CELL at UIndy

Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning

PBL Essentials

The Language of Authentic Learning

To walk the project-based learning walk, you need to talk the PBL talk. Following are some key terms you’re likely to encounter as you implement PBL.

21st-Century Skills

Though 21st-century skills can be defined broadly, they are most typically categorized as a fusion of the three R’s (reading, writing and arithmetic) with the four C’s (communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking), which are skills needed for postsecondary, workforce, and life success.

Authentic Assessment

With PBL, the project culminates with a public presentation for a real audience. The authentic assessment looks for mastery of content knowledge and real-world skills. If a project requires students to apply professional skills of a discipline (e.g., historian or journalist), then the authentic assessment will evaluate students’ proficiency using the standards of these jobs.

Authentic Audience

An authentic audience is a person or institution that works with students on a PBL unit. The role of the authentic audience can comprise introducing the problem or challenge to the students to kick off the unit, working with students throughout the project as a consultant providing guidance, and attending the students’ public presentation to give feedback.

Critical Friends

Critical Friends is a school-based professional community that collaborates to improve instruction. Using practice-centered, collegial conversations about teaching and learning, educators work together to generate ideas and provide feedback that will enhance classroom instruction and improve student achievement.

Driving Question

The driving question is a complex, open-ended issue with multiple solutions linked to the core of what students need to learn. The question requires multiple activities and the synthesis of information from varied sources. The activities produce artifacts that contribute to a final product that addresses the original question. Good driving questions both challenge students and give them a sense of purpose.

Entry Document/Event

This is an authentic scenario presented to students that engages their interest and initiates questioning to launch a project. The entry event and/or document provide rationale for the project, background information, and requirements.

Formative Assessment

Formative assessments serve as “learning checks” for teachers and students. The timely feedback provided allows for adjustments in teaching and learning throughout the project based on the predetermined milestones.

Group Contract

The group contract is written by students at the onset of a project. The contract defines the roles and responsibilities of each group member and the consequences for a student not fulfilling his or her duties.

Group Norms

Group norms are non-negotiables developed by the teacher or students, that determine how a group will function, as well as the role and responsibilities of its members, to ensure students work collaboratively.

Group Roles

In PBL, group roles are the disciplines and skills needed in the real-world for someone who would be addressing the project’s driving question. Students assume these group roles to gain authentic experiences as professionals engaged in a work setting. Depending on the project, students may assume the roles of such professions as museum curator, engineer, or travel agent.

Know–Wonder–Learn/Know–Need to Know

KWL or “need to knows” get students engaged and thinking about the possibilities of the project by tapping their prior knowledge. Students build on what they already know to discover what they will need to know to complete the project. KWL continues throughout the project and helps teachers refine their lesson plans to lead students toward new discoveries.


Milestones serve as checkpoints that maintain the momentum of the project. Milestones provide direction to students by holding them accountable for their progress.


Teachers conduct mini-lessons with the entire class to address students’ collective “need to knows.” Mini-lessons bring the class together for instruction on critical knowledge necessary to complete the project.

Project-Based Learning (PBL)

PBL is an extended learning process using student inquiry to solve complex, real-world challenges. Students work collaboratively to investigate authentic issues. Throughout the process, students learn academic content while developing 21st-century skills. PBL affords students a degree of voice and choice in which they determine their “need to knows,” as well as the look and feel of their end product.

Publicly Presented Product

PBL units conclude with a publicly presented product through which students demonstrate the content knowledge and skills used to solve the initial challenge or problem provided at the launch of the project.


PBL integrates student reflection to improve retention of knowledge and its application to future learning. Reflection prompts students to consider their new learning in order to ask additional questions and make connections. Reflection also helps students contemplate their skill development as they personally grow throughout the project.


Rubrics organize a project into what students need to know and do to assess their academic achievement and application of knowledge. Rubrics serve as scoring guides that differentiate levels of student performance. Distributed at the outset of a project, the rubric communicates achievement expectations and proficiencies to students while allowing them to self-assess and make corrections to achieve success.

Summative Assessments

Summative assessments most commonly are used at the end of a PBL unit to evaluate students’ cumulative learning based on mastery of skills and knowledge outlined in the project rubric.

Voice & Choice

In PBL, there is minimal teacher-directed instruction to maximize student-centered work. Projects give students the choice of how they learn, and in many cases, what they learn. PBL also has students collaborate to create an end product with which they have a voice in the design and process.


Workshops allow for differentiated instruction during the project for students who need it most. Workshops provide content knowledge to students in a small setting while the project work continues. Students elect to attend workshops they need to support their learning. Only the students needing the knowledge or training provided in the workshop attend the brief tutorial.

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