Blog Series #2: Essential Project Design Elements

In our previous post, we began discussing what makes up true gold-standard PBL. We’ve found that many people use the term PBL for projects that aren’t Project Based Learning (PBL).

We’re going to continue discussing gold-standard PBL by focusing on the second element, Essential Project Design Elements.

Essential Project Design Elements

Every project should have 7 essential elements. These elements contribute to the success of the project and empower students to truly grapple with the concepts they’re learning. The standards have been crafted after extensively reviewing key literature and talking with educators.

A Challenging Problem or Question

At the heart of every project is a problem to be tackled or a question to probe. When the problem is engaging and relevant to the students, learning becomes meaningful for them. The students aren’t simply being force-fed information – there is a real question that they need to know.

Some examples of challenging problems or questions could be:

How can we improve the nutritional value of our school lunch program?
How does the number of legs an animal has affect its life?
Should sugary soda be sold in our schools?

Students are presented with a real-life question that engages them and forces them to dig deep.
Sustained Inquiry

A gold standard PBL project requires some form of in-depth investigation and inquiry. Students have to dive in, ask question, find the necessary resources, and push even deeper. It requires time and effort, not just 45 minutes of research on Wikipedia.

Ideally, this sustained inquiry will involve things such as:

Researching a variety of resources, such as the internet, books, audio, video, etc.
Collaborating and discussing with fellow students
Asking further questions to clarify understanding
Conducting field interviews

Gold-standard projects usually last more than a few days, as this sustained inquiry requires significant time and effort.


It’s common for students to feel like what they’re studying doesn’t matter. Like they’ll never use the information in real life. This is where PBL shines. Projects should be truly authentic, meaning that they in some way resonate with the student. It may involve a real-world scenario, actual tools and processes, have a real impact on people, or speak to a personal issue for the students.

Creating authenticity requires:

A challenging problem or question that comes from real-world situations.
The ability to solve that problem using actual tools and processes, such as video equipment, surveying methods, collaboration processes, project management processes, and more.

Student Voice and Choice

Students should feel a sense of ownership for their projects. This means that the students should have some control over how the project unfolds and the roles they play. They should be able to have an opinion regarding:

The subject chosen
How they solve their given problem
The tools they use
The collaboration methods they employ
And more.


Throughout the project, there should be distinct periods of reflection where the students are able to process all they’ve been learning. These reflection periods help solidify concepts in the students’ minds. It’s difficult to process volumes of information in the moment. Rather, the students need to time to sit back and ponder all they’ve learned, collate it, and then determine additional steps.

The reflection period could include:

Summarizing through writing
Group discussion and further goal setting
Check in with the teacher

Critique and Revision

After students have the opportunity to gain a good understanding of the project elements, it’s time to facilitate debate and discussion among the class through effective sharing of ideas and opinions. As a part of this process, students are taught how to give and receive thoughtful, constructive criticism and then make appropriate revisions. The ability to engage in deep discussion and critique not only helps to wrap up a project by tying up loose ends, but it also aids the class in a deeper understanding of information and helps each student develop evaluative, communicative and analytical skills which result in higher quality student work.

Feedback can be given:

By members of each team
In one-on-one sessions with the teacher
From experts in the field
A Public Product

By the end, the students should have some form of product that they can demonstrate. This product could be something physical/tangible or simply a solution to a challenging problem. By having a finished product, students are encouraged to do high quality work, to make what they’ve learned tangible, and to demonstrate to others what PBL is and how it works.

The finished project can be demonstrated in a variety of scenarios, including:

To their fellow students
To the outside experts who contributed to the product
To those in the community as a demonstration of PBL
To parents of the students

Each Element Is Critical

The Buck Institute’s Gold Standard follows the premise that the goal of inquiry is to investigate or seek information. As such, this structure is designed to be a more active, in-depth process than simply “looking something up” in a book or online. The inquiry process takes time, which means a Gold Standard project lasts more than a few days.

According to the Buck Institute, “in PBL, inquiry is iterative; when confronted with a challenging problem or question, students ask questions, find resources to help answer them, then ask deeper questions — and the process repeats until a satisfactory solution or answer is developed.”

Therefore, if any of the 7 elements are left out of the project, there is a risk that this chain will be broken and the efficacy associated with it will be lost. This is why we stress the importance of Gold Standard PBL when we introduce our curriculum to collaborate with schools. The fine line between simple hands-on projects and gold standard work can in fact represent the difference between “busy work” and true understanding.

In our last post, you’ll learn about project based teaching practices.

This series covers 3 distinct component parts:
Student learning goals
Essential project design elements
Project based teaching practices

Go to Blog Series #1