great idea to allow students to address and then design provocative questions about Church history – make sure you share with me the results! @biancah80

  5. Pingback: 4 projects and 26 poems for Year 10 students |

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