School & Learning

How to Utilize Project Based Learning at School

Listening to lectures, taking notes, and writing papers do not naturally engage most students — especially those with ADHD. To make topics come alive, encourage students to touch, experience, and interact with their lessons. Here’s how.

A student with ADHD using project based learning at school


What is Project Based Learning?

Project Based Learning (PBL) is a teaching method that originated in the mid-1990s that encourages hands-on exploration of concepts, critical thinking skills, and sustained inquiry. It is considered cutting edge, yet it is not new. As early as 1916, American educational reformer John Dewey said, “Learning should be meaningful and relevant to the students because they will be eager to find out more about what they are learning and therefore can draw from these experiences.”

The idea is straightforward: Students learn best when they’re participating. PBL does this by engaging students in an extended inquiry process structured around complex questions and carefully designed tasks1. At the core of each PBL lesson is a driving question that is critical to the curriculum and leads to constructive investigation.

Why Is PBL Important?

PBL can foster independence by trusting students to take charge of their own learning, and by preparing them for real-life projects at school and work. It can help students learn the following:

  • Autonomy
  • Social skills
  • Self-regulation
  • Self-esteem
  • Motivation
  • Problem solving
  • Self-efficacy
  • Critical thinking
  • Time management

PBL often benefits students with ADHD and learning disabilities who struggle in a traditional classroom, in part because it allows teachers to strategically pair students with complementary strengths and needs.

[How Project-Based Instruction Can Ignite Your Child’s Love for Learning]

Characteristics of a Traditional Classroom Characteristics of ADHD Characteristics of a PBL Classroom
Students sit in arranged desks or at tables. Students have difficulty remaining seated for long periods of time. Students are free to move around the room collaborating with others.
Students must sit quietly. Students with excess energy fidget with hands and feet, and appear restless. Students actively work on projects with multiple moving parts.
Students must focus on directions, a lecture, or assignments. Students struggle to sustain attention, especially on topics they don’t find personally captivating. Students work at their own pace using checklists.
Students must stay organized at their desks. Students often lose items, papers, and assignments. Students can use items and materials around the classroom, and are supported with calendars and checklists.
Students must raise their hands to talk. Students often get in trouble for blurting out answers. There is always a discussion going on. Students can talk freely.
The timing for class blocks is rigid and tardiness is punished. Students have difficulty transitioning from one task to another. PBL is done over an extended period of time, and multiple class sessions.
Directions are said once. Students have difficulty listening to multi-step directions, and forget important parts. Checklists, calendars, and binders reinforce project goals and remind students of the big picture.
Students must pay close attention to the details and memorize minutiae. Students sometimes miss granular details. Students work with “big-picture tasks.” The details are learned along the way.
Students are told, “This will pay off down the road.” Students have difficulty with delaying gratification. Progress is made each day, and the product is completed when it’s completed.

How Do I Use Project Based Learning?

1. Select a multidisciplinary topic.

Brainstorm ways to transform course standards and objectives into a project. Involve students in this process so they feel ownership.

Design your project to integrate multiple subjects — like math and science, or English and social studies. For example, students may write a soldier’s biography while working on a project about trench warfare during WWI.

Make real-life connections, and use current events to bring the lessons to life. For example, students may combine geographical, economic, and political learning while researching how building a casino on Native American land impacts local traditions.

[Expert Webinar Replay: How to Energize Your Child’s Education with Project-Based Learning]

2. Decide on and define objectives.

What should students learn from this project? Create a specific list of skills and knowledge the project should impart. Think about academic and social components, like interacting with a group. For example:

  • Learn how to write for a specific audience
  • Develop vocabulary
  • Describe characters in a story, and explain how they contribute to the sequence of events
  • Multiply and divide double-digit and triple-digit numbers
  • Apply math to daily life
  • Access information using a map
  • Create a timeline of national historic events
  • Understand and identify personal space and general space
  • Work together in small groups to accomplish assigned objectives

What is the final product? Create a list of acceptable formats like a poster, video presentation, or short play. Explain the evaluation criteria or rubric for each format.

