Project-Based Learning Blog

Five PBL mistakes I’ve made and how you can avoid making them too

By Aaron Altemus

First things first, let’s be honest:  this is not an exhaustive list, but here goes:

#1 Not taking the time to practice presentations

This has often been the product of poor timing or tight deadlines, but investing the time to practice, even for a brief period, can help students improve their presentations exponentially.

My advice: 

As students are conducting their research and addressing ‘need to knows,’ set aside time for quick  formal and informal share-outs to help students build their presentation chops.

Create and share a presentation checklist with your students.  Such a checklist might include items like ‘Introduce yourself,’ ‘Describe your challenge,’ and ‘Thank your audience.’

Start presentation practice sessions with small groups and build to larger, full-class audiences.  Practice opportunities are just as important as the final presentation.

Take time for students to receive constructive feedback.

Be purposeful and intentional about including time for your students to practice presenting (formally and informally).

#2 Not briefing and/or debriefing the project kickoff

Many of the projects that we facilitate begin essentially with either a field trip to a business and/or a guest speaker.  Too often these kickoffs get students excited and yet never reach their full potential as learning opportunities that inform the actual projects.   Consumed by the logistics of the visit, and we’d arrive at a site without providing the necessary context for students to fully understand the business and its operations.  And then upon returning to school, students would launch into their project without ever fully debriefing what they learned or learned in the field.

My advice:

Prior to a kickoff event, ask students to generate questions.  It may be helpful to break down the subject into subtopics to provide a more focused lens for their questions.

Ask students to divide up the questions, taking time to seek out as many answers as possible prior to the kickoff.  Students could compile their learning in a WIKI, a webpage, or a shared document.

Re-evaluate which questions could not be answered, and prioritize the questions that might be answered during the visit.

After the kickoff, ask students to revisit their questions and add new information to the shared space.

#3 Being too laissez faire during research and concept development

Oh, PBL can be exhausting, and sometimes the R&D phase looks like a great opportunity for a little educator R&R.  I mean why not?  The project is launched, students are easing into their work; perhaps it’s time to step back and let students go for a bit.   For students who are seasoned veterans of PBL, this may be a fine approach, but unfortunately this is where projects often go off the rails.  Without structure, student inquiry can wander and stretch out from days to weeks–and then project burnout soon follows.

My advice:

Research may need to be scaffolded, especially at the beginning.  Set deadlines and regular check-ins to help students find a rhythm and process to their work.

Don’t assume that students know how to research with a critical eye; test the waters with smaller research challenges to assess your students’ skills before diving into something larger or more complex.

Embrace the digital citizenship and research skill-building tools available online.  It’s essential for students to build the necessary skills to determine the veracity of published information on the internet.  Stanford’s Civic Online Reasoning resources are a great place to teach your students key lateral reading skills.

Consider a checklist or rubric for research to provide students with clear guidance and up the quality of their work.

#4 Skipping brainstorming

Students are trained over many years of testing to seek out the one right answer to a question; that inclination, when unchecked, often leads students to leapfrog right over the brainstorming process during project-based learning.  Groups will quickly go from problem identification to prototyping and design.

My advice:

Be intentional about brainstorming.  Make it an explicit benchmark in your PBL plan.  Learn about and experiment with both divergent brainstorming (all of the ideas!) and convergent brainstorming (prioritize the ideas) methods to determine which ones might work best in a given situation.  Taking time to generate many ideas helps to unlock new thinking and more-nuanced solutions to a driving question.  Check out IDEO’s “Design Thinking for Educators” toolkit to learn more about brainstorming and design.

Create a safe space for idea generation.  In the early stages of a project, encourage students to share any and all ideas without judgement.  Some of the greatest, most inspiring ideas might be considered ‘bad’ or ‘crazy.’ If students are particularly shy, consider using a digital whiteboard where ideas can be shared anonymously.

#5 Surprising students with a last-minute rubric

This one usually came down to time management and planning.  I would get so wrapped up in the other details of the project that I wouldn’t remember to share and discuss how students would be assessed.  And then a few days before final presentations, I would send out a presentation rubric that students had never seen before.  Panic and frustration often ensued.

My advice:

Creating rubrics can be a timely endeavor, so make sure to focus on your priority learning outcomes.  If you are planning to assess soft skills, try to create a general rubric that can be paired with other projects in the future.

Prior to the launch of your project, seek feedback on your rubrics from your students.  Their unique perspectives may highlight a needed change or a red flag before roll-out.

Make sure that students understand and can apply the rubric to their work by walking through the descriptions together along with varying examples of work.



Welcome to our PBL blog!


Let’s get right to it: this blog will focus on practical project-based learning.

When we use the phrase ‘practical PBL,’ we’re talking about digging deeper; we’re talking about the real day-to-day details of project-based learning.  Let’s move beyond the high-level theory and the buzz and the anecdotes and talk about actually doing PBL.  Let’s literally get practical.  


We aim for this blog to be a resource for educators striving to grow their PBL practice, whether in their classroom, their school, or their district. And so we’ll focus on tools and strategies, not only for teachers, but for administrators and students as well.  Occasionally, we’ll also rant and rave, but hey–catharsis is part of reflection and growth, right?

We’ve had the privilege of working with and training hundreds of educators, across dozens of schools in Western Pennsylvania, with our work even taking us as far as New England.  We’ve partnered with organizations large and small to bring real world challenges to students, from sustainability and marketing to engineering, green infrastructure, and entrepreneurship.  

And so now this blog represents our own project, with its own driving question: How might we leverage our experience and expertise to help other PBL educators grow and thrive?  What have we learned from all our PBL failures, successes, and challenges over the years?  

Just like PBL, there will be times when we get things wrong; our experiences are not universal, and every learning environment is unique; what worked for us in the past may not work for you now.  But I hope that the ideas that we share here will help you to grow faster while also avoiding some of the same pitfalls and faceplants that we’ve taken in the name of deeper learning.  

Here’s a preview of some the topics that you can expect from this blog:  

  • Crafting effective assessments
  • Methods for brainstorming
  • Protocols for feedback, revision, and reflection
  • Ways to build a PBL culture
  • Empowering student voice and choice
  • Cultivating an authentic audience
  • Supporting PBL educators
  • Seeking out real world connections
  • Strategies for beginners
  • In-depth tools for PBL veterans
  • “Need to Know” advice responding to real PBL educator questions

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