Differentiated Instruction for Project-Based Learning


In the past I’ve shared many PBL activities that I’ve completed in my classroom. When I first heard about Project-based Learning, I was hesitant to try it because I had a many students labeled special education, ELL, or ED. I knew how to differentiate for these students with a textbook or a worksheet. It was scary to try something new with these students and explore different aspects of differentiated instruction.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that good project-based learning has differentiated instruction built in. If you’ve seen my Youtube video about the essential elements of PBL, you may already have seen some of the elements of PBL that allow for differentiation. I also talked a little bit about this topic in my Classroom Management During Project-based Learning post earlier this month.

Today I’ll break it all down for you, and give you some real ideas to use in your classroom to help differentiate during PBL!

Different approaches of lesson delivery

In project-based learning, students have many chances to understand the content. Before you start planning a PBL, you always want to have a goal in mind. What skills do you want them to practice? What do you want them to show in the end? Once you’ve answered those questions, you can come up with multiple ways to deliver the information to help with differentiated instruction. This connects close with different learning styles. What learning styles do you have in your classroom, and what approaches of lesson delivery have worked well with these students?

Here are some easy things to incorporate into PBL to deliver your lesson in different ways:

  • Videos
  • Reading selections
  • Writing assignments
  • Building a 3D model
  • Discussion

Different learning styles

One of the essential elements of PBL is student choice and voice. Not only do students have a choice in how to show what they’ve learned in the project they turn in, but they also have several choices throughout the project. All of my math-focused project-based learning activities include a choice in each step. Students can choose where they want to go with their project and how to get there. Everyone has to do the math calculations, but it can be done with the strategies and tools that work for the individual student. PBL gives students a chance to learn through technology, text, art, multimedia, and much more. It accommodates every learning style with built-in differentiated instruction.

Related Resources

Grouping to differentiate

During PBL, I strategically move my groups around often. Not only does it keep it fresh and new for students, but it allows for me to implement differentiated instruction through grouping.

Every year I’ve had one or two students that other students just don’t like working with. Moving groups around a lot keeps students from getting frustrated with each other. Sometimes I pull small groups of advanced learners to challenge them or struggling students to give extra help, but I usually walk around to facilitate learning and leave my time open for whoever needs me. With correct grouping, I only have one or two students at a time that really need me to intervene or help.

Don’t forget to plan questions for low and high students before you start project-based learning. You can pose these questions individually and in small groups. I’ve been adding suggested discussion questions to all of my project-based learning activities because these questions really guide the students to your intended outcome!

Different groups to try in your classroom:

  • Create homogeneous groups & pull a small group of struggling students.
  • Group heterogeneous groups.
  • Group students by interests. There are a lot of choices during PBL, so get some students together that make the same choice!
  • Try groups of 2, 3, or 4.
  • Try partnerships of 1 boy + 1 girl.
  • Allow time for students to work independently, but leave an area if they want to come work in a “whisper group”.
  • Give group or class roles

Using a rubric to differentiate

We have all encountered students that have incredible intelligence and talents, but fail every multiple choice test. I know it’s scary to take a step back from the big scary test and focus on making learning fun again. It took me a long time to get up the courage to do this, but I am so glad that I did. My students actually scored higher on the tests when I stopped directly teaching to the test!

Throughout PBL, I still give my students pre and post tests to check on the skills I want them to learn and practice throughout the activity. They’re not multiple choice because I want to see their process, and I only use them for informational purposes. I create grading rubrics for each PBL and give them to students before we even start, so that they know what I expect to see by the end of their project. We refer to the rubrics on a daily basis. The rubrics are open-ended and allow for students to show something in multiple ways. With a good rubric, every single student can show some sort of success and achievement.

Rubrics also allow students to show growth. I had a student the first year I began using PBL that scored a zero on every test and had absolutely no self-confidence. She struggled with basic math skills. There was no way she was going to pass a 5th grade test when she was still working on 2nd grade math skills. Handing her zeros every week was not helping her master those skills. During our first PBL (Kid in a Candy Store… it’s always a big hit!), she needed help on every single math calculation. I allowed her to use a calculator and helped her learn to use it. She mastered the calculator and we did all of the calculations together so that we could “check to make sure the calculator was accurate”. This allowed for her to be more independent and also work at the same pace of the other students. She blew her final project presentation out of the water by building a 3D candy display with actual candy at home one day. She used the math from the project to come up with the dimensions and amount of candy that went in the real display she built. Not only did she do the math, but she interpreted it correctly and put it into real context. To me that’s more important than any multiple choice test. This was her first of many successes in my classroom thanks to this approach for differentiated instruction.

Enrichment for advanced learners

I have a student this year that finishes everything in 20 minutes or less. When she’s done, she pushes the assignment aside and gets her book out to start reading. Her answers are all correct, and she’s not bothering the other students. How awesome is that? Not as awesome as it seems. I love that she’s reading a book, but I’m obviously not challenging her on the activity we’re working on. I’m missing a great opportunity to extend her learning every time she pushes that completed assignment to the corner of her desk.

I believe that challenging advanced learners is equally important to helping the struggling ones. A lot of times we’re so busy trying to help students catch up that we just don’t get to the gifted or advanced students. Having varying challenges built into your project-based learning allows you to differentiated for these learners without having to do anything extra during the actual activity.

One of the ways I differentiate for these learners is to give them more responsibility. When we do math PBL, I usually set them up in different parts of the classroom in special desks with a sign that says “accountant”. Students (including them) need to visit an accountant before they finalize their math for each step of of the PBL. Looking for errors in other student work and helping the student fix those errors helps these advanced learners master the standards themselves. They may be able to do the math on paper in 5 minutes, but it’s one step further if they can teach or explain it.

Another way I differentiate for these students is by creating extra challenge activities. My Create a Personal Budget PBL has a challenge activity built in- most students use gross monthly income, but advanced students calculate net monthly income using federal tax brackets. My Plan a Trip to Space PBL has great opportunities for researching space topics (including difficult distance and measurement problems). You always keep your struggling students in mind when planning activities, so don’t forget about your advanced students!

My Project-based Learning Activities include suggestions for differentiation!

Remember to keep in mind that great project-based learning takes time to plan and implement. Start small and don’t allow for yourself to get overwhelmed or burnt out! If you use a couple of these differentiation strategies and some tips you learned from my classroom management during PBL post, you’ll be sure to have success! If you teach 4th, 5th, or 6th grade, you can purchase ready-made project based learning to save yourself time and get ahead of the learning curve. You can also subscribe to my YouTube channel by clicking on the red subscribe box in the right corner beneath my green banner. You’ll see new videos on PBL pop up throughout the school year. And as always, you can e-mail me or contact me on social media with any questions about project-based learning!

Learn how to implement project-based learning in your classroom, from start to finish!

A horizontal graphic with the text "Project-based Learning Series" on it

#3 – Differentiated Instruction for PBL


One Response

  1. I totally agree and am glad to hear that you’re serious about it in your classroom! It can be time intensive, but it’s time well spent building real-life math skills. Thank you for your reply!

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April Smith

Curriculum Writer and Online Professional Development Coach. 


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