• Jeffrey Hinton

PBL project design part 1: How to plan projects that work

“Backward design, also called backward planning or backward mapping, is a process that educators use to design learning experiences and instructional techniques to achieve specific learning goals.” ~The Glossary of Educational Reform

“To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you’re going so that you better understand where you are now so that the steps you take are always in the right direction.” ~Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

In traditional classrooms, teachers normally plan their units of instruction using a forward design model. A forward design model consists of input, process, and output. In lesson planning, the curriculum is the input, instruction is the process, and assessment is the output. Adhering to a forward design model usually results in a predictable pattern of direct instruction informed by local and state standards, independent practice, review, and then a final assessment of student learning after the unit of instruction has concluded. Education researchers Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, in their seminal work Understanding by Design, suggest that traditional curriculum planning using a forward design model is problematic because it results in the “twin sins” of curriculum planning, which are activity-focused teaching and coverage-focused teaching. In other words, a forward design model places too much emphasis on what teachers do and not necessarily on what students learn. To remedy this problem, Grant and Wiggins proposed a backward design model for curriculum planning. Backward design is defined as “an approach to designing a curriculum or a unit that begins with the end in mind and designs toward that end… it is viewed as backward because many teachers begin their unit design with the means, textbooks, favored lessons, and time-honored activities, rather than deriving those from the end, the targeted results, such as content standards or understandings (McTighe & Wiggins, 2005). Teachers should use a backward design model in planning PBL because they must think about what they want their students to know and be able to do at the beginning of the project and then design lessons, activities, and of course, the final project to achieve those ends.

The Three Stages of Backward Design

Grant and Wiggins (2005), suggest that teachers design their instruction in three distinct stages, they are:

1. Plan backward by identifying the student learning outcomes first.

2. Develop evidence of learning using formative and summative assessments.

3. Plan learning experiences and instruction to include activities and materials to achieve the learning outcomes.

The backward design model is helpful in developing PBL units of instruction because it requires teachers to think about what they want students to learn and the steps they will take to get students to where they want them to be. And finally, how teachers will know if students have acquired the intended knowledge and skills at the end of the project.

Plan backward

Standards and benchmarks

The first step in backward planning is to identify the national, state, and local academic standards and benchmarks you wish your students to master, including the Common Core State Standards if used in your locality. Content standards broadly describe the knowledge and skills that students should obtain through a unit of instruction. A benchmark is a specific outcome related to the content standard. Effective projects usually address just a few key standards. This is because including too many standards and benchmarks can dilute the project, while too few standards hyper-focus it and make it less adaptable to student needs and interests. Further, it is better for students to master a few key standards rather than teach numerous standards forgoing deep student learning for superficial coverage. In addition to a few key curriculum standards, teachers should consider the big ideas they want their students to take away from the project. As mentioned previously, the big idea differs from a curriculum standard or benchmark in that the big idea goes to the heart of the discipline and is enduring in nature.


In addition to curriculum standards and benchmarks, it is important for educators to think about the skills they want their students to acquire while participating in the PBL. In addition to learning academic content, students can acquire and hone 21st-century skills. 21st-century skills refer to the knowledge, skills, habits of mind, and dispositions that are critical to student success in the modern technology-rich world of college, careers, and civic readiness. According to Applied Educational Systems (AES) 21st-century skills can be broadly grouped into three categories. They are learning skills, literacy skills, and life skills.

Learning skills (the four Cs)

· Critical thinking

· Creativity

· Collaboration

· Communication

Literacy Skills

· Information

· Media

· Technology

Life Skills

· Flexibility

· Leadership

· Initiative

· Productivity

· Social Skills

A recent study indicates that of the various 21st-century skills, the most in-demand skills cited by employers are oral and written communication, collaboration, problem-solving, social intelligence, and self-direction (Rios, Ling, Pugh, Becker, & Bacall, 2020). As teachers design their PBL units, they should purposefully plan opportunities for students to learn and exercise these critical skills before the PBL commences. For example, the teacher may want students to work in small collaborative groups to address a real-world problem through effective teamwork. To address the project’s driving question, students must gather and assess information from multiple sources, including print and digital media. They will then have to create a final project informed by their research and share their findings with a public audience honing their written and verbal communication skills.

