Project-Based Learning Pitfalls

How to avoid the most common teacher mistakes in project-based learning.

By Elijah Ammen


students working on a project

Project-based learning is the Holy Grail of teaching. Unfortunately for many teachers, our quests for the Holy Grail are more Monty Python and less Galahad. We want to have strong student-driven projects that use experiential learning to make interdisciplinary connections. Sadly, our reality does not often match our vision and we become disheartened, often blaming the system, the curriculum, or worse—our students.

While our classes will never be these perfect YouTube clips of perfection, there are ways to plan ahead to avoid the most common mistakes. I say most common, because these are all mistakes that I have personally made and seen throughout my school as we have transitioned to a PBL school. Strengthening these areas make for a better project that is less stressful on everyone involved. If you are not familiar with project-based learning, check out these resources first and then come right back. For resources, you can find PBL lessons on Lesson Planet, or planning forms and class handouts on the website for the Buck Institute for Education.

Mistake #1: Lack of Student Voice and Choice

Teachers love control; we really do. We have good reasons—being out of control in a classroom swarming with kids is a terrible experience. What we often forget is that generating interest and investment is the best classroom management strategy possible. There are several ways to allow voice and choice in the PBL process:

  • Start with a Driving Question, Not a Goal: We love our learning targets, but the entire point of PBL is that it is inquiry-based: you start with a question or a problem and through the project develop a way to answer the question. Have the question be strong and use student-friendly language. This should be easily memorable so you can refer back to it. You can practice generating Driving Questions on the BIE website.
  • Allow a Variety of Projects: You can always limit the number of projects, but it’s important to be multiple-intelligence friendly. If a learner feels like he was allowed to choose whether he did a model, a paper, or a video presentation, he is more invested.
  • Include Your Class on the Evaluations: Have peer feedback throughout the process. This can stimulate ideas and conversation and give kids a chance to shine as they get to show off their work. By having time for presentations and feedback, you’re practicing critical thinking. You can use the Critical Friends protocol for this.

Mistake #2: Inadequate Anticipation Building

We spend so much time planning and building up lessons and projects in our minds that we forget that our classes don't have the same amount of time anticipating and visualizing the project. Jumping into the project without building the anticipation can lead to confusion at best and disinterest at the worst. It’s your goal to keep this from happening:

  • Have an Entertaining Entry Event: Launch this project in the most entertaining way you know how. If this requires you dressing up as Socrates, do it. If it involves testing reflexes by playing a hand-slapping game, go for it. If it involves decomposition, bury that turkey that’s been taking up too much room in your freezer. Swing for the fences, because a class period spent generating interest in the subject will save you time in the long run.
  • Love Your Subject: Your class has to believe that you are more excited about this topic than anything ever before. As teachers, half of our job is putting on a performance every day. Kids sense hesitation or dislike on your part, and it kills their enthusiasm. So plaster a smile on your face and pretend like teaching the digestive tract is the coolest thing you’ve ever done.

Mistake #3: Ignoring Interdisciplinary Connections

First, forget the idea that your interdisciplinary work with another class or subject will overlap perfectly. It won’t. Your learning targets might not match up, or the rosters might not be exactly the same—it’s okay. Here are the easiest ways to include other classes:

  • Use Them in the Entry Event: I was teaching The Outsiders and we were discussing justice and gang warfare. So I called up the Criminal Justice teacher and we staged a fake crime scene in an empty classroom (which I discussed in further detail here). Both classes were involved, we covered Criminal Justice standards and practiced investigative questioning in a way that I could refer to once a certain Soc got stabbed in the park by Johnny. By collaborating on the entry event, both classes can branch out and follow the same Driving Question in different ways.
  • Use Common Vocabulary: I was teaching the persuasive elements of ethos, pathos, and logos, and so I gave it to all the other teachers in my hallways. Geometry classes talked about the logos of proofs, history classes talked about how we have to trust the ethos of many secondary sources, and art classes talked about the pathos that can be used to make an emotional appeal in artwork. The connections don’t need to be extensive—they just need to use a common vocabulary.

Mistake #4: Lack of an Audience

Ultimately, your kids will be more invested if they know that someone else will be evaluating their work. Find a way to have an audience other than yourself. This builds investment and takes some pressure off of you.

  • Have an Established Rubric: Your class needs to know how they’re being graded throughout the entire process. This also makes it easier for guest judges to take a rubric and go straight into evaluating.
  • Use Parents and Community Members: People want to be involved, and judging is an easier commitment than coming in to lecture. Find people who actually work in the field you are studying and who have knowledge of the practical applications of the work. This also allows learners to see the job opportunities in various fields.

Your next PBL project will not be perfect, but it will be profitable. By releasing control and approaching subjects organically, we are equipping the next generation with skills they actually need—critical thinking and problem solving in a real-life scenario that uses holistic knowledge.