How to Incorporate Project Based Learning Into Your Traditional Curriculum

Research shows that project based learning, also known as PBL, works to engage students and provide them with life-long learning skills. This teaching method leads to higher retention rates and improvements in critical thinking skills. Teachers in project based learning classrooms are responsible for encouraging students to take charge of their own education rather than the teaching and testing model that tends to be the standard in schools today.

Project based learning looks intimidating to many teachers who work within prescribed traditional curriculums. It seems like quite a stretch to get there from where their teaching methods currently stand. But it doesn’t have to be as all-encompassing as you might imagine, and the changes you make don’t need to be drastic.

Implementing PBL Strategies Gently

Most teachers already use projects in an effort to evaluate whether students are grasping an important concept well enough to really use them in real life. With a few adjustments, the projects currently in use can take on the hallmarks of project based learning to help students improve critical thinking skills and empower them to take their education into their own hands. Here are a few ways you can begin to incorporate the principles of project based learning into your traditional classroom.

Adjust project timelines so that students are learning material during the project rather than assigning projects to gauge whether material was learned

Make learning a part of the whole project rather than the project acting as an assessment of what was learned. Alter the way students typically carry out projects by presenting the problem first. Give students a real-world problem at the beginning of the unit that they’ll work on solving throughout.

The material used doesn’t necessarily need to change that much. The lectures, resources, and homework you’ve always associated with a unit will work just fine with a project based learning approach. You’re simply offering students a different perspective, where the problem presented at the beginning of the unit gives them a tangible reason to soak up the information provided in a way that they may use it their whole lives through.

Wisewire’s Trading Cards for the Revolution can be applied as an example of changing the timeline. The content creators and editors at Wisewire developed this project for the California-based Summit Public Schools, which have been strategically developed around a PBL approach to education.

This project, which is aimed at younger children allows them to learn all about the Revolutionary War on their own terms. Students learn about the war through resources, assignments, and guidance provided by their teacher. They then choose a few important people, places, or events that were especially interesting to them, dig into them, commit to deeper research, and gather information that they will share with the class. Afterward, they create trading cards to demonstrate the knowledge they gained and their ability to apply it, and then trade the cards with classmates (so essentially, they’re teaching each other). The trading may be set up to achieve a particular goal, such as each student having the same number of people, places, and events, or finding several cards relevant to a specific part of the war.

This changes the way a project on this subject would normally be carried out, where the teacher imparts knowledge and then the students do a project or other assessment to display their proficiency.

Assign benchmarks throughout the projects to create milestones for grading and ensuring student success

Teaching in the traditional school model means grades and assessments are a must. Project based learning doesn’t by any stretch mean that these things go out the window, simply that you’ll insert grade checkpoints into projects. These checkpoints not only allow you to keep up with traditional grading requirements, they also allow you a formal space to assess student development over the course of the project.

These benchmarks, when designed the correct way, require students to use a wide variety of skills to meet each benchmark. This allows the more all-encompassing nature of PBL to really shine. Carefully crafted PBL benchmarks might reflect real-world checkpoints while remaining within state standards.

Individual achievement assessments should also take place to help teachers facilitate the goals of each individual student, allowing students to rise to the expectations of advisors and of themselves. The point of these individualized goals is maximum growth for each student.

Prepare in advance to offer students flexibility.

When you put students in charge of their education, their needs will inevitably vary. Some kids will zoom ahead, grasping the concepts with ease and developing a passion for the subject. Others will flag, wondering where and how to find the information they need to succeed and generally struggle with the subject matter and the development of critical thinking required in these all-encompassing projects.

When the goal is to empower students to learn and think critically their whole lives this flexibility is crucial. As the facilitator in PBL, it’s the teacher’s job to provide students with the tools they need to learn to the best of their ability. Likely, this will mean preparing projects so that they are adjustable, offering various pathways that lead to thought-provoking challenges for students of all levels.  This provides for every child a way to succeed through hard work and perseverance.

The benchmarks instituted in the above PBL incorporation idea will mean that you can easily identify students who are in need of a more advanced challenge and those who need a little more guidance. Ideally, they’ll be situated so that students don’t languish in boredom for too long or fall behind the project timeline. 

Take for example a classic marble maze physics project.  You start the project off with the simple question: “how can you use what you’ve learned about physics to get the marble through the maze”? From there, you move to common principles and equations of physics. You may even want to start off with your own marble maze so that students can visualize the ideas as you introduce it to them. The open-ended question allows the more advanced students to apply more complicated concepts as they come across them in the project materials, but leaves room for struggling students to complete the project within the bounds of their understanding.           

Allowing flexibility and assigning benchmarks that uphold the ideals of PBL make the acquisition of lifelong learning skills your top priority in the classroom (rather than a simply mastery of the materials). This is at the heart of why great teachers do what they do. The most important thing for teachers who want to adopt a more project-based strategy should be to keep in mind that small steps can lead to big changes in student learning

Taylor is a Teacher and Contributor to Wisewire, Inc, a digital education marketplace and learning experience design company. As a chronically curious human being with the desire to be a more effective teacher, Taylor has spent vast amounts of time researching teaching methods and learning styles.