What I have learned: One of the biggest mistakes I made when I first began implementing PBL was to assume that my students already possessed 21st-century skills and that I only needed to provide them with opportunities to practice and hone what they already knew. This could not be further from the truth. In reality, many students do not know how to be an effective member of a collaborative team, conduct research beyond simple Google searches, write a professional email, etc. Teachers should not make assumptions about what students know and are able to do and explicitly teach their students the knowledge and skills they will need to succeed in the PBL. This is especially true with technology. There is a tendency to assume that because students were born into a world that always had computers and the internet, students have an innate ability to use the technology effectively. While many students are extremely comfortable with tech, they still must be taught digital literacy. Rather than teach them the required skills all at once at the beginning of the project, it is more effective to introduce these skills when students need them. I call this “just-in-time teaching,” and I will discuss this in more detail later.

Develop the evidence

While PBL is radically different from traditional methods of instruction in many significant ways, many aspects of the pedagogy will be familiar to teachers. One such area is assessment. Like traditional teaching methods, teachers should incorporate diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments of student learning to maximize learning.

Diagnostic assessment

Diagnostic assessments, also known as pretests or pre-assessments, help educators identify what students already know and can do in a given domain. Additionally, diagnostic assessments can help teachers identify gaps in student knowledge and understanding and missing or underdeveloped skills. Diagnostic assessments are usually given before a unit of instruction or a lesson and are usually not graded. Diagnostic assessments are important in PBL because they will help the teacher better understand their students' knowledge and skills and what they will need to succeed in the PBL. There are many ways to give a diagnostic assessment, and the best approach depends on the specific knowledge skills the teacher is looking for. Some examples include:

· KWL chart

· Multiple choice assessment

· Short answer questions

· Questionnaire

· Oral interview

· Performance task

· Mind map

Formative assessment

Formative Assessment is defined by Robert Marzano as “a process used by teachers and students during instruction that provides feedback to adjust ongoing teaching and learning to improve student’s achievement of intended instructional outcomes” (Marzano, 2010). In other words, formative assessments are a way for teachers to evaluate what students have learned as they are learning it. And when they are not, teachers can make “course corrections” in their instruction so that students can obtain the intended learning outcomes. Further, formative assessments let teachers know when their students are on the right track so that they can continue to provide effective instruction. In addition to providing valuable feedback to the teacher, formative assessments should let students know when they have mastered a particular learning objective and when they have not and provide students with information to improve learning through self-evaluation and reflection. Some common examples of formative assessment include:

· Homework assignments

· In-class activities

· Conferences

· Individual and group work

· Class discussions

· Journaling

· Observations

· Peer/self-evaluations

· Checklists

· Questionnaires

Formative assessments can take place anywhere and at any time during instruction and are usually not formally graded. Research indicates that when teachers effectively implement formative assessments, their students had higher academic achievement and better attitudes toward the class (Ozan & Kıncal, 2018). For an excellent overview of formative assessment techniques, visit 7 Smart Ways to Do Formative Assessment

Summative assessment

if formative assessments are assessments “for” learning, summative assessments are assessments “of” learning. In other words, summative assessments measure what a student has learned at the end of a lesson, unit of instruction, project, semester, or year. They usually carry a lot of weight and are highly visible as they are a significant component of course grades. Traditional summative assessments include chapter and unit tests, semester, and end-of-course exams, and usually consist of multiple choice, true and false, matching, fill-in-the-blank, short answer, and long format essay questions.

Authentic assessment

In PBL, summative assessment of student learning is accomplished using authentic assessments rather than traditional approaches. Authentic assessment can be defined as “…engaging and worthy problems or questions of importance, in which students must use their knowledge to fashion performances effectively and creatively. The tasks are either replicas of or analogous to the kinds of problems faced by adult citizens and consumers or professionals in the field” (Wiggins, 1993, p. 229). Authentic assessments are efficacious because they require students to engage in relevant real-world tasks that tap into students’ interests rather than simply recalling facts through the completion of a performance task. Jay McTighe describes a performance task as “any learning activity or assessment that asks students to perform to demonstrate their knowledge, understanding and proficiency. Performance tasks yield a tangible product and/or performance that serve as evidence of learning. Unlike a selected-response item (e.g., multiple-choice or matching) that asks students to select from given alternatives, a performance task presents a situation that calls for learners to apply their learning in context.” According to Wiggins (1998), an assignment is authentic if it:

  • is realistic.

