Personalizing Learning Through Project-Based Learning

Fall 2019

By Carrie Annable

The Start of Our Transformation

Over the past few years, my school, Hillfield Strathallan College (HSC), an independent school in Southern Ontario, has been on a journey to transform the learning that takes place on our campus. We began with a presentation to the faculty by Dr. Yong Zhao based on his book World Class Learners. Dr. Zhao asked us to consider how we can make every student great in their own way. His answer? Capitalize on their strengths by personalizing the curriculum, engaging students in learning to make products or finding solutions to problems, and creating a global campus.1 Since this presentation, HSC has committed to creating a joyful learning environment for students that is focused on creativity, solving authentic problems, and innovation and personal growth—an environment that prepares them for whatever might lie ahead.

As HSC explored methods to accomplish the goal of personalized authentic learning experiences for students, we came across project-based learning (PBL). In PBL, students work on extended projects that engage them in addressing real-world problems or complex questions. Students demonstrate their knowledge and skills by developing a product or presentation, which they make public to people beyond the classroom. As a result, they develop deep content knowledge as well as 21st century success skills.2 As we examined PBL in more depth, we realized that it is much more than “doing a project”; it takes a great deal of thought and planning to ensure that PBL is a transformative teaching tool. In Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning, authors Larmer, Mergendoller, and Boss caution, “PBL is not a silver bullet that works every time, in every classroom…. Much depends on the teacher, the project design, and the implementation.”3 After some research and investigation, HSC formed a partnership with PBLWorks to bring their research-based model for “Gold Standard PBL” professional development to our campus.4 Through this process, we learned about the seven essential project design elements and the seven project-based teaching practices. This gave us a framework to make sure that our teachers were designing high-quality projects and were given the training they needed to effectively do PBL.

As a result of this training, teachers at HSC are working to shift their practice to one that is focused on answering real-world problems and questions. The work has had a tremendous impact on the learning environment at HSC, and students are excited and engaged. Examples of Gold Standard PBL can be seen in all grade levels and in a variety of subjects, such as creating a Dinosaur Museum in kindergarten, creating a Mouse Library in grade 2, improving the biodiversity of our campus in grade 6 science, building picnic tables in grade 7 math, making our campus more accessible in grade 10 math, and partnering with our local university on a digestive system project in grade 11 biology. Teachers at HSC are seeing the benefits of PBL as a way to spark the interest of their students and make learning more relevant.

During the past three years at HSC, I have learned a great deal about PBL and its benefits but also its challenges in implementation. In addition, I recently had the opportunity to embark on my own learning journey to visit other schools and learn more about how they have implemented PBL. As a result of my experience facilitating PBL at HSC as well as many school visits, I have learned some key points to help other schools who are considering making their own shifts toward personalized authentic learning through PBL.

Putting Proper Scaffolds in Place

PBL has tremendous impacts on the learning of students, but it is also a shift in learning for them. Many students are not used to the freedom and open-ended structure of PBL. To prevent students from becoming overwhelmed, it is very important to put scaffolds in place to support learners. These scaffolds allow teachers to find the right balance between freedom and structure. Some strategies to help teachers scaffold projects are conducting frequent student check-ins, using exit tickets, using reflective journals, using KWLAQ charts (, and creating visible project planning calendars (either online or on the wall) where teachers ask groups to update their progress daily with what needs to be done, what has already been accomplished, and where assistance is needed.

Another common challenge for students is collaborating with others. The ability to collaborate is one of the most valuable skills students can learn through PBL. Consider beginning each project with a group agreement or contract. In this contract, members of the group decide on expected behaviors for group work, how to deal with disagreements, and the consequences if a group member violates the agreement. Another suggestion is to begin each project with a team-building task that is a low-stakes way to practice working together. Finally, some of Kagan’s co-operative learning strategies are also very helpful (

Supporting Teachers

PBL is also a big shift for teachers and requires a great deal of planning. As speaker and author A.J. Juliani writes:
It is really easy to teach from the textbook. It is even easier to hand out a multiple choice test. Grade it with a scantron or online grading tool. Record the grade. Move onto the next chapter in the textbook and repeat. That is why it is so difficult to get started with Project-Based learning experiences. They take time to develop. They take time to plan. They take hours to put together.5

So, what can schools do to help support their teachers? First, it is crucial that schools provide job-embedded planning time, preferably with grade-level colleagues to encourage project sharing and collaboration. Second, schools must provide training and professional development for teachers. At HSC, we have found our partnership with PBLWorks through the PBL Canada Institute to be a key factor in our success. In addition, ongoing PD and support throughout the year is critical for sustaining this shift in practice. One way many schools are doing this is through PBL coaches. These coaches have many roles and assist teachers through all the stages of a project, from idea to implementation to reflection.

