Debriefing the PBL Process

many small light bulbs equal big one

After any new project is complete, debriefing is the crucial step most frequently overlooked by teachers. Sometimes the most important parts of learning lie in the reflections we have after the event, lesson, or unit is over. There are a number of ways to debrief but two are my absolute favorite methods.

First and foremost, self-reflection is my preferred method. Scheduling time to stop and review your work can be hard to do but is necessary. Learning logs like this one make the process easier as one can look back and review thoughts and plans they had weeks or months previously. Things often appear differently in retrospect so recording the process as you go along is exceptionally important.

My second preferred method of debriefing is to collect feedback from others. If I am teaching a class or conducting a training, I want to know what the participants think about what worked and what didn’t. With any project or plan, there’s always room for improvement as we cannot always predict how others will interpret or react to our work no matter how well structured it is. Secondly, having strong peer feedback is important. I am fortunate to have a strong network of social studies colleagues that I can call and ask for help anytime. They are happy to look over lesson plans, instructions, outlines, etc. and point out things that work or need work.

Ideally, a teacher employs both types of debriefing and uses the feedback from both to create a full picture of needs and strengths. Debriefing should never happen just once in the life of an instructional project. Rather, teachers should debrief often and continue to improve practice. I think formative feedback before, during, and after implementation is most beneficial with the before implementation comments coming from peers and the during and after feedback from students or participants.


Facilitating PBL


Now that much of the design process for this PBL is completed, consideration of  my own behaviors during the project is the focus. In PBL, the role of the teacher and students shifts: student-centered learning takes center stage, so to speak, and the teacher becomes a facilitator rather than the sole deliverer of information. This shift can make many teachers uncomfortable especially when their performance is tied to student performance on standardized assessments. That kind of pressure drives us to control the process which often has the opposite effect on students.

For most of my education career (though not all of it) I have acted as a facilitator rather than a deliverer of content. Teaching online forced me to reconsider my pedagogical practice as it is much, much harder to find ways to lecture in an eLearning format. So there is not a huge shift to make in the face to face realm for me. That is not to say that I don’t have more to learn about skillful facilitation.

As indicated in the definition above, a facilitator makes things easier. That means that as I observe students work, I need to look for problem areas. Where are students deficient skill-wise? What content is harder to learn or understand? What do students need to be successful? Identification of student problems or challenges is the first critical component of effective facilitation.

Determining how to solve problems or support students struggling with an issue becomes the next step for a facilitating teacher. This may involve teacher research, inviting a professional to class, locating support documents, creating support processes or activities, or sharing student examples. Sometimes an act as simple as providing the right feedback to students can help students out of a problem.

As I mentioned previously, though I am used to facilitating, I can stand to learn more about effective practices. The best way I know to do this is twofold: first, to research other’s facilitation methods and\or read books on the topic can often help me reflect on my own practices and improve. Secondly, observing other teachers facilitate student work is immensely helpful. This can be done with colleagues or by watching instructional videos.

I believe that giving students independence through semi-structured learning activities in a supportive environment ensures that they learn – not only content information but skills as well. There have been too many instances where I have watched students wither under continued teacher-centered instruction to lead me to believe that student-centered classrooms are the best way to ensure student growth.

Scaffolding PBL


I had already touched on this in the last journal reflection but I’ll recap how I foresee scaffolding working in my project. Scaffolding is essential in any course regardless of whether or not PBL is being implemented. For students in my classes, it is likely that they have not experienced a PBL unit before and that they are not used to having lots of academic freedom\hands on time in a college course. Thus, structure and support will be essential for students to succeed in this PBL unit. Below is a brief summarization of how I have planned for scaffolding in my project thus far.

Activity Structure: Course activities and assessments are designed in such a way that they build from easier to more challenging. The students begin by completing individual explorations of upcoming content. I reserve the challenging activities for in-class activities where students can have the benefit of peer or teacher support when needed. In general, activities follow the we do – you do format where students are able to see an example of a process before being expected to complete it on their own.

