Get on Track with Project Based Learning: 3 More Ways to Get Started


Project based learning engages students actively, fosters critical thinking, and promotes real-world problem-solving skills and many consider it a necessary part of modern teaching. There is a general outline for what project based learning is but there truly is no one way to get started.

The integration of project based learning emerges on a continuum, and your location on this continuum is not fixed. It is possible to slide back and forth based on students’ strengths and needs, your comfort level, the demands of the content, and available resources.

Educators are usually surprised when they realize there are multiple ways to get started with project based learning, that they’ve already gotten started and just don’t know it, or that project based learning isn’t all or nothing (you’re either doing it or you’re not). 

There are three different starting tracks that serve as markers on the PBL continuum. Teachers are often confused by which of these tracks they should use. No one likes the answer, “It depends!” However, making this choice depends on multiple factors. There is no prescriptive approach to project based learning. Instead, there are several additional considerations to be used in deciding how to use PBL in the classroom and which track you should start on.

Product Track

The Product Track is a potential starting point if you or your students have limited experience with project based learning, or if this is the first time you and your students are engaging in project based learning together.

In the Product Track, students create a product(s) or contribute to an event. This track can be differentiated based on how the product or event is determined. Sometimes, the teacher chooses the final outcome. In other circumstances, the teacher may frame the unit, offer options, and allow students to select their product or event. As another possibility, the teacher may frame the unit and allow students to come up with products or events of their own. Some examples from the Product Track include:

  • Movie trailer predicting a book’s sequel
  • Monument illustrating a historic person or time period
  • Healthy smoothie to enhance quality of life
  • Debate on the effectiveness of homework

Problem Track 

The Problem Track frames the learning experience around addressing a shared concern. This track is ideal if you or your students have identified an authentic issue that your class can address. Getting involved in fixing a real issue is often the extra inspiration a group of students needs to engage in courageous work.

The Problem Track also allows for differentiation in approach. The problem can be identified by the teacher, or the teacher can introduce a topic and ask students to identify an associated problem. If multiple problems arise, the class may decide to tackle one problem together, or the teacher may allow for each student or group to address their own problem. Some examples from the Problem Track include:

  • It takes too long to get through the lunch line
  • Low circulation rates at a local library need to be addressed
  • A local diner (a neighborhood favorite) needs remodeling
  • Endangered animals need help to survive

Open-Ended Track

Typically considered the least restrictive option, open-ended project based learning invites students to demonstrate their learning in any way that works for them, as long as they’re working toward the designated High Impact Takeaways and learning targets. This approach to a unit is usually best suited for teachers and students who have experience with project based learning.

In a class of thirty students, with everyone involved in their own project, the teacher will need to feel comfortable having students take multiple paths to reach a similar destination. Students will also need to feel comfortable with the available options and resources so they can explore with minimal direction.

Project-based learning offers a transformative educational experience, fostering creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration among students. By embracing the core principles of PBL and following the track that is best suited for your class, students will thrive using project based learning. 

Portions of this article were excerpted from Project Based Learning

Main post image by William Fortunato from Pexels

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