Project Based Learning

What is Project Based Learning?  Project Based Learning: Explained.

“Project Based Learning is a systematic teaching method that engages students in learning knowledge and skills through an extended inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed products and tasks.” (Markham, Larmer, and Ravitz (2003))

At HCSS, Project Based Learning is an approach we take to instruction that engages students through hands-on, authentic learning experiences. Students are asked to answer a question or solve a problem that has a real world application. PBLs are designed to push students to think critically and to help them develop a deep understanding of the content being explored. A key component of Project Based Learning is the use of 21st Century skills. Through a PBL, students work collaboratively, develop communication skills, practice time management, and use a variety of technology to solve the problem presented. During a PBL, students work in groups to meet a common goal. Students have a final presentation at the end of every PBL where they showcase their final product to the school community.

Why do we do PBLs at HCSS?

Project Based Learning is a key component to our Mission and Charter at HCSS. The mission of the HCSS is to provide a college preparatory-focused education to the youth of every race and ethnic group in Western Massachusetts in a safe, academically challenging, and caring educational environment. Our core values are respect, responsibility, resilience, and excellence. PBLs help to foster every part of our mission statement. Students prepare for college by learning and practicing 21st century skills during a PBL. PBLs are designed to be academically rigorous, and allow for students to grow and develop within their classrooms. During a PBL, all four core values are used. Students use respect while collaborating. Students exhibit responsibility while completing each task of the project. Students show resilience by following through and finalizing the project, and finally students present excellence by showcasing their final product.

How to Design, Plan, and Implement a Successful PBL Project

From the Buck Institute for Education,

There are six key steps for designing and implementing a PBL Project:

Step 1: Begin with the end in mind – Great project begin by planning for an end result

    • Develop a Project idea
    • Decide the scope of the project
    • Select appropriate grade and state level standards
    • Incorporate simultaneous outcomes
    • Work from project design criteria

Does the project:

    1. Meet standards?
    2. Engage students?
    3. Focus on essential understanding?
    4. Encourage higher-level thinking?
    5. Teach literacy and reinforce basic skills?
    6. Allow students to succeed?
    7. Use clear, precise assessments?
    8. Require the sensible use of technology?
    9. Address authentic issues?
    • Create the optimal learning environment

Step 2: Craft the Driving Question

    • Once you have a “Big Idea” for your project, capture the theme in the form of a problem or question that cannot be easily solved or answered.
    • When creating the Driving Question keep in mind the following:
    1. Driving Questions are provocative
    2. Driving Questions are open-ended
    3. Driving Questions go to the heart of a discipline or topic
    4. Driving Questions are challenging
    5. Driving Questions can arise from real-world dilemmas that students find interesting
    6. Driving Questions are consistent with curricular standards and frameworks

Step 3: Plan the Assessment

    • Every project should be driven by an explicit set of outcomes that encompass the key content, skills, and habits of mind that students are expected to learn.
      • Align products with outcomes (Backwards design)
      • Know what to assess
      • Use Rubrics. At HCSS we have a common PBL Rubric (see below)

Step 4: Map the Project

    • Analyzing instructional needs, planning activities, estimating time, and preparing resources are key tasks in a project.
      • Organize tasks and activities. At HCSS we use a Project Planning Form where teachers map out key parts of the project like the Driving Question prior to starting the project.
      • Decide how to launch the project. Every PBL should start with an entry event that *sparks* student interest in the problem or question.
      • Gather resources
      • Draw a “storyboard” (HCSS Project Planning Form)

Step 5: Manage the Process

    • As a PBL teacher, you can successfully manage the process of learning by using tools and strategies that bring structure and accountability to the process.
      • Share Project goals with students
      • Use problem-solving tools
      • Use checkpoints and milestones
      • Plan for evaluation and reflection

Step 6: Present and Reflect

    • The final presentation of a PBL should be accessible to the school community.
      • Teachers can invite others to view poster boards, listen to speeches, etc.
      • Students can film their presentations and then the teacher can share with others in the school
      • Slideshow presentations can be created and displayed on the school website
    • A final reflection should wrap-up the overall project to “cool-down” the PBL and assess what students learned and took away from it
      • A final Accountable Talk discussion to talk about what was learned
      • A self-reflection form for students to think about their progress

Outstanding PBL Projects:


Outstanding PBL Projects require students to think outside the box and struggle with their learning. They require students to use a wide variety of skills, and engage in rigorous, authentic learning. They also require teachers to organize and provide a unique learning experience to their students.

Over 12 years of using Project Based Learning at HCSS our teachers have designed and implemented amazing projects that students still talk about years later. Often multiple teachers work together to plan a PBL and then students work on different parts of the project in different classes. They may do research in history, writing in ELA, and put together a visual in Art. Here are some examples of Driving Questions that have been used for PBLs at HCSS:

    • 6th Grade: How do the human body systems interact with one another to maintain homeostasis?
    • 7th Grade: What are the qualities of an ideal (utopian) society? How can seeking a utopia inadvertently create a dystopia?
    • 8th Grade: How do I know whether information is reliable? How is information manipulated by the media and what are the consequences?
    • 9th Grade: Why do we remember certain people or events? How do we choose what to memorialize? What could this reveal about society?
    • 10th Grade: Which American Revolutionary hero would inspire you to take a stand against government officials?
    • 11th Grade: How does the role you play in society support or contradict the role you play as an individual?
    • 12th Grade: How can I use a PSA campaign to combat hate crimes in my community?


