Opinion Blog

Ask a Psychologist

Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. To submit questions, use this form or #helpstudentsthrive. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Teach Like a Runner: 3 Ways to Get Started With Project-Based Learning

By Zachary Herrmann, Pam Grossman & Sarah Schneider Kavanagh — October 20, 2021 2 min read
Project-based learning is daunting—what’s an easy way to get started?
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

How can I get started incorporating project-based learning into my teaching?

Teaching is a lot like running.

Research has found that running as little as five to 10 minutes a day can have a massive impact on your health. In other words, you don’t have to go from a no-exercise lifestyle to an Olympic training regimen to see improvements. Taking small steps now can make a big difference later.

Similarly, project-based learning—an approach to teaching in which students create real solutions to real problems—can start with taking the equivalent of a five-minute run every day.

Consider authenticity, a core aspect of project-based learning. In our book, Core Practices for Project-Based Learning, we encourage teachers and leaders to think of authenticity along three dimensions: the students, the discipline, and the world. For each of these dimensions, here are simple changes you can make to build more authentic learning experiences for your students:

  1. Find connections to students’ lives. So much of the work students do in school is disconnected from their daily lives. To help students make personal connections to their work, find ways for them to draw on their perspectives, beliefs, ideas, and values as they explore the big ideas of the lesson or project. In an English/language arts class, students might explore how the themes in a novel resonate (or don’t) with their own lived experiences. In a math class, students might identify patterns or phenomena that they find curious, then work to represent them mathematically to explore further.
  2. Engage in the work of the subject-matter discipline. Rather than having students “learn about” math, science, or history, position students as mathematicians, scientists, and historians. For example, students can develop and refine mathematical models rather than do problem sets. They can design and run investigations to test hypotheses instead of listening to lectures. And they can work with primary-source documents to construct arguments about what happened in the past in lieu of memorizing names and dates.
  3. Link the work to the world outside the classroom. Students deserve to engage in work that has meaning outside of the classroom. To do this, ask yourself three questions: What are students being asked to produce? Who is the audience for students’ work? And what is the potential impact that work has?

In many classrooms, the answer to these questions is that students are producing a paper or test for the teacher to review for a grade. But what if students produced something of value (an argument, solution, prototype, or proposal) for a real audience (the school, a community, a field, or an organization) that had the potential for a real impact (to educate, to raise awareness, to solve a problem, or provide a service)?

Each new school year begins with a sense of possibility. Project-based learning can be more exciting than intimidating if you start by incorporating just a few of its principles in your lessons. Even small changes can have a big impact on student learning.

The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


English-Language Learners Webinar Helping English-Learners Through Improved Parent Outreach: Strategies That Work
Communicating with families is key to helping students thrive – and that’s become even more apparent during a pandemic that’s upended student well-being and forced constant logistical changes in schools. Educators should pay particular attention
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Mathematics Webinar
Addressing Unfinished Learning in Math: Providing Tutoring at Scale
Most states as well as the federal government have landed on tutoring as a key strategy to address unfinished learning from the pandemic. Take math, for example. Studies have found that students lost more ground
Content provided by Yup Math Tutoring
Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Q&A Q&A: What Is Culturally Responsive Teaching?
A Native education expert explains what culturally responsive teaching is and why it is so important for students.
3 min read
Teaching Opinion How Small-Group Instruction Benefits Your Teaching
Small-group work can provide opportunities for reteaching, student practice, and formative assessments.
15 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
Teaching Opinion Small-Group Instruction: Work It for Your Students—and You
Gradual release of responsibility to students, personal learning plans, and formative assessment are successful components for small groups.
15 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
Teaching Opinion 15 Ways to Improve Small-Group Instruction
Assigning student roles, choosing the right number of members, and providing feedback are among the strategies teachers can use.
9 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."