Support Materials: When possible, resources and support documents will be provided to students to help them with course activities. For example, there are a number of helpful websites that provide information on how to take notes or critically read college-level content. For our primary source analysis activities, students will benefit from the use of analysis documents from both the National Archives and the Library of Congress. As we go through the semester, I will college student samples to help demonstrate what mastery looks like for each assessment.

Instructor Support: Most of the in-class activities are student-centered freeing me up to facilitate and support learners when they need it the most. As students explore primary sources or work on writing, I will be able to walk around. observe, and support on an as needed basis.

Institutional Support: At times, there will be topics where students need support that is better provided by someone other than me. For example, I can teach some writing skills but in extreme cases, a student may benefit from the assistance of a writing instructor in the writing lab. My college has a number of student support groups and facilities designed to help learners grow in terms of skills. When the need arises, I will either direct students to these experts or invite those experts into the classroom.

Creating Effective PBL Assessments


Assessment is always a touchy subject in education. The stereotypical assessments that come to mind include state or national standardized tests, multiple choice tests, and scantrons. However, assessments in PBL are much more than a simple measure of right or wrong. Well designed assessments help the teacher see how well students understand the material and whether or not they are growing academically. These measures should challenge students in a non-threatening way, align with their work in the unit, and guide their growth.

This week we developed assessments for our PBL units and were asked to reflect upon these assessments as they relate to J.S. McTighe’s key principles of assessment. Below is a list of my intended assessments and brief descriptions on how they relate to these principles.

Weekly Notes: Each student will explore the course materials for each week before we meet in class. They are to take notes on what they learned for use during in class activities. This is assessed as a completion grade but the true purpose of this activity is twofold. First, these notes are taken to ensure that students are exploring course materials before class. Secondly, the notes ensure that everyone has some sort of foundation before primary source analysis begins and that they have something to reference as they begin their analysis work in small groups.

Document Analysis Practice: This is the hard work of the course – learning to analyze and corroborate historical documents to answer guiding questions. Because this is truly difficult work, students do these activities in class in a small group with the professor available when they become stuck. These activities are designed to help them learn the analysis process in a safe environment, essentially scaffolding the research process.

RAFT Writing: Because this project focuses on how everyday people experienced history, working on understanding perspectives is an important learning target. As such, students will write from the perspectives of others about historical topics through RAFT assignments. Again, these are largely completed in class so that students can get the help of the professor or peers when they need it the most.

DBQ Writing: Similar to the RAFT writing, students will practice short document based question writing assignments in class. These are designed to teach students how to construct an argument using historical documents as evidence for that argument. These are also largely completed in class so that when students struggle, there is a support system immediately available to them.

Reflection Blog: The reflection blog gives students an opportunity to put the skills they’ve learned in the classroom to practice on an individual level. In this activity, students research topics related to the course materials of the week and locate 3 to 4 primary sources that help them answer the driving question (what was history really like for those who lived through it?). This is an activity designed to scaffold the final assignment – the anthology book.

Anthology Book: My plans for this assignment are still a bit blurry but the overall goal is for students to answer the driving question for each era studied in class by compiling documents from their blog and creating an eBook that answers the driving question. Students will put the primary sources in context of each era’s reputation through secondary sources and either corroborate, add to, or challenge the narrative. Ultimately, this activity encompasses all of the goals of the prior assignments: content coverage\historical background, source analysis and corroboration, perspective, persuasive argument, and reflection.

PBL & Active Audiences


This week, our professor posed a question to us that I had been worrying about in prior weeks: is it still PBL without an active audience. According to the Buck Institute, having an active audience to view student project outcomes is a crucial component of the PBL process. While I understand that an active audience is part of establishing authenticity, it can pose challenges to teachers or schools who are not in a position to open their doors to the community for a variety of reasons (location, time, resources, etc.) At the same time, I think the meaning of active audience can be stretched to mean many different things in our current age of technology and interconnectedness.

In short, I do believe a unit can still be considered PBL without an active audience because it is not the audience that makes the unit project based. That being said, each PBL unit must have some element of relevance or authenticity to anchor the learning. Otherwise, the work students do loses some of its purposefulness. In lieu of a public presentation, the teacher could have students post their work online for others online to view. For a high school class, creating products intended to teacher younger students might be a motivating outcome. Alternatively, creating an online reference for users who need information could also be a useful outcome. I also think it could be really fun for two classes in two different places (i.e. different cities, states, or even countries) to study the same PBL unit and share their outcomes.

Understanding PBL Through Examples


Exploring several PBL examples in detail this week has allowed me a few lightbulb moments or so about the focus of projects\process. First and foremost, many of the PBL units I discovered were very much inquiry-based and relied on primary source documents. Additionally, the examples were very student driven in that the students were doing lots of exploration and discovering information through the primary sources. Towards the end of the projects, students were tasked with reflecting on the consequences of the unit (i.e.

This realization occurred much to my relief as this is how I generally teach my classes. We do lots of hands-on primary source analysis and use those documents to answer guiding questions. The only major difference is that my lessons are day to day rather than an integrated, structured approach to a single driving question. As such, I think that it is going to be possible to create a PBL that will still allow me to cover material while simultaneously getting depth.

Despite my increasing comfort with some aspects of PBL, a couple of new concerns have arisen. First, most of the topics in the project seem to fall into one of two types – a) the project topic is very narrow (i.e. putting Truman on trial for dropping the atomic bomb) or b) the project topic is exceptionally broad (does history repeat itself?). Normally this would not be a major concern but the timeframes of the example projects (two to eight weeks in duration) do pose issues. This next semester I will be teaching eight-week sections of US History. That means that my students have to learn an entire semester’s worth of US History content in a short amount of time. Spending two weeks on a mock trial for President Truman won’t work for us. As such I don’t know that the narrow focus is a possibility in my classes. I am learning towards the possibility of a broad question we can revisit each session or week that helps us tie major ideas in history together between the eras.

For those curious, below are the links for the sample PBL units I explored:

Initial Thoughts on Project Based Learning


This week has been a whirlwind introduction to project based learning. I have been interested in the topic for some time because of the extreme creativity of the instruction that goes along with PBL as well as the stories of impressive outcomes. Though I have never taught a PBL unit or created a training for teachers on PBL, I have always remained interested and curious about the process. Designing a  PBL unit or training has just seemed like a big, scary audacious goal to tackle on my own.

In this first week of study, I really tried to delve into the research on outcomes and was surprised to discover that there is not much of a body of literature on the topic. What I did find were a few case study-like articles and stories where project based learning has been adopted as part of a cultural approach. For at risk or struggling students, this instructional approach seems to have a positive influence on their academic and personal performance. Regardless of research on outcomes, PBL seems to have important benefits for students in terms of skills. The capacity to make decisions, conduct research, work in cooperative groups, and think independently are all skills students must have to succeed in the workplace.

There are only two elements that I cannot reconcile yet with PBL. First, I am a bit uncomfortable with the requirement that projects are somehow presented or shared publicly. This is not always a practical option in the classroom – especially in a small rural community with little technology resources. My second concern involves the coverage versus depth issue that always plagues discussions on curriculum and instruction. PBL is a great way to get depth in a history course. That being said, many state and institutional standards have coverage requirements. This is especially troubling in history where major eras, events, people, and dates are crucial for student understanding at a foundational level before any real depth can be achieved. I’ll be considering both of these issues in more depth as we continue along in the course.


Boaler, J. (2002). Learning from teaching: Exploring the relationship between reform curriculum and equity. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 33(4), 239-258.

Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt. (1992). The Jasper Series as an example of anchored instruction: Theory, program description, and assessment data. Educational Psychologist, 27(3), 291-315.

Creghan, C., & Adair-Creghan, K. (2015). The positive impact of project-based learning on attendance of an economically disadvantaged student population: A multiyear study. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 9(2). Retrieved from

David, J. L. (2008). What research says about…Project-based learning. Educational Leadership, 65(5), 80-82. Retrieved from

Heitin, L. (2012). Project-based learning helps at-risk students. Education Week, 31(29), 8-9. Retrieved from