A close look at introducing project-based learning into your classroom in 7 steps. Try it!


Submitted by Fiona Beal
In this post we’ll go through the steps to implementing project-based learning in your classroom and then we’ll hear from an expert in designing projects – Michele Botha from Somerset House and see how she does it.


The old-school model of passively learning facts and reciting or memorising them out of context is no longer sufficient to prepare our students to survive in today’s world with its complex problems. In order to be a problem solver students need both the fundamental skills (reading, writing, and maths) AND 21st century skills (teamwork, problem solving, research gathering, time management, information synthesizing, utilizing high tech tools etc). With this combination of skills, students become directors and managers of their learning process, guided and mentored by a skilled teacher – a great preparation for the work world. This process is known as project-based learning (PBL).

Let’s just add to the 21st century skills mentioned above the following:

  • personal and social responsibility
  • planning, critical thinking, reasoning, and creativity
  • strong communication skills, both for interpersonal and presentation needs
  • cross-cultural understanding
  • visualizing and decision making
  • knowing how and when to use technology and choosing the most appropriate tool for the task

This video, made by Common Craft for the purpose of introducing teachers to project based learning, is a good place to start.


What is project-based learning?

So what is project-based learning? In it’s simplest form project-based learning is a dynamic approach to teaching in which students explore real-world problems and challenges. With this type of active and engaged learning, students are inspired to obtain a deeper knowledge of the subjects they’re studying. Project-based learning has been developed in response to the results of studies done on how children learn most effectively. The most important thing is that studies show that PBL can increase retention of content and improve students’ attitudes towards learning, among other benefits.

This video from Edutopia gives us an introduction to a project that is being done as a project-based learning approach. Would you say this is the same as the general current approach to doing projects at school?

The video showed students designing, planning, and carrying out an extended project that produces a publicly-exhibited output such as a product, publication, or presentation.

What is the difference between ‘doing projects’ and ‘project-based learning’?

This is a useful downloadable chart created by Amy Meyer of Fried Technology showing the difference between the way projects are often done currently and project-based learning.

What does PBL essentially involve – in a nutshell?

Project-based learning essentially involves the following factors. Let’s list them and then tackle project-based learning step by step.

  • students learn knowledge in order to tackle realistic problems as they would be solved in the real world
  • increased student control over his or her learning
  • teachers serve as coaches and facilitators of inquiry and reflection
  • students (usually, but not always) work in pairs or groups
  • the end result is presented to a wider audience than the classroom

Outcomes of project-based learning

Ownership – students work harder when they take ownership of a project and have some say in the choices for the project. For instance, these days, it’s common for students to know more about technology than their teachers. They may have some computer shortcuts or ideas for the final product that you didn’t even know were possible.
Creativity – in a carefully constructed project creativity can soar
Collaboration – together we can achieve more
Critical thinking – improves radically. Allow the students to solve problems
Fun – brings fun to learning

Project-based learning step by step 

So let’s imagine that you want to get started in project-based learning in your classroom. What are the steps?

Step 1. The Big Question (Begin with the end in mind)

This comes from Edutopia’s free downloadable PBL PowerPoint

This question focuses your project. It should be compelling and open ended and should appeal to your students.

1) So what is this ‘big’ question?

  • It should be a question that people ask in the ‘real world’
  • It should be a question that has no easy answer, and stretches students’ intellectual muscles
  • It should be a question that ignites students’ imaginations.

Finding a question that fits these three criteria is not easy: it takes time. The ideal answer to the question will result in a product or performance that has personal and/or social value.

2) To get started take a look at your CAPS curriculum and perhaps consider combining two subjects (Microsoft’s research says that a project should combine at least two subjects). Think of a big question to ask. This is an open-ended question that is often referred to as an Essential question. SO:

  • Start with the Essential Question.
  • Take a real-world topic and begin an in-depth investigation.
  • Make sure it is relevant to your students.

This open-ended question should be something that engages your students, engages you and will lead to meaningful learning at the end.

3) Examples of big questions: (These are taken from the great resource ‘Work that Matters: The Teacher’s Guide to Project-based Learning‘ provided by the Innovation Unit. 

