Essential Elements of PBL

The Buck Institute of Education recommends that all PBLs contain eight different criteria that can be used to plan a PBL as well as evaluate a current project for rigor and quality.

Essential Elements of Project Based Learning


Key Knowledge, Understandings, and Success Skills

  • Whether you’re planning a PBL or a project, you always start with mastery objectives and content. PBL goes the extra step of defining 21st century success skills, including critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration, self-management, and digital literacy.

Challenging Problem or Question

  • A good PBL begins with a meaningful, authentic problem to solve or question to answer. You can also get creative and imagine a scenario in which students are expected to operate or adopt a role. A good challenging question is open ended, has a real world context, and provides opportunities for answers touching on multiple subject areas.
  • One way to introduce this challenge or question is with an engaging entry event. Introducing an exciting PBL should go beyond a simple handout or shared doc – it should be captivating, interesting, and spark curiosity. This is another good way to collaborate with other teachers, outside experts, or try something new like a guest speaker, Hangout, or field trip.

Sustained Inquiry

  • Rather than incorporating inquiry in a defined step at the beginning of a project, a PBL promotes inquiry throughout. In other words, answers to questions generate more questions. Sustained inquiry is the key to enabling students to chart their own course to a solution or answer to the challenging problem.


  • Your PBL exists in a real world context. It may utilize a real world question or macro issue, such as climate change, poverty, or gun control. It can also be more focused, such as designing a tool to accomplish a specific task. Either way, your PBL should utilize real world processes, tools, and standards. Ideally, this authenticity also touches on students’ own lives and communities. This is a good means of integrating projects that are meaningful to the local community.

Student Voice & Choice

  • Many projects limit choice to a research topic. A good PBL will enable student choice and voice about the type of product groups create, how they work, how time is managed, and what resources are utilized. This is also where teacher guidance is essential. Breaking students out of a traditional mindset of being told what to do and helping them to think independently and creatively can be a worthwhile goal for a PBL all by itself.


  • Much like inquiry and voice, reflection should not be limited to a single step in the process. Rather, your PBL should provide opportunities for students to reflect on not only what is being learned, but how it is being learned. Promoting metacognition and self-evaluation can also help achieve 21st century success skills.

Critique & Revision

  • Including processes for peer feedback is important in order to promote constant revision and improvement. It can also drive sustained inquiry and help students incorporate new perspectives and ideas.

Public Product

  • On its most simple level, a public product takes the results of a PBL outside of the classroom. The extent of this publicity is dependent on the class, project scope, and potential effect, but regardless of what you choose, having students present and demonstrate what they’ve learned builds in accountability and meaning.


So you’ve got an idea for a project and you’ve accounted for all eight elements. But what happens after you start? Read more about the PBL process itself and start planning out and pacing your unit.