5 Tips Starting PBL in the Classroom

This week I’ve been prepping for starting problem-based learning in the classroom and went looking for some suggestions of how to make the process manageable for myself and students.

Problem-based learning (PBL), also called project-based learning, is a great way to motivate learners and address those core competencies and big ideas presented in BC’s new curriculum (if you aren’t familiar with BC’s new curriculum, there’s an increased focus on cross-curricular competencies, including critical and creative thinking, communication, and personal and social competency).  Students solve real-world problems, often collaboratively, and usually integrating outcomes from multiple subjects.


 1. Start Small

Great PBL problems often take students several weeks to question, research, collaborate, design, iterate, and share.  They often integrate outcomes from multiple subject areas.  However, PBL can also take place in a single lesson within a single subject.  I’m planning on starting with a few simple ill-structured problems in math to get my students (and myself) comfortable with the process and work on developing those communication, collaboration, and critical/creative thinking skills before embarking on anything larger.

2.  Start Local

Are your students going to solve nation-wide on their first try?  Probably not.  Something in your immediate environment is a better starting place, so I’m going to start by picking an opportunity in the classroom or school.  Maybe students can design a new room arrangement to provide better collaborative learning spaces or access to resources such as the library.  Or, maybe students need to come up with a method to limit waste in the classroom or school.

3.  Set Specific Time Goals

How long will students have to brainstorm? Research? Share with other groups? Re-assess their ideas? Share out their learning at the end? Communicate these timings with students right away to keep them focused on the goal.  This will set them up for bigger projects where it’s easy to lose track of the end goal and drag on.

4.  Purposeful Groupings

Don’t randomly group students! If there is a lot of reading required for the project, make sure there are strong readers in the group.  Consider assigning roles in the group- leader, reporter, etc.  One article even suggested grouping students who seem to ‘ride the coat tails’ of other students together to make sure everyone is contributing.  Have students debrief on their contributions and reflect on how to collaborate better.

5.  The Product is Important, but not the Focus

It’s important to share with learning how their learning should be presented- are they pitching their idea, creating a product, sharing out orally to the class, making a poster?  Who is their audience?  However, it’s important that the main event is the time spent brainstorming, researching, and collaborating.  Hours spent on a beautifully decorated poster may be better spent building those core competencies through brainstorming, testing, and refining ideas.

Have you used PBL in the classroom?  What are your tips for beginners?  Things that worked, or things to avoid?


Two Great Articles to Learn More:

Education World’s Problem-Based Learning: Tips and Project Ideas

Edutopia’s Twenty Tips for Managing Project-Based Learning

A bit longer of a read for math (with some great ideas for each elem. grade level):

Problem-Based Learning in Mathematics: A Tool for Developing Students’ Conceptual Knowledge

(Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat, Ontario Association of Deans of Education)




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