Set timeline goals, and prepare the classroom with available materials as well as dedicated working spaces.

3. Craft a driving question.

Students will answer this question while working on the project, so writing it carefully and strategically is key. It is the tool that focuses all project-related tasks on the lessons students need to learn. Think of it as your project’s mission statement. Teachers typically develop the driving question, but brainstorming with students can generate valuable ideas, and make the class feel invested in the project.

The driving question should clearly and simply state the purpose of the project, connect to common core standards, and apply to students’ real life. If your entire class loves the Trolls movie or Harry Potter series, incorporate that into your lesson as a starting point then connect back to standards.

Use the driving question to lead students toward a solution. It should not be so easily solvable that a quick Google search finds the answer.

There is no one right way to create a driving question. Use these examples and structures as a guide to bring classroom requirements to life.

  • Solve a real-world challenge.
    • Design a better menu, payment system, and layout for the school cafeteria.
    • How will global warming affect what we eat for lunch or dinner?
  • Teach others a new skill.
    • How would you teach your grandmother to use Twitter?
    • How can you teach second graders to prevent colds from spreading?
  • Make predictions about an alternate future.
    • What would be different if the U.S. was ruled by a king or queen instead of a president?
    • What if women were never granted the right to vote?
  • Research an issue, and then justify an opinion.
    • Should you be allowed to bring your pet to school?
    • Should gym class be optional?
  • Persuade a group to change its opinion.
    • How could you convince the school board that recess should be longer?
    • Create a public service announcement (PSA) that persuades teens to exercise more.
  • Take on a fictional role with a mission to accomplish.
    • You’re the mayor of a city. How would you make new construction projects environmentally friendly?
    • You’re an engineer designing a new town park. What math skills would you use, and how?

[11 Ways Teachers Can Help Students with ADHD]

For more information on creating a driving question, visit the following resources:

4. Research background knowledge.

PBL works best when mini-lessons are mixed in with periods of independent work. For example, imagine your students are researching and evaluating restaurants to hire for their high school food court. As part of that project, a teacher may deliver short lectures on economic concepts like supply and demand, and return on investment.

Mini-lessons support the driving question, and encourage students to dive deeper into their project.

5. Prepare a student checklist to monitor progress.

When assigning a new project, include a checklist of tasks and milestones for each small group. Think of this procedural map as the scaffolding that allows students to build on their driving question and learn.

This structure, especially important for students with ADHD, may include the following:

  • A calendar
  • A checklist, or project rubric, of exactly what is expected when
  • Daily or hourly check-ins with each small group
  • Examples from a similar project that answered a different driving question
  • Executive functioning assistance like teaching students how to use the calendar and take good notes
  • The freedom to work: time, space, resources, and peers

When starting out with PBL, try a short project first — 15 to 30 minutes — and work up to longer, more complex projects that take an entire lesson or a few days. This will help students understand the process and skills involved: inquiry, research, discussion, and questioning.

Once students are familiar with PBL, use it regularly — once a week. Or, join forces with another class, and launch a bigger project that stretches a whole unit or term or year.

6. Evaluate the project.

Students complete a final assignment, present it to the class or a community/school board, and then assess and evaluate the learning experience.

Teachers can use standard assessments or create project-specific rubrics. If students didn’t learn the project’s core teaching, reteach the main concepts with more mini-lessons. In future projects, incorporate aspects that worked well and eliminate those that failed.

Examples of Project Based Learning

Using Current Events

Driving question: “Hurricanes are powerful, and at times, potentially catastrophic natural phenomenon. Why do some communities, countries, or states respond better to them than do others?”

Students take on the role of a governor, an engineer, a citizen, a meteorologist, or a FEMA employee. Then, they research hurricanes from that perspective. In the process, they learn all about hurricanes, plus how various government and non-profit organization contribute to damage-prevention and recovery efforts. For example, an engineer would analyze the structure of the buildings. A meteorologist would study weather patterns. Then, since all of the students present their unique perspective, the whole class learns more information about the big picture.

