An ESSENTIAL concept not to overlook in the PBL classroom–Time Limits

Project based learning

An ESSENTIAL concept not to overlook in the PBL classroom–Time Limits

 When a teacher sets down to plan a lesson–any lesson–we look at the content that needs to be learned, the time limits we have to get it done, and we factor in how we are going to address the needs of all students in the best way possible.  When we finish, our planning book looks very neat and tidy (birds are actually singing).  We have corralled that knowledge and those students will learn it during the allotted time, everyone will pass the test, and we will be off to the next section of content!  Wait…Wait!  Am I dreaming?!  Oh, yes–I was in a new version of “A Teacher’s Perfect World!”  How could I forget?

This scenario may happen to me about 3 times in a school year!  As teachers, we plan–and re-plan–every day.  Sometimes every hour!  When your instructional approach shifts to a project-based learning approach, it is challenging to keep time constraints in check.

Just how do you teach the content that needs to be covered and get the project started and finished–all within the time limits that you have for that particular piece of content?  And and at the same time allow for creativity and discovery?

information chunking (as a springboard for learning)

In the planning process, you will probably realize that there is a great deal of content that you will need to cover in a short amount of time.   For me, it is a wonderful thing that social studies, reading, and writing are so easy to integrate.  

So, you will definitely need to take time to plan to chunk information wherever possible.  Let me give you an example of what I mean.  In my short week long unit on explorers, I want students to discover that not all ideas or facts they have been taught–or read–in social studies are totally accurate (language arts concept of author’s bias).  I also need them to learn the facts about Christopher Columbus and some other early explorers to the Americas (social studies concept).  

To do this, I first reveal the title of the lesson:  “Is Columbus a HERO or a VILLAIN?”  With that short title, I have hooked them.  I ask a few questions to get background the amount of background knowledge the class has, then, I read 3 different short books (or excerpts of books) on the topic of Columbus.  After I read each book, we fill in a chart that I have passed out that has several questions that the students answer about each book.  Some examples of the questions on this chart are, “From whose point of view (or perspective) was this book written from?” and “Who does the author favor in this book?”  We end the lesson by reading a primary source from Columbus’ personal journal.  

I have deliberately planned the order of books in this lesson to have the most impact.  Once we have read the books, and filled in the chart, the students are intrigued.  Some have learned about Columbus for the first time, some are revisiting information that they had previously, and some are now changing their mind from what they knew to be true.  And in one class period, I have covered a lot of ground!  

Refinement of Lesson

Now, that lesson was not a one day lesson.  And the first time I taught it, I realized that.  This idea actually came out of a 3 day lesson that had students own self-discovery of author’s bias through the use of centers.  But I knew I didn’t have 3 days to spare.  So, I refined it to be a 2-day lesson.  And the next year, I refined that lesson again to make it a one day lesson.   Students still are discovering author’s bias and some surface facts about Columbus–and I have given them a springboard for learning more about explorers in general.  

I believe the key to project-based learning is to design lessons where you can chunk information to make the most of the time limits that we all have–to teach the content that we will still be responsible for at the end of the day.  

Setting Goals

We all know that setting goals is the best way to accomplish a seemingly impossible task.  Teachers are master goal setters–it is what we do every week when we make out our lesson plans.

Specifically, I would like to say that, here, my use of the term “goals” goes a little deeper.  In project-based learning, goals can be life savers.  It’s those tiny slices of the big picture that will eventually pull everything together!

Daily, I set my own goals in the form of a class agenda.  Often, I even get as specific as page numbers in a text and how many minutes I have to spend on said text.  Making these goals help me to stay on track with my lesson, and the project timing.

It also gives my higher students something to be thinking about, while at same time, the lower students can see that there is a clear plan of action.  Even if I don’t get through my list of goals for the day, at least I have broken the how-will-we-ever-get-there project down into smaller segments that I can work though.


It takes time to plan, execute and refine a good project based learning lesson.  Don’t feel discouraged if you don’t get it right the first…or second…time.  Remember, try to chunk the important information…and deliberately practice it at the beginning and ending of class with bell-ringers and class wrap-ups and you will be successful at PBL!

Feel free to leave comments about your experiences with refining PBL lessons!  I will be glad to hear from you!



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