5 Common PBL Design Flaws

5 Common PBL Design Issues


Strong adult world connections can greatly enhance a project rather than be an afterthought.

Strategy #1: Brainstorm, search for and/or suggest specific authentic documents, data and/or models.

Strategy #2: Brainstorm, search for and/or suggest professionals, experts, orgs and/or institutions of higher edu that could be contacted to enhance the project. Provide encouragement around the "gumption" needed to reach out to people. We have so many success stories when project designers have simply asked for collaboration and partnership from individuals, teams and organizations external to the school!!

Strategy #3: Brainstorm how students could get their feet wet with original research, field work, experimentation and/or data collection. Pose questions around how this might enhance / deepen the project work, and the learning.

Common PBL Design Issue #2: LAME TANGIBLES

Most overplayed and uninspired tangibles include: posters, presentations, essays & brochures. Which of these could be turned into more impactful products, performances, presentations and/or services?

Strategy #1: Brainstorm alternative tangibles aligned to the same learning outcomes (E.g. Persuasive writing)

Strategy #2: Suggest the project designer a menu of options that includes their tangible(s) alongside other choices from which students could choose.

Strategy #3: Pose questions about who would do this type of work in the adult world and what tangibles would they actually produce in their work. An article in the Atlantic might be in an essay format. Framing a tangible as a article for special report in a prominent publication is really not changing the writing assignment at all in terms of the mechanics of writing, but it fundamentally shifts how we think and talk about it. Branding!

Strategy #4: Suggest using a (real) "client" for whom the students produce their tangibles, versus the tangible ending in the teacher's inbox or in-class presentations.

Strategy #5: Pose questions about the lasting value/impact of the tangibles beyond the project.


​​We think of the marriage of content and context as the "foundation" of a great project.

How can you contextualize your targeted learning outcome in a meaningful, authentic and/or engaging way? Challenge yourself to marry the targeted scope of content with a powerful context that could be inspired from:

  • Current issues / controversies

  • Taking on an authentic role

  • A design/product/engineering challenge

  • An authentic problem that matters to students

  • A premise, simulation or scenario

  • Using the idea of "tribute work"

Strategy #1: Brainstorm and suggest alternative contexts - remind teachers that generating a high quantity of ideas before settling on the best one is more likely to generate an amazing project than choosing the first idea.

Strategy #2: Collaboratively enhance, deepen and/or extend the existing context.

Strategy #3: When tangibles/content is listed as context (e.g."students will make a brochure about biomes") simply "relabel" the context. E.g. "Ahhh, looks like you put your "tangibles" in the context section. Let's move that to the tangibles section. And it looks like "biomes" should be a part of the learning outcomes section. Now we can start on the context..." (Which will now be empty...magical, now you don't have to be the bearer of bad news and you create a need to know with the project designer. This approach typically springboards us into rich conversations about what actually makes for a powerful context!)


Projects are often focused with either an essential question or a driving question. Here are some common flaws with those questions:

Issue #1: The focusing question is too lengthy or is "teacher happy."

Issue #2: There is more than one focusing question. This can (but not always) confuse the big idea/frame for the project

Issue #3: The focusing question only prompts a low depth of knowledge. In fact, flawed questions are sometimes even "google-able." E.g. What were the major causes of WWII? It's not to say your project can't explore this question, but it's a small question, not the overarching focusing question. A strong focusing question would require substantial knowledge/skills to answer effectively and is open-ended in a way that allows multiple possible "right" answers, original thinking and often something tangible.

Focusing questions don't usually magically pop out flawless on the first shot. We recommend drafting a high quantity of options and then little-by-little tuning and word-smithing the best ones.

Common PBL Design Issue #5: LACK OF ALIGNMENT

​​​The alignment must be strong between "The Golden Three:"

(1) Focusing Question

(2) Tangibles

(3) Learning Outcomes

Review projects carefully with project designers to ensure there is a stable "three-legged stool" and offer guidance, as needed. We sometimes even use a "project alignment check" protocol!

Want to dive deeper? Visit our PBL Consulting Services Page to learn more about our immersive workshop on Project Based Learning.

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