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Common Challenges of PBL, and How to Avoid Them

Research shows that project-based learning has a profound impact in deepening educational experiences for students. I’ve seen first-hand the power of PBL in the classroom.

That being said, when a PBL unit doesn’t achieve its desired outcomes, it can feel overwhelming and challenging to teachers. I know I’ve been there, especially in my early days of implementing PBL in my classroom!

In this blog post, I am sharing a few common challenges that teachers may face when implementing project-based learning in their classrooms, along with some tips and solutions to overcome these problems.

Challenge #1: Identifying What PBL is vs. What PBL isn’t

Before implementing PBL as an approach to teaching and learning in your classroom, it is useful to understand the difference between “doing projects” and project-based learning.

PBLWorks describes the difference between PBL and “doing projects” by using a metaphor to describe the relationship between the two: dessert vs. the main course.

What PBL isn’t

A “dessert” project typically consists of students creating a final product at the end of a unit, after the content has been delivered through traditional lessons.

A “dessert” project, or “doing a project,” is an add-on to the traditional instruction: such as making a diorama after reading a novel, or making a presentation after researching a famous figure in history. While these activities are fun and certainly can have educational value, they don’t qualify as PBL.

What PBL is

In project-based learning, the project is the “main course.” Project-based learning is an approach to teaching and learning where students actively explore real-world problems and challenges through projects. The project itself is used to teach content, skills, and standards.

In PBL, teachers are viewed as coaches that provide a structure or framework to guide students through the learning process. But the learning comes from the students. The learning is student-centered and prioritizes student voice and choice. 

Solution to this Challenge

I recommend using this blog post as a guide to planning your PBL unit.

As you plan, incorporate these seven essential project design elements: (1) challenging problem or question, (2) sustained inquiry, (3) authenticity, (4) student voice and choice, (5) reflection, (6) critique and revision, and (7) public product. 

For more information on getting started with PBL, you can also visit my PBL resource tab here.

Challenge #2: Balancing Process vs. Product

Project-based learning emphasizes process over product.

However, it can sometimes feel tricky to balance process and product, particularly when teachers are often asked to present evidence of student learning. We know and value the learning process and the reality is that our students need to produce a project that can be assessed.

Project-based learning is largely an inquiry-driven process, meaning that students will often be attempting to solve real-world problems by asking critical and thoughtful questions.

Frank McKay writes, “If we think of the product as the destination, inquiry is the engine that powers the bus to get us there” (Edutopia).

At the same time, we do not want our students to create low quality projects that do not accurately reflect their learning and comprehension.

So, how do we strike a balance between process vs. product?

Solution to this Challenge

As you plan a PBL unit, I recommend considering these two key areas: (1) the learning goals and standards this project addresses, and (2) the end goal you have in mind.

Start planning by determining which learning goals and standards the unit will address. Then, consider what a final project might look like that successfully meets those goals and standards. Lastly, consider assessing students throughout the project process, rather than just on their final product.

How will you, as the teacher, know that students have acquired the target skills, content, and standards at the end of a project?

Challenge #3: Implementing Classroom Management Strategies

Project-based learning classrooms can feel very different from traditional classroom environments – for teachers, students, and observers. Because of this, students may not be familiar with this new environment, which can lead to a variety of classroom management needs.

Some students may feel overwhelmed by too much choice and ambiguity. Other students may struggle to collaborate with their peers. And a variety of other needs may arise as well.

While every classroom is different – and every student’s needs are different – there are some approaches that you can consider taking to help manage needs as they arise.

Solution to this Challenge

Project-based learning isn’t a one-size-fits-all. And neither is classroom management. That being said, I have a few tips to keep in mind that may help with classroom management:

  • Begin each PBL unit by setting clear expectations and goals for students. Much like how you set expectations and standards for other lessons, do the same with PBL!
  • Avoid giving students too much choice in the beginning. While projects like Genius Hour that are very student-centered with a lot of student choice can have so many benefits, I always recommend starting small when you are new to PBL. For example, start off by giving students a few choices to select from (i.e. their final product mediums or their project topics). Then, you can always explore adding more choice as you feel more comfortable teaching using this approach!
  • Think strategically about project groups and conflict resolution. Have students reflect on what group work should look like, feel like, and sound like. Give an intentional lesson about group work – students aren’t often explicitly taught how to collaborate! What roles will group members have? How will group members divide work? What does it mean for work to be fair? Consider having small groups form their own expectations and guidelines.

Thank You!

Thank you for reading this blog post about common PBL challenges (and how to avoid them)! What other challenges have you encountered? Let me know in the comments below!

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