Skip to content

Steps in Designing a Quality PBL (in STEM or Other)

January 8, 2013

When we think of the learning continuum, we know that people remember more when they are participatory in their learning, and not just passive listeners.  We remember and understand action… i.e. we learn 20% of what we hear and 95% of what we teach.  Active learning trumps passive learning.  Doing trumps sitting.   It’s in this vain, that I continual look for ways to create meaningful active learning experiences for my students.

The most current buzzword or acronym for having students become active and participatory in their learning is referred to as a PBL (PBL stands for both Project-Based Learning and Problem-Based Learning activities).  So, in my own efforts to learn more about the intricacies of a PBL, I spent last summer seeking out as many quality PBL examples as I could find.  Unfortunately, what I found was discouraging.  Most PBLs fall into two categories:


Students working on projects across each of their classes BUT these projects are severely lacking in quality standards.  These PBLs are best categorized as “thematic” units and both teachers and kids really enjoy participating in these activities.  Think of a student in 7th grade doing a project about Ancient Egypt.  You know the project, where the student draws a lot of pictures, builds a pyramid, and dresses up to act out a skit.  The issue: at the end of the day, these experiences are more about fun than learning.  And these “projects” are extremely prevalent when you seek out project or problem based learning examples.


PBLs that take place in an isolated course.  These PBLs are well thought out by a single teacher or a small group of teachers who all teach the same course.  I like to refer to these PBLs as “mutually exclusive” units.  It’s the silo concept.  I go to math class at 9am and English class at 10am, and what I do at 9am never relates to what happens at 10am.

There is a third category, which is the category of really bad PBLs.  But lets not even go there.  Let’s just assume most educators and schools are at least able to fall into one of the two categories above when attempting to implement PBLs.  So the questions for me became, why can’t we do better?  Is this really the best we can do?

We can do better.

In my last post, I referenced designing strong STEM units of study.  Below is a framework for creating these units.  What I would like to note is that this framework is not STEM only specific.  This framework should and can be used for any collaborative project or problem based learning experience.  Items that the framework includes:

–Backwards Planning (and Understanding by Design principles)

–Quality Assessment Practices (including Assessment for Learning principles and Standards—Based Grading focus)

–Rubrics (by level of performance)

–Integrated Unit (connecting curricula across ALL content areas)

–Blended Learning (practices for Flipped Classroom)

I hope you find this design useful for your work.

Unit Design Process

1. Essential Question or Problem
This is the theme or central idea for the unit.  For my school, our central idea is always STEM related.  But for your school, it may be different.
Format: How do we __central idea__?
How do we prevent emerging strains of viruses from forming?
How do we mitigate the effects of 100-degree days in Chattanooga?
Design a new platform for gaming in the future. (The Essential Problem can be a statement.)

2. Learning Targets
These are statements that list what a student will learn in the unit.  It should begin with “I can” and state the knowledge and/or skill.  It should be written so that students can understand the statement.
Format: I can ___knowledge and/or skill____.

3. Performance Task
This is the task or product the student will do for the PBL to show they have learned the knowledge and/or skill.  This statement should begin with “I will,” state the task, say “in order to,” and briefly re-state the learning targets.
Format: I will __task___ in order to ___learning target(s)___.

4. PBL Rubric
This is where you differentiate between a basic, proficient, and advanced student submission for the PBL.  You are scoring the performance task.  The best PBL rubrics are where the criteria for basic, proficient, and advanced are so clear that students can score themselves.

5. Summative Assessment
This assessment should be broken down into sections so that there is a different grade for each learning target.  If you are testing three learning targets, then the summative assessment will have three grades.  Each section should be broken down by basic, proficient, and advanced, and include the requirements for meeting each level of proficiency.

6. Formative Assessments
These assessments should assess one, maybe two, learning targets.  Students should be scored as either proficient or non-proficient on the formative assessment.  These assessments should be short and relatively quick to administer and score.

7. Digital Curriculum
There are two parts to the digital curriculum.
–Part 1: Curriculum posted for students to do prior to a formative assessment.  Videos are the most frequently used digital items for this purpose, but you can use other items beyond video.
–Part 2: Curriculum posted for students to do for practice.  These are posted after the formative assessment.

The process above is purposefully concise.   The first time through can be challenging and difficult as the process requires teachers to work with other teachers. However, one flaw I often encounter at schools is that teams are put in place, and there is this idea that they have to be together working throughout the entire process.  That is not the case.  There is a time for “team” work and a time for “individual” work.  If you have a team of educators working on designing a unit, here is a suggestion for when the team should meet (and when they shouldn’t) in this design process.

1. Essential Question or Problem
—Cross-curricular team should meet to define the essential question or problem.
2. Learning Targets
—This is an individual teacher (or subject area group) step.  Do not meet as a team.
3. Performance Task – This is a two-step item.
—Step 1 – Team meets to discuss ideas for tasks.
—Step 2 – Individual teacher (or subject area group) defines the task on his/her own.
4. PBL Rubric – This is also a two-step item.
—Step 1 – Individual teacher (or subject area group) creates a rubric to assess the performance task.
—Step 2 – Team meets so that each teacher can share their rubric with the entire team.  Team should help individual teacher with clarifying any items the team does not understand.
5. Summative Assessment
—This is an individual teacher (or subject area group) step.  Do not meet as a team.
6. Formative Assessments
—This is an individual teacher (or subject area group) step.  Do not meet as a team.
7. Digital Curriculum
—This is an individual teacher (or subject area group) step.  Do not meet as a team.

This design is not always clear or easy.  But it is better.  If you have questions on this process, feel free to email me at

Enjoy the design!


From → Education

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: