PBL Process Overview

A lot of people are now talking about PBL in education circles. What processes make an effective PBL classroom? I believe the fundamental elements of having an effective PBL classroom boils down to effective grouping and group management, effective use of the Knows and Need to Knows lists and having clear vision of the benchmarks.


Grouping Students

Ben Johnson states that “If the purpose of the group learning activity is to help struggling students, then the research shows that heterogeneous groups may help most.” where if “if the purpose of the group learning activity is to encourage medium ability groups to learn at high levels then homogeneous grouping would be better.” If we hold these statements true then we are faced with a problem in comprehensive classroom. How do we organise our PLB groups?

Marzano (2001) states that for groups to be effective the following elements must occur.

  • They must include every member of the group
  • Each person has a valid job to perform with a known standard of completion
  • Each member is invested in completing the task or learning goal
  • Each member is accountable individually and collectively

We’ve all had that high ability student who complains about being in groups. They complain because they are automatically looked at as being the leader in the group, the one that got things done. Yes it’s true that heterogeneous groups help the struggling students but is always placing them in these overall helpful? How can we extended the medium and high ability students? How can we mitigate the the problem of ‘free riders’? I think it is important to place students in homogeneous groups. By doing this you are grouping students in their ability. It forces students to take on different roles within the groups and for different students to show leadership.

Some ways in selecting groups:

Some ideas:

  • Random!
  • Pick a partner, then get assigned another pair
  • By interest
  • By last project’s work ethic score
  • By birthday order
  • Interviews (highest scores on last project are Project Managers, while the rest of students apply for group)
  • Intentionally group those who will raise one another up
  • Varying the types of learners
  • An ongoing rotation, so everyone works with everyone eventually and there are no surprises
  • Write down 3 people you could work with and 3 you’d prefer not to; group students based on this information

For more information on groupings:

Purposeful GroupingInformation the reasons behind group selection.
Cooperative and Collaborative LearningInformation on organizing, assigning roles, and managing collaborative groups
Designing Student GroupsWhat you need to know about selecting student groups?
Forming Effective GroupsHow to ensure there are effective groups in your classroom?
Are Student Selected Groups More Effective?Do students perform better in self-selected groups or in instructor-formed groups?


Knows and Need to Knows

You can start a new project with a sense of excitement and tribulation. You are going to engage the students in content you love and you’ve finally started that project you’ve planned, resourced and poured yourself into over the last number of weeks (often months!). However, there is always that little voice asking how are my students going to be directed?

This is where Knows, Need to Knows and Next Steps can help. When planning the project, it’s critical for you to know the Need to Knows you want your students to pull out of the entry document and progressing through the project. This is why it’s a good idea to have the project critical friended by people not in your department. This gives you a more authentic list. This list is what the students use to direct their learning through the PBL process. Students shift the Needs to Know over to the Knows list by articulating the processes on the Next Steps list. By working through these Next Steps students are working through the course outcomes.

It is important for a teacher to start and end the class with the Knows and Need to Knows lists. By addressing the Knows and Need to Knows lists at the start of the lesson, it gives the students direction. Addressing the Knows and Need to Knows lists at the end of the class allows you to know what the students learnt. You do this by moving Need to Knows to the knows list.

So how can we conduct Knows and Need to Knows lists? Here are some resources that may be helpful:




It’s important to have a clear understanding of what benchmarks are in the PBL process. Reasons to use benchmarks could include, not limited to, the following:

  • Benchmarks provide structure to the process of PBL.
  • Benchmarks allow students to feel like they are making progress towards “solving the problem” of the project and keep students from feeling overwhelmed.
  • Benchmarks provide intermediate deadlines and scaffold time management.
  • Benchmarks model a problem-solving strategy used in many professional environments.
  • Benchmarks provide opportunities for students to give and receive feedback.
  • Benchmarks provide opportunities for students to construct and apply knowledge before the end of a project.
  • Benchmarks provide facilitators an opportunity for assessment to see which groups and/or individuals are doing well and which groups and/or individuals might need more support.

The most important of these dot points is the first first. Benchmarks provide structure to the process of PBL. It provides direction for the students. For if we did not have benchmarks students will be left rudderless. If this happens then you will see students whom seem to be off task and you’ll also fins yourself explaining what students have to do more and more.

It is import to make sure that benchmarks are completed for every projects. When dealing with students that are new to the PBL process it would be advisable that the teacher sets the benchmarks. However if you have students that have been engaged with the PBL process for some time, consider them co-construct the benchmarks in the next steps process. This gives the students ownership of the PBL process and the project.

Group Management

At the core of the PBL process is the group. PBL engages students to work collaboratively and produce a final product. This requires effective groups. If the group isn’t effect then the product produced will not be up to standard or might not be submitted. Too many times projects has have not worked because of group dynamics.

Students within the group need to feel that everyone in the group is contributing to the project. If they are not, effective group management should have embedded group contracts.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s