  • How have the simple inventions of the past helped to create the complex life of today?
  • How can an idea be transformed into a product that could make us millions?
  • Why do humans need to protect the earth, and how can we as 12-year-olds play a role in this?
  • How have ancient civilizations influenced each other?
  • How do drugs impact our bodies, our families, our community, and our world?
  • Is war ever justified?
  • How have maritime discoveries, advancements, and events shaped our world?
  • How can an election candidate effectively persuade voters to elect her/him?
  • How can a home be designed to have minimal impact on the environment?

4) Once you have your question, think of a fun way to express this question to make it really seem real and exciting to solve. We’ll provide a relevant example from Michele Botha at the end of this post.

Step 2: Plan

If this is all new to you start small. Take a favourite project and turn it into project-based learning. The interesting part of planning is that you mainly do it WITH the students so that they take ownership of the project ALTHOUGH you will have thought it all out before you start. Involve students in the questioning, planning, and project-building process.

  • Teacher and students brainstorm activities that support the inquiry.
  • Plan your structured group work taking into account the student suggestions
  • Use groups of three to four students, with diverse skill levels and interdependent roles
  • Implement team rewards
  • Encourage individual accountability, based on student growth
  • Plan an exciting entry event. This could be something like be a guest speaker (make sure the person is an engaging storyteller), field trip, lively discussion, puzzling problem, interesting video, or thought-provoking activity or piece of reading.
  • Conclude the project with a bang. This should be an event that has a real audience other than classmates, and a real-world connection.

1) Before planning the project with your students make sure you have thought around it carefully.

Decide what you want your students to learn, and plan ‘backwards’ from there. I’s a good idea to make a list of the things you expect your students to have learned: this should include subject content, skills, as well as attributes to be developed (e.g. confidence, resilience,resourcefulness).

2) To begin, write down everything that you expect your students to learn from doing this project. 

This could include all kinds of things: knowledge of subject-specific content (CAPS), ‘generic’ skills like working in teams and critiquing drafts, specialist skills, (which could range from statistical analysis to carving wood), and personal attributes such as self-confidence. It’s helpful to write everything down in your own words, but this is a good time to see what ‘required’ content (such as CAPS) your project can cover. Once you have your list of ‘learning goals’, decide how you will be able to tell whether or not a student has learned each item on the list. Once this is done, you have the project’s learning outcomes and a plan for assessing them. This will make your project more robust, and give you something to show anyone who comes around asking to see some evidence that you’re doing ‘serious’ work. Also, don’t forget about the final exhibition – it’s never too soon to start thinking about how and where the work will be exhibited.

3) By the way – test drive the project yourself first before you start the project with your class.

If you are asking your students to conduct research and build, design, paint, draw, or write something, you will have much more success if you do it yourself first before you ask them to. There are several reasons for this such as – If the project is unworkable, you’ll find out in advance (this does happen).

4) Particularly when you’re starting out, it’s much easier to plan your project using a template 

Following a template will also ensure that you don’t forget about anything important. Here is an example of a template from Edutopia that you can download.

The first thing to do is fill in the plan with everything you’ve already done – the project idea that you’ve already sharpened up with a colleague, the things that you want every student to have learned by the end of it, and the ways that you intend to assess them. Your project plan won’t be complete until you’ve gone through every step in this section – and even then, it will be substantially revised after you hold a tuning session.

5) Once you have designed the project you can then include your student’s thinking

Adapt what you have planned. It is important that you first know how to go about things yourself so that you can set parameters.

Step 3: Schedule

Setting a schedule is one of the most important ‘structures’ a teacher imposes on a project, because it makes a potentially daunting project feel manageable to students, and helps you make sure that they will have time to accomplish everything that you expect from them. If possible, post your timeline online so that students, parents, and other members of staff can check it whenever they need to. This involves:

  • The teacher and students together design a timeline for the project components.
  • Set benchmarks
  • Keep it simple and age-appropriate.