  • requires judgment and innovation.

  • asks the student to “do” the subject.

  • replicates or simulates the contexts in which adults are “tested” in the workplace or in civic or personal life.

  • assesses the student’s ability to efficiently and effectively use a repertoire of knowledge and skills to negotiate a complex task.

  • allows appropriate opportunities to rehearse, practice, consult resources, and get feedback on and refine performances and products.

Some examples of authentic assessments that include various performance tasks include:

· Presentations

· Portfolios

· Performance

· Projects

· Exhibits and fairs

· Debates

· Essays

· Research paper


When planning a PBL unit, begin with the end in mind. After carefully planning the summative performance task, teachers must design a rubric to evaluate students' mastery of key standards, objectives, and skills. A rubric is an assessment tool that usually consists of rows and columns describing a specific achievement level in various areas. Rubrics are useful to teachers because they reduce grading time, ensure consistency and objectivity, and reduce ambiguity regarding how teachers calculated grades. Rubrics are useful to students because they help them understand the expectations of the project, they help assess students’ own work, and they are a way for the teacher to provide effective feedback. There are three main components that teachers should include as they design their PBL final project rubric, they are:

1) A description of the task- Provide an overall description of the summative performance task being evaluated.

2) Identify the key knowledge, skills, and behaviors that you want students to demonstrate through the final summative performance task. These should be informed, at least in part, by curriculum standards and benchmarks.

3) Identify and describe the levels of mastery to include in the rubric. Robert Marzano (2007) is credited with creating the Proficiency Scale, which contains the following student mastery levels. They are:

· Mastery 4.0: In addition to scoring 3.0, in-depth inferences and applications go beyond what was taught.

· Proficiency 3.0: No major errors or omissions regarding any of the information and/or processes (simple or complex) that were explicitly taught

· Merging 2.0: No major errors or omissions regarding the simpler details and processes but major errors or omissions regarding the more complex ideas and processes.

· Limited Proficiency 1.0: With help, a partial understanding of some of the simpler details and processes and some of the more complex ideas and processes.

· Not Proficient 0.0: Even with help, no understanding or skill was demonstrated.

Performance tasks, such as those found in PBL final assessments, are criterion-based assessments. This means that students are evaluated against an established standard or criteria outlined in the project rubric. For this reason, it is important for teachers to clearly communicate their expectations by sharing the rubric with their students a the beginning of the project.

Rubric Generators

Rubistar- http://rubistar.4teachers.org/index.php

Quick Rubric- https://www.quickrubric.com/

PBL Checklist http://pblchecklist.4teachers.org/checklist.shtml

iRubric https://www.rcampus.com/indexrubric.cfm

Rubric Maker https://rubric-maker.com/

PBL Works Rubrics https://my.pblworks.org/resources


Marzano, R. J. (2007). The Art and Science of Teaching: A Comprehensive Framework for Effective Instruction (Professional Development) (1st ed.). Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.

Marzano, R. J. (2010). Formative assessment & standards-based grading. Marzano Resources.

Ozan, C., & Kıncal, R. Y. (2018). The effects of formative assessment on academic achievement, attitudes toward the lesson, and self-regulation skills. Educational Sciences: Theory & Practice, 18(1).

Rios, J. A., Ling, G., Pugh, R., Becker, D., & Bacall, A. (2020). Identifying Critical 21st Century Skills for Workplace Success: A Content Analysis of Job Advertisements. Educational Researcher, 49(2), 80–89. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X19890600

Scott, Timothy & Husain, Farhat. (2021). Textbook Reliance: Traditional Curriculum Dependence Is Symptomatic of a Larger Educational Problem. Journal of Educational Issues. 7. 233. 10.5296/jei.v7i1.18447.

Wiggins, Grant (1990). The case for authentic assessment. Practical Assessment, Research, and Evaluation: Vol. 2, Article 2. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7275/ffb1-mm19

Wiggins, Grant (1993). Assessing student performance. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers

Wiggins, Grant. (1998). Ensuring authentic performance. Chapter 2 in Educative Assessment: Designing Assessments to Inform and Improve Student Performance. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, pp. 21 – 42.

Wiggins, G. (2011). A true test: Toward more authentic and equitable assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 92(7), 81-93

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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