5 Pitfalls of Project-Based Learning (and How to Avoid Them)

Without careful planning and solid design, project-based learning can quickly veer off-course. Here's what to avoid when using PBL.

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Teachers across the nation are discovering that project-based learning is an effective way to transform their classrooms into hubs of curiosity, engagement, and higher-order thinking.

A teacher can only reap the benefits of PBL with careful project design. Through trial and error, I’ve found that project-based learning can veer off-course without intentional planning.

Accordingly, I have identified five project-based learning pitfalls that teachers can anticipate and avoid.

Here's how to avoid the pitfalls of project-based learning

Are you are unfamiliar with the tenets of project-Based learning? Learn what PBL is and why it's a great strategy here.

1. “Hands-on” does not equal deep learning.

It can be easy to mistake the hustle and bustle of students immersed in a project for productive learning, but ask yourself: was the amount of time, effort, and materials spent on this task appropriate to the amount of learning achieved?

Often, teachers assign a hands-on project as a way for students to demonstrate or reinforce a concept. However, it is key that the project process itself produces an increase in skills or knowledge.

Let's take a look at a common project students are assigned: the solar system model.

Students may spend multiple days using arts and crafts materials to make a beautiful mobile or a foam ball model. They might invest effort in carefully painting or coloring each planet accurately.

But at the end of this project, do students have any new understanding of how the solar system works that they didn't have before? Probably not. The goal of learning all of the planets could have been achieved in much less time, leaving room for more meaningful learning.

Solar system models are a great example of a project, but they are not project-based learning. While it gets students engaged in "hands-on learning," it fails to progress to the level of deep thinking or problem-solving.

2. “Tech for the sake of tech” does not transform learning.

"Tech for the sake of tech" is the 21st-century version of the classic and uninspired "poster project."

My students have become entranced by the glamour of new technology. Video editing, programming platforms, and design platforms spark their enthusiasm. As a result, they sometimes lose sight of the original driving question.

Video projects are especially susceptible to this trap. It is thrilling to see my students running around gathering props, setting up sets, and investing creative energy in editing decisions around sound and transitions. However, I have to step back and remind myself: are these actions pushing their learning and addressing the driving question?

Now, maybe video editing skills are part of the driving question of your project, and that’s okay. But if not, you’ll need to create structures to help students stay focused on their driving question.

You can do this by building in frequent conferencing and providing outlines and organizers. You might even provide an “order of operations” checklist that forces students to focus on content before design. Glamorous special effects can be added towards the end of the project (after students have shown their ability to answer or address the driving question).

3. Weighting grades towards presentation, not content and skills.

This third pitfall connects to the first two. It’s easy for a teacher to judge a project based on the “wow” factor of the presentation. This might be a creatively edited video, a beautiful and organized poster, or any other kind of visual excellence.

Despite this, students should know that a good-looking presentation will not excuse them from producing substantive content that answers or addresses the driving question.

The easiest way to avoid this drawback is by creating a detailed rubric that emphasizes the skills and content you planned the project around. Share this strong rubric with students at the beginning of the project. Refer to it throughout student conferencing. Use it to assess final products.

You can include a category that rewards students for presentation, but unless your learning objectives are centered around visual design, this should only make up a small fraction of the overall grade.

4. Using a goal instead of a driving question.

What’s the difference between a goal and a driving question?

Well, a goal tells students what they need to make in order to be evaluated well. A goal is not about process — it's about outcome, and it does not leave as much room for exploration or adaptation.

Here are some examples of goals:

  • Students will create a video showing how a bill becomes a law.
  • Students will create a diagram showing how greenhouse gasses impact the earth’s temperature and lead to climate change.

A driving question sparks student curiosity and gives them something to explore and investigate. It leaves room for students to choose their medium for expression. It also allows students to change their form of presentation as they progress and learn more. It’s all about the process of learning.

Here are some examples of driving questions:

  • How does the true modern process of passing a bill into law differ from the process shown in our American Government textbook?
  • How should scientists present the science of climate change to the public in order to persuade them to take action?

There are myriad ways a student might choose to address these driving questions. Once driving questions are formed, it is the teacher’s job to create “choice within limits” and build structures to guide students’ journeys.

The planning philosophy of backward design works best for structuring PBL.

In backwards design, a teacher first identifies the driving question by asking themselves what enduring skills or understandings students should develop.

Only once the driving question is created does a teacher determine what types of products can serve as evidence that students addressed or answered the question. This is where a teacher creates “choice within limits” by determining what mediums students may work in.

Finally, a teacher plans lessons or activities that will give students the skills or context needed to begin their exploration. A teacher also creates any materials like outlines, checklists, rubrics or organizers that will keep students focused on the driving question.

5. Imposing a PBL format on an already existing project.

This final pitfall is one that I’ve struggled with. After my first year teaching, I attended a PBL workshop with a few projects in mind that I wanted to modify. I felt sure that I could just make a few tweaks and keep the student products roughly the same.

Long story short: this didn’t work out. As I began discussing my ideas with colleagues, I realized that the tasks I had in mind for my students didn’t address the interesting questions I actually want to ask.

I ended up scrapping everything I walked in with. I crafted new driving questions and allowed those questions to direct my planning. Again, I found that backward design was the best way to build a meaningful project that would push student thinking.

Many of us have goal or outcome-oriented projects that we do with students. I strongly suggest that teachers don’t try to push those projects into the template of project-based learning. Put those already existing projects out of your head, and identify your driving question.

Maybe you’ll end up offering your original project outcome as a way for students to provide evidence of their learning — but only do so if the outcome truly aligns with the deeper questions you want students to address!

Project-based learning is an amazing tool for building student independence, generating enthusiasm, and fostering higher order thinking. When planning your next PBL, check yourself for these 5 pitfalls to maximize the value of your efforts!


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Want more from this author? Check out Nicole's 6 reasons to use project-based learning in diverse schools.
Author Bio:

Nicole Nicholas is a urban public school teacher who is passionate about designing curriculum that is rigorous, engaging, inquiry driven and socially conscious. She loves learning about and discussing creative ways to support and differentiate for students with a wide spectrum of needs.

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