Step 4: Monitor

  • Facilitate the process
  • Mentor the process
  • Utilize rubrics

1) It’s a good idea to hold weekly check-ins with all your students (or all the groups, if the students are doing the project in groups). At each check-in, work with students to set tasks for completion by the next check-in, and make sure you both have a copy of the tasks you’ve agreed (again, it’s best if this can be stored online). Check-ins also give you the opportunity to find out how the project is going so that you can make adjustments to your plans.

2) In addition to the check-ins, you will need to set interim deadlines. This will include deadlines for drafts, and final deadlines for specific components of a product (such as the videos in the Blood Bank project – see page 92).

3) You may also want to schedule quizzes to make sure students are gaining the knowledge that they need to be acquiring.

4) Make sure you have some checklists for the students to look at for guidance

(The information on check-ins is taken from the great resource Work that Matters: The Teacher’s Guide to Project-based Learning‘ provided by the Innovation Unit.)

Step 5: Assess

Assessment is not something that happens once, at the end of a project – you assess your students’ work throughout the process. On your timeline, plan in a series of ‘check-ins’ to take place throughout

  • Make the assessment is authentic. (Know that authentic assessment will require more time and effort from the teacher.)
  • Vary the type of assessment used.

1) On your timeline, plan in a series of ‘check-ins’ to take place throughout the project, to make sure students are on track. These may be short papers, quizzes, journal entries, meetings with the teacher, and critiques.

2) Types of assessment tasks:

  • true-false or multiple choice
  • Constructed-response items: a student has to state the answer to a problem. These tests often can allow more than one answer letting all students have a chance to demonstrate their new knowledge.
  • Essays: students are asked to analyze and synthesize their new knowledge and then write about it.
  • Performance tasks: students are asked to perform a task that will demonstrate the application of the new knowledge.
  • Exhibitions and demonstrations: these projects can be done individually or within a group and demonstrate the application of the new knowledge.
  • Portfolios: students keep a collection of work that best demonstrates the understanding and application of the new knowledge.
  • Classroom presentations and oral discussion: students can orally demonstrate the application of the new knowledge.

Step 6: The final presentation

When students know that the work they are creating in a project will be displayed publicly, this changes the nature of the project from the moment they start working – because they know they will need to literally ‘stand by’ their work, under scrutiny and questioning from family, friends, and total strangers. This inspires a level of ambition and commitment much greater than is fuelled by the incentive of ‘getting good marks’. In addition, students’ families, as well as other people from the local community, get to see what is going on in the school, providing an opportunity to strengthen the relationship between the school and community.

Step 7: Evaluate

  • Take time to reflect individually and as a group.
  • Share feelings and experiences.
  • Discuss what worked well.
  • Discuss what needs change.
  • Share ideas that will lead to new inquiries, thus new projects.

An example of project-based learning from Michele Botha of Somerset West

Michele is the Head of Curriculum and also the Technology Integration Specialist at Somerset House Primary. She creates wonderful projects using the project-based learning approach and I have learned so much from her. I asked her to give her views on project-based learning and she created this screen cast for me:

1) If you would like the link to Michele’s prezi here it is:


2) The PBL Essential Elements checklist (from the Buck Institute of education)   that Michele refers to can be downloaded. 


Edutopia, the Buck Institute of Education, the Innovation Unit and Intel have some amazing project-based learning resources:

1) Work that Matters: The Teacher’s Guide to Project-based Learning‘ provided by the Innovation Unit. 

2) Resources for Project-Based Learning

3) Getting Startedwith Project-Based Learning (Hint: Don’t Go Crazy) 

4) Hands-on lessons you can adapt for your PBL workshops

5) Project-basedlearning template

6) 10Takeaway Tips for Project-Based Learning

7) WhyTeach with Project-Based Learning?: Providing Students With a Well-RoundedClassroom Experience

8) Project-BasedLearning

9) Project design from Intel

We hope that you will try out project-based learning if you are not familiar with it. Start small! Enjoy!

« Return to Latest News

SchoolNet South Africa is an incorporated Non Profit Company - Registration 2001/012244/08, NPO Number 030-817
and holds Public Benefit Organisation (PBO) Status, in terms of Section 30 of the Income Tax Act - PBO Number 130003557.

Click here to support SchoolNet