5 Elements of Project Based Learning

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project based learning

A quality student-centered classroom is built on yearlong project based learning. When I was teaching, I introduced MAD, or the Make a Difference project, early in the school year. Yearlong project based learning can be complex. These 5 elements of project based learning help create a picture of what the yearlong project looks like.


I introduced the yearlong project based learning unit by showing students a trailer from the movie, Pay It Forward, which is about a teenager who comes up with a remarkable project that impacts the lives of thousands of people. I believe video is a wonderful way to launch any project, as students relate to it more readily than other methods of instruction. After the trailer, we discussed how it relates to a project called Make a Difference. At this point, I would lead students to the MAD overview web page, which contains a wealth of ideas that get them talking and thinking. It’s remarkable how excited students become, when they have an opportunity to do something that is entirely their own and that can impact lives.


It’s remarkable how excited students become, when they have an opportunity to do something that is entirely their own and that can impact lives.

A major unit of study for 8th-grade language arts is research. Before teaching in a Results Only Learning Environment, this was the time of year I hated most, because I could never figure out how to get students to embrace this complex and often monotonous task. With our MAD project, research became easy and fun. Students began the project by researching their ideas. Unlike previous years, when students agonized over gathering information about a “famous” person they likely had never heard of, they enjoyed searching for knowledge about a subject they’re invested in. They completed a research proposal and rarely even considered that they were learning how to conduct research and properly add citations to an essay.

3-Learning outcomes

When project based learning research is finished, students should lay the foundation of their projects. Along the way, I mixed in activities that they applied to the project, which meets learning outcomes without making students feel like they are meeting objectives. This can feel a lot like school, which too often equates to boredom. For example, one of our standards was to “write explanatory texts in order to convey complex ideas.” All of the ideas for our MAD project included this sort of writing, either in the research proposal or other examples of writing that are necessary to make most yearlong projects a success. The presidential campaign project, for instance, calls for speeches and commercials that explain the candidates platform. Each idea includes collaboration, discussion, persuasion, and oral presentation–all speaking and listening objectives that are covered in mini lessons throughout the course of the year, during project based learning activities.

4-Yearlong activity

Project based learning in a yearlong setting eliminates the need for a pacing chart–an archaic tool that only chains teachers to traditional methods that bore students. Instead of teaching units off of a pacing chart, project based learning happens in a workshop environment, which creates yearlong activity. Even with a small amount of time (say, 45-minute periods), the day is broken into project work increments. If we were focusing on MAD, we would read for 8-10 minutes (Reading All Year project), have a mini lesson, probably a video, for 5-8 minutes, collaborate for 25 minutes and then close. When our focus was on RAY, the collaboration time became independent reading and book chat, with 8-10 minutes dedicated to MAD. This project based learning system works beautifully, and you can always take a day off the schedule, if you have to work in something you feel needs more attention–preparing for a state test, for example (yikes!).

5-Thirst for learning

The most important aspect of results-only, project based learning is the thirst for learning that it develops in students. A year-long project like MAD fans the intrinsic motivation that starts this amazing thirst. Students have autonomy and see the end result as something they can take pride in. Boredom is eliminated.

Best of all, yearlong project based learning is fun, and shouldn’t learning be fun?

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Mark Barnes is the author of many education books, including Bestseller Hacking Education, part of his Hack Learning Series, books that solve big problems with simple ideas. Barnes presents internationally on assessment, connected education, and student-centered learning. Join more than 100,000 interested educators who follow @markbarnes19 on Twitter.
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