In addition, it is essential that administrators show their support for teachers. Starting PBL can be scary for teachers; administrators need to make teachers feel comfortable with taking a risk and must support them regardless of outcome. Katie Martin echoes this point in her book Learner-Centered Innovation:
The schools and districts in which I have seen the most movement have focused first on creating a culture of learning and innovation with a shared goal where everyone is encouraged and trusted to try new things to work together toward that goal.6
Administrators also need to be visible; by showing up to a class, dropping in to check in with a teacher, or attending a presentation of learning, administrators show teachers that they care about the changes that are taking place in the classroom.

Project Ideas for Deep Learning and Sustained Inquiry

Many teachers who are new to PBL worry about how they will think of project ideas that will lead to deep learning and sustained inquiry. Before planning can begin, teachers must know the difference between a “dessert” project and a “main course” project.7 A “dessert” project is assigned to students after the learning takes place. It is a way for students to apply or show what they have learned. For example, students learn about World War II, and then create a poster about an aspect of the war and present it to the class. In contrast, with a “main course” project, the learning takes place through the project. For example, to start a unit on World War II, a teacher might ask, “What can we learn from World War II that will lessen the chance of another world war occurring?”

There are many ways to come up with engaging driving questions or project ideas. One suggestion is to reframe a “dessert” project into an engaging driving question that could be presented at the start of a unit instead of at the end. Or you might look at challenging questions or problems that are presented in your textbook or curriculum guide and use one of those as a starting point. In addition, be open to the questions and interests of your students. One of the teachers at my school designed an amazing PBL unit because she was open to a question one of her students asked after reading the book Library Mouse. As a result of her training in PBL, the teacher realized that this query was an opportunity for deep learning. What resulted was an engaging, cross-curricular Mouse Library Project. In addition, there are many online resources for projects, such as the following: Social media is also a great place to look for ideas; try searching the #pbl or #pblchat keywords on Twitter. Last, rely on your colleagues and your personal learning network to help you out. Let others know that you are interested in using PBL in your classroom, and ask them for help.


Another challenge that many teachers face when first implementing PBL is how to assess student learning. With PBL, the process of learning and creating an end product or solution is just as valuable, if not more so, than the final product or solution. In addition, it is not just academic skills that need to be assessed but also success skills, such as communication, collaboration, and critical thinking. Figuring out how to assess success skills and the process of learning, and not just final products, is a shift for teachers. To begin, teachers need to create rubrics, preferably ones that are co-constructed so that students fully understand how they will be assessed. The New Tech Network has some excellent rubrics that can be used as a starting point ( In addition, teachers can certainly use more traditional assessments when doing PBL, such as tests and quizzes. The difference is that these assessments are presented in the context of an engaging project. Finally, teachers should plan to assess both individual and group components in a project. This can help alleviate a common frustration of students where one grade is given for a project in which group members each contributed varying amounts.


Many independent schools have realized that their ideal graduate of the future looks very different from that of the past. Acquisition of rigorous academic content is still important, but schools must become more intentional about developing critical thinkers, communicators, collaborators, creators, and entrepreneurs. Today’s graduates need to develop a whole new set of skills in order to succeed in a complex and rapidly changing world. PBL is a teaching method that lends itself well to developing both rigorous academic content and success skills. Schools that are interested in personalizing learning through project-based learning should not be deterred by its challenges, as its benefits and positive impacts on student learning far outweigh any initial hurdles with implementation.


  • Yong Zhao, World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2012).

Carrie Annable

Carrie Annable ( has been a teacher for 17 years and is currently teaching at Hillfield Strathallan College, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.