Lesson 3: What aspects of a problem-based learning activity make it successful?

Essential Project Design Elements PBL Quill.png


Participants will identify the various aspects that make a specific PBL activity successful after evaluating several examples.

Case Study

Before attending the workshop, Mrs. Jones decides to ask several teachers in her building about their experience with PBL. Mr. Thompson, a fellow science teacher, says that he has been utilizing PBL in his chemistry classroom for several months. He offers her a chance to observe his classroom during her planning time. Later that week, Mrs. Jones sits and watches his 4th period class. Many students seem actively engaged and are working on coming up with a solution to the proposed problem. However, she sees a handful of students disinterested. They are not contributing to their groups and do not even appear to be listening. In several groups, one student seems to have taken charge and is doing most of the talking. Mrs. Jones begins to wonder how successful this method of learning actually is. Are all students really engaged in Mr. Thompson’s class? Are they really learning throughout the lesson? She knows that if she decides to utilize PBL in her own classroom, she will need to not implement it haphazardly. Mrs. Jones will need to research how it is done successfully based on others’ classrooms.
Journal and Pencil Clipart Quill.jpeg

In your journal, answer the following questions considering Mrs. Jones' classroom and your own.
  • How can Mrs. Jones help ensure that the collaborative portion of PBL goes smoothly in her classroom? What strategies do you currently use when utilizing group work?
  • What other difficulties accompany PBL that may deter Mrs. Jones from using problem-based learning in her classroom? Would these factors prevent you from using the strategy in your classroom?


While there are many benefits associated with problem-based learning, it must be implemented properly. Teachers need to be aware of what successful problem-based learning units and activities look like so that they can make their own successful resources. Please use the following links to learn more about what aspects of a PBL activity in particular make it a success. Then move on to the assignment portion where you will be asked to evaluate several examples of problem-based learning activities.


  1. Read the following article entitled “What are the keys to successful project-based programs?". As you read, focus on the specific characteristics that make for a successful activity. As teachers create their own PBL units, they need to keep these ideas in mind. https://k12.thoughtfullearning.com/FAQ/what-are-keys-successful-project-based-programs
  2. Watch the video clip on successful project-based learning by Edutopia, titled “Project-Based Learning: Success Start to Finish”. This video focuses on Manor New Technology High School and its use of PBL in the classroom. While watching the video, think about what teachers, Mobley and Chambers, are doing to successfully create their PBL unit plan. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-OWX6KZQDoE
  3. Read the following Buck Institute for Education (BIE) blog post entitled “Gold Standard PBL: Essential Project Design Elements”. This focuses on the seven characteristics that are necessary to include when creating a PBL activity, as well as the student goals. Pay particular attention to the seven design elements. From this page, you can also access an article explaining effective teaching practices to use with PBL. As you read, think about which one of these design elements would be the most difficult to implement in your own classroom. https://www.bie.org/blog/gold_standard_pbl_essential_project_design_elements


Journal and Pencil Clipart Quill.jpeg
After reviewing the above resources, complete the following activities in your journal.
  • Watch the following two video clips. For each classroom activity described, explain what specific characteristics make them successful problem-based learning activities. Also, explain how they could be improved based on what you learned in the above readings.
Video Clip #1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J63e_YSntuo&t=148s
Video Clip #2 (15:49 to 20:10) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W3jD7LJ6AWw

  • In your journal, considering what you learned about problem-based learning from the resources above and using the rubric below, rate the effectiveness of the following PBL activities.
Sample Activity #1 Food Fight: Researching and Debating the Future of G.M.O.’s
Sample Activity #2 Designer Babies
RUBRIC: Use the BIE created criteria list entitled “Essential Project Design Elements Checklist”. This simplified rubric will allow you to identify whether or not the plans for the two PBL activities have the eight recommended elements. If you reward the PBL plan with a “thumbs-up” in a category, you can add +1 to the overall score. If you rate the criterion a “thumbs-down” you can add a -1, and if you give them a “?” you can give them 0 for that criterion. Write your ratings for each category and the overall score for each lesson in your journal. File:Essential Project Design Elements Quill.pdf

PBL Design Criteria Quill.png


Go on to Lesson 4: How can teachers successfully design their own problem-based learning activity for students?

Return to Problem-Based Learning in the Biology Classroom