Project Title: Students’ Names: 









Critical Thinking

Student truly demonstrates mastery in course concepts. No misconceptions or errors are present whatsoever.


Reasoning is consistently clear, thorough, and in depth.


Information is accurate and correctly interpreted throughout the entire project.


Statements are consistently supported with strong evidence and explanation.

Student demonstrates proficiency in course concepts and materials. Some minor misconceptions or errors may be present, but they do not hinder the overall accuracy of the project.


Reasoning is mostly clear and logical.


Most of the information is accurate and correctly interpreted.


Most statements are supported with explanations and evidence.

Student demonstrates some proficiency in course concepts, but there are still several misconceptions and errors.


Reasoning is sometimes clear and logical.


Some of the information is accurate or is correctly interpreted.


Some of the statements are supported with explanations and evidence.

Student does not demonstrate

proficiency in course concepts. Many core concepts are misunderstood.


Reasoning is unclear or on the surface of the project.


Information has many inaccuracies or is incorrectly interpreted.


Few statements are supported with explanation and evidence.



Oral Communication


(Note: Please consider task & grade level


Student was clear, polished, interesting, and professional. Speaker was enjoyable to hear; used expression and emphasis.


Student was clearly prepared and knowledgeable about material.


Posture was commanding and purposeful, showed confidence.


Student effectively used voice to create an emotional response in audience, no distracting verbal fillers:*ums*.


Student maintained strong eye contact with audience.


Length of presentation was appropriate to task.

Presentation was clear and polished. Speaker was easy to hear and understand.


Student mostly demonstrated preparation and knowledge about material.


Posture conveyed confidence.


Mostly without distracting verbal fillers:*ums*.


Mostly maintained eye contact with audience.


Length of presentation was appropriate to task.

Presentation was only somewhat clear and understandable. Lacked polish.


Speaker demonstrated some knowledge about material.


Posture was lackluster, did not convey confidence.


Only some eye contact with audience.


Noticeable use of verbal fillers: *ums*.


Length of presentation was somewhat appropriate to task.

Speaker was hard to hear or understand.


Voice or tone distracted from purpose of presentation.


Excessive use of verbal fillers: “ums”, as to become a distraction.


Little eye contact with audience.


Poor or slouchy posture, as to become a distraction.


Time was not used appropriately.


Written Communication


(Note: Please consider task & grade level


Writing exceeds expectations of the assignment, demonstrates grade-level mastery of English conventions.


Writing is clear, logical, and without errors; appropriately considers genre, audience, and purpose of writing task.


Writing demonstrates extensive revision and thorough engagement with material.


Length is appropriate to task.

Writing meets expectations of the assignment, demonstrates grade-level proficiency of English conventions.


Writing is mostly clear, logical, and without errors, appropriately considers genre, audience, and purpose of writing task.


Writing demonstrates some revision and engagement with material.


Length is appropriate to task.

Writing approaches expectations of the assignment, approaches grade-level proficiency of English conventions.


Writing is somewhat clear and logical. Errors are present, but do not significantly distract from clarity.


Writing lacks significant revision and engagement with material.


Length is somewhat appropriate to task.

Writing is below expectations of the assignment, below grade-level proficiency of English conventions.


Writing is not clear or logical. Errors persist throughout assignment.


Writing demonstrates little to no revision or engagement with the material.


Length is not appropriate to task.


Student demonstrates exceptional effort and creativity. Goes above and beyond minimal assignment requirements.


Student creatively uses technology to integrate a variety of visuals to support and enhance the message of the presentation.


Presentation materials are neat, attractive, and creative.


Student effectively uses technology to solve problems and think outside of the box.

Student demonstrates sufficient effort and attempts to be original and creative.


Student successfully uses technology to support the message of the presentation.


Most materials used were quality products; neat, easy to see and hear.

Student demonstrates some effort, but makes little attempt to be original or creative.


Student merely satisfies requirements and adds nothing more.


Use of technology sometimes adds, mostly does not take away from presentation.


Some materials used were quality products, but neatness could be improved.

Student demonstrates little to no effort, originality, or creativity.


Work looks messy, rushed, or incomplete.


Use of technology takes away from content or purpose of presentation.


Materials were of such low quality as to discredit the speaker.






Group was thoughtfully organized and divided the work, checked on progress, or provided focus and direction for the project.


Student was prepared, worked diligently most or all of the PBL, didn’t need any redirection.

Responsible to teammates and helping others.


Student played a leading role in generating new ideas, took initiative in getting tasks organized and completed and sought help when needed.

Student mostly contributed to project, helped divide tasks and generate new ideas.


Student was mostly prepared and worked most of the time available, little redirection needed.


Student demonstrated willingness to help other group members when asked.


Student somewhat contributed to project and generate ideas.


Student was only prepared some of the time.


Student had difficulty completing tasks without redirection.


Student did not demonstrate willingness to help other group members when asked.




Student played a passive role in completion of the project.


Student made unconstructive criticisms toward the project or other group members; did not add value to the group.


Student was often off task, did not complete assignments or duties.

Student had attendance problems that significantly impeded (got in the way of) progress on project.


Student frequently was unprepared.

Additional Comments:TOTAL