Standards Based

Driving question: “How does necessity promote innovation and strength during warfare?”

Students can research different types of wars, how different types of environments require different tools and resources to survive, and how people adapt to changing environments.

Students choose a product that was invented during a war, or originally made for the military, like Super Glue or M&Ms. For example, students can research how the Spanish Civil War led Forrest Mars Sr. to invent chocolate encased in a hard candy shell, then create a poster showing the connections. Ask students to calculate how the price of the invention has changed since the war, and to prepare a presentation about the invention’s industry today — in this case, candy manufacturing.

Research on Project Based Learning

The following books and papers study the efficacy of project based learning, and present its pros and cons.

  • Allsopp, D. H., Minskoff, E. H., & Bolt, L. (2005). Individualized course‐specific strategy instruction for college students with learning disabilities and ADHD: Lessons learned from a model demonstration project. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice20(2), 103-118.
  • Barab S. A., & Duffy T. (2000). From practice fields to communities of practice. In Jonassen D., & Land S. M.. (Eds.). Theoretical Foundations of Learning Environments (pp. 25–56). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Belland, B. R., Glazewski, K. D., & Ertmer, P. A. (2009). Inclusion and problem-based learning: Roles of students in a mixed-ability group. RMLE Online32(9), 1-19.
  • Bransford J. D., & Stein B. S. (1993). The IDEAL problem solver (2nd Edition). New York: W. H. Freeman
  • Burcham B.G. (1994). Impact of school-based social problem solving on middle school students with disruptive behavior. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Kentucky, Lexington
  • Davidson, R. A. (2002). Community-based education and problem solving: the Community Health Scholars Program at the University of Florida. Teaching and Learning in Medicine14(3), 178-181.
  • Goldsworthy, R. C., Barab, S. A., & Goldsworthy, E. L. (2000). The STAR project: Enhancing adolescents’ social understanding through video-based, multimedia scenarios. Journal of Special Education Technology15(2), 13-26.
  • Loe, I. M., & Feldman, H. M. (2007). Academic and educational outcomes of children with ADHD. Journal of Pediatric Psychology32(6), 643-654.
  • Powers, A. L. (2004). An evaluation of four place-based education programs. The Journal of Environmental Education35(4), 17-32.
  • *Kologi, S. M. (2015). Dissertation. Project-Based Learning, Academic Achievement, and Field Dependency: The Effect Project-Based Learning in Higher Education has on Academic Achievement Test Scores and the Correlation between Participants’ Academic Achievement Test Scores and their Field Dependency Cognitive Style.
  • *Kologi S. M. (in progress). Project Based Learning and ADHD: Pros and Cons.

1 Markham, T., Larmer, J., & Ravitz, J. (2003). Project-Based Learning Handbook: A Guide to Standards Focused Project-Based Learning for Middle and High School Teachers. Novato, CA: Buck Institute for Education.

2 Related Links

  1. I’m curious if you have a recommendation for which age this is appropriate for? I am a parent who trialed a PBL school. I found that it was harder for my Kindergarten and 1st grade students who needed a little more structure in order to learn reading and basic math. However, it seemed to work well for third grade and above. Have any of your studies looked at this? I know the brain does some major developing in the K-3 years and I’m just wondering if PBL provides enough structure for those ages? No doubt children still need to move and play at that age, I’m just curious about the learning piece.

    1. I think it can be adapted to be successful at any age, by incorporating play and movement with more structured learning.

      This study explains that a lot more research is done on PBL in middle and high school environments, but that studies on PBL at elementary ages have yielded positive results as well: http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/ijpbl/vol11/iss2/9/.

      Penny
      ADDitude Community Moderator, Author & Mentor on Parenting ADHD, Mom to teen w/ ADHD, LDs, and autism

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