How to Plan Project-Based Learning


When I was new to project-based learning, I found it difficult to plan. I knew this style of teaching would benefit my students, but starting seemed so difficult. This post will help you plan project-based learning without having to do hours of research.

Not sure what project-based learning is? Start by reading this post first!

Choose a topic that will inspire your students

The hardest part of planning project-based learning is choosing a topic that both aligns to standards and inspires your students. I even wrote an entire book to share topic ideas with teachers struggling to do this. I also wrote a blog post dedicated to choosing a topic. The best advice I can give you to answer this question is to gather information, then make a final decision based off of these three questions:

  1. What are you and your students interested in?
  2. What authentic audience and expert speakers do you have locally?
  3. What tools do you have available to you?

Once you have some topic ideas, brainstorm how to include the real-world application of some of the standards you need to teach.

A photograph of elementary school students working together

Know the elements

It’s important to be prepared with some questions on the main elements of PBL. My free planning guide includes these elements organized into tables to help make planning easy!

  • Significant Content: At its core, the project is focused on teaching students important knowledge and skills, derived from standards and key concepts at the heart of academic subjects.
  • 21st-Century Competencies: Students build competencies valuable for today’s world, such as problem-solving, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity/innovation, which are explicitly taught and assessed.
  • In-Depth Inquiry: Students are engaged in an extended, rigorous process of asking questions, using resources, and developing answers.
  • Driving Question: Project work is focused by an open-ended question that students understand and find intriguing, which captures their task or frames their exploration.
  • Need to Know: Students see the need to gain knowledge, understand concepts, and apply skills in order to answer the Driving Question and create project products, beginning with an Entry Event that generates interest and curiosity.
  • Voice and Choice: Students are allowed to make some choices about the products to be created, how they work, and how they use their time, guided by the teacher and depending on age level and PBL experience.
  • Critique and Revision: The project includes processes for students to give and receive feedback on the quality of their work, leading them to make revisions or conduct further inquiry.
  • Public Audience: Students present their work to other people, beyond their classmates and teacher.

Inquiry & choice is so important in project-based learning. In regular assignments, you’re looking for all students to get one correct answer. In PBL, there are many ways that students can complete the project correctly. The variety allows for choice and free thinking!

Think about the process

Even though PBL is driven by the students, you will need to have the structure in place. Think about the following:

  • How will students critique and revise?
  • What 21st-century tools will they use?
  • Who will be the audience they present their final project to?

A photograph of teenage students working together

Decide how you’ll handle classroom management

For teachers that are used to a very rigid classroom, project-based learning can be very scary. Be prepared to give your students more freedom, but take time to practice procedures. You’re going to want procedures for accessing supplies, discussion, and actual work. You’ll also need a procedure for early finishers or students that get stuck. Check out my blog post on classroom management for more information!

Plan Project-Based Learning Example

Explicitly plan out how you will incorporate each element of PBL into your lesson. You can use the Project-Based Learning Planning Pages below [free]. Next, pace out each day’s lesson. The closer you follow the PBL structure in your plan, the better the lesson will go.

Photograph of pages to plan project based learning with the title "Example Lesson" at the top

Pre-Planned Resources

Don’t have time to plan your own projects? Check out the resources below for standards-based project-based learning.

Ready to Get Started?

Read the rest of the posts in this series!

#1 – How to Plan Project-based Learning

#2 – The Driving Question

#3 – Differentiated Instruction for PBL

#4 – Classroom Management during PBL

#5 – Rubrics and Self-Assessment


April Smith

Curriculum Writer and Online Professional Development Coach. 


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