Using Project-Based Learning for Meaningful Distance Learning


When schools first closed due to COVID-19, my initial thought (after I stopped panicking) was how important project-based learning (PBL) was going to be now. Let’s be honest – sending a ton of worksheets with instructions is exhausting for both teachers and parents. It’s like planning for a sub day every day, except you still have to show up.

Teaching students through guided inquiry in a PBL activity is a fantastic way to make distance learning meaningful. But, how do you keep students accountable and engaged?

Assigning Projects

There are a few things you will need to prepare before you assign a project. It can be a bit plan-heavy at first since most scenarios run about 2-3 weeks. My pre-made PBL activities are a good place to start because all of the materials and student work pages are included.

A project that’s meaningful for your students and their families is a great place to start. My personal favorite is using decimal operations to learn about and plan a personal budget. Students get to choose a career, car, house, and much more. There are so many wonderful connections to home that both parents and siblings can participate in.

Here is what to provide students with:

  • Any text or websites you’ll want them to use
  • The driving question
  • A schedule of each step you want them to take each day to progress towards their end product

After you assign this, your role will be to check in and support them.

The Teacher Role

In project-based learning, the teacher is there to guide and scaffold students. They provide mini-lessons (whole or small group) to students to teach them new skills, and they also ask a lot of guiding questions. Each day, they meet with students and groups to see their progress. A “to-do”, or task list, is a big driver of student work each day.

This is very similar to the roles teachers are taking during school closures. You can’t actually be with students all the time, but you can provide video mini-lessons and meet with students on video chat or over the phone. Check-ins are very important to this process.

Each day, check in with your students to see what they completed. You can do this in a discussion thread in Google Classroom, or via phone or video chat. Write down any common struggles and plan for how to assist your class with those. If there’s something you know your students will struggle with, such as adding fractions, pre-record a short lesson showing them how to do it. This is also good for their parents to be able to watch if they’re trying to help them.

Other Benefits

My favorite benefit of using project-based learning for distance learning is that I don’t have to send activities every day. Students spend a couple of weeks working through the project, many adding in things they’re interested in related to the topic along the way. I can focus on guiding them along and supporting each individual student.

You also don’t have to explain 20 different activities to parents each week. You explain what will happen with the project and can touch base as needed. Parents are really overwhelmed right now too, so this will be a relief for them!

The topics I choose rely heavily on real-life scenarios, and parents really understand these. Kids love them, too!

digital PBL

I truly believe that once kids return to school, we will have a lot more digital and project-based learning. This has been a good trial of our skills as educators, and I know we’re going to come out ahead with even better strategies for our classrooms!


April Smith

Curriculum Writer and Online Professional Development Coach. 


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