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6 project-management tips for PBL

By Team ISTE
February 27, 2015
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To produce work that lives up to a great vision, students need to learn how to operate during projects. This includes learning how to interact with others, manage time, provide (and receive) feedback, and draft and polish work to a high standard — all of which also happen to be valuable skills for college, career and life. This includes, of course, the skills addressed in the ISTE Standards for Students, such as critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication. It also includes, however, the often overlooked — but just as in-demand — skills of project management.

Teachers just getting started with PBL often express concern about tracking all the activity that goes on during a project. There are a lot of moving parts! But given that project manager (PM) is one of the fastest-growing job titles among all career sectors, it’s clearly worth the time and effort. 

Imagine the project management chops necessary in these scenarios:

  • A PM in a digital game design firm organizes the efforts of designers, software engineers, programmers, beta testers and marketing executives to bring a game to market.
  • A PM at a construction firm coordinates the efforts of multiple subcontractors to get a building completed on time and within budget.
  • A movie producer secures rights, manages funding, supervises casting, assembles a crew and holds everyone to a production schedule.

In fact, any complex project that develops over time and involves multiple contributors benefits from the oversight of a project manager. As the teacher, you can imagine yourself as PM-in-chief — the person who provides the big view, sets a timeline, chooses the teams and supports their efforts so the project hits all the learning targets. Here are a few tips for setting up systems that support your students’ — and your — project  management efforts:

1. Make a digital home for projects in a learning management system (LMS).

This type of digital organizer is somewhat similar to the tools, such as Microsoft Sharepoint, that PMs use in the work world. For class projects, an LMS can act as a container and organizer that supports team communication and collaboration, the project calendar, assignments, polls, journals or blogs, grading, and other resources and materials.

The New Tech Network of PBL-focused schools uses a proprietary LMS called Echo. Another PBL-focused platform to consider is Project Foundry. More general LMSs include Schoology, Edmodo and Google Classroom. Chalkup has a rubric builder built into it. Or, if a minimal project organizer will do, consider constructing a wiki. A simple wiki site such as Google Sites or Wikispaces might be all a class needs.

2. Make sure everyone has anytime, anywhere access.

Whatever system you use, it’s best to work in the cloud, so students can access and edit all documents in real time from anywhere. Consider having students draft work in Google Docs (and Slides and Sheets) and just share links instead of sending lots of paper or Word files back and forth. You can comment right on the drafts and track development of work products over time without having to worry about version control.

3. Set your support structures.

These are the guiding documents, such as rubrics and calendars with milestones and deadlines, that you present at the start of a project to help students understand expectations. Upload these to the LMS and document them in the calendar so they’re always available to students. 

4. Turn the work over to the workers.

Once they understand the project goals and timeline, students are ready for the handoff — that point where their teacher eases off and they take up the mantle. At handoff, everyone needs to be clear about how the work will proceed.

The timeline below shows one way to parse the phases of a project. Each phase is punctuated by a milestone to help keep students on track while allowing them the freedom to make their own choices. 


One of the earliest milestones students might tackle is describing their plan for carrying out the work. This might have a contractual element, where members of a team commit to group agreements. Documenting early decisions about the approach and who does what gets everyone on the same page. When issues inevitably arise, this early planning document is very useful.

5. Track student progress and offer guidance when needed.

Once projects are underway, you need to be able to see into students’ learning activity in order to help out. A variety of tools and practices can lend transparency to the learning process, including TodaysMeet, Poll Everywhere and Padlet.

Regular check-ins are a must. Some groups may need these daily, and others only at times marked by milestones. Since check-ins likely lead to adjustments or new activity, the LMS is handy for documenting new to-dos. For more formative feedback, ask students to reflect on their efforts on the fly or at the end of a period using the blog feature of the LMS.

6. Learn from your mistakes.

Probably the greatest advice for project management in PBL I can leave you with is this: Keep at it. A first project might be rough sailing, but as captain, you’ll chart a better course the second time around, and your students will be better sailors. I believe students can meet the digital age capabilities expressed in the ISTE Standards for Students only when they take charge of their own learning, which happens in experiences like PBL.

Dig into the processes of learning through independent investigations with students and set growth goals with them around project management. It’s worth some extra time to structure projects — and help students think about and structure their own efforts — so they become capable, lifelong learners and contributors.

Jane Krauss is co-author of Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age. Check out the new expanded second edition of this best-selling PBL guide.