4 Tips for Doing PBL During Distance Learning - Markers & Minions
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4 Tips for Doing PBL During Distance Learning

During a regular year, it can be hard to find the time to fit in projects and project-based learning assignments. With this year being as difficult as it already is, making time for projects may be the last thing on your priority list, but it doesn’t have to be a crazy and overwhelming thing! You can incorporate PBL even in a distance learning environment.

Related: Fitting in Projects With Benchmark Advance

Some teachers are moving more slowly throughout their units during remote learning, while others are breezing through them. Regardless of how much you’re able to cover this year, it’s still important to incorporate some learning experiences that will help culminate your unit and apply unit themes.

Here are some tips for using PBL during distance learning.

1. Provide some structure, but offer flexibility.

In general, I’m a huge fan of a UDL (Universal Design for Learning) approach. This framework involves using different ways to activate engagement and scaffold learnin. It also allows students multiple means of expression of knowledge.

When assigning a project to students, provide them with a general outline, guideline, or structure in which to plug in their learning. Break apart the steps or tasks included in the project and tackle one at a time. This will set them up for success better than simply asking them to “design an app,” for example.

Chances are that you are probably already used to giving students some sort of structure. On the other hand, it’s important to allow for flexibility, especially when students are working through projects at home or in a hybrid learning environment. Here are a couple of ways you can offer flexibility:

  • let students use resources that are available to them (parents, siblings, etc.)
  • allow students to present their learning through a method of their choice
  • if there is an issue with access, modify tasks on a case-by-case basis to ensure equity
  • check-in with students periodically to get a sense of their process and to provide support
  • be flexible with grading if you are grading end results (and I know some may struggle with this idea, but it’s truly okay to not grade everything)

2. Give students the chance to work independently and interdependently.

PBL is typically done in groups, but obviously group work is a bit more challenging right now. There are ways to have students collaborate digitally during a PBL assignment, but giving students the chance to work on their own, too, will make the PBL process easier.

For example, have students gather their thoughts ahead of time as part of their brainstorming session. After they have individually brainstormed, they can come together in a meeting and review their notes as a collaborative group. These can be set up as homogenous or heterogeneous groups depending on the project scope. This also works well for groups where you can divide out tasks for them to first complete independently, but then come together in a meeting to bring it all together. A great project example of this is our Design Your Own App PBL resource.

Student brainstorming graphic organizers

There are multiple components in this resource that can be broken down for a combination of group work and independent work. There are three different sections that build-up to the final presentation. The students can fill out the Let’s Brainstorm, Let’s Plan and Business Plan separately and then have group time to bounce ideas off each other and compare. This can also be a shared Google Slides/Doc where they can note feedback and notes from the other students to refer to when making their final presentation edits. In the Design Your Own App pages pictured. below, all of these pages are also included as Google Slides that students can use to complete digitally.

Student presentation pages for Design Your Own App PBL

PRO TIP: Assign each child a specific font color when having students work collaboratively on a digital document so that you can see exactly who contributed what on the shared Doc or Slide.

3. Allow for parts of the project to be completed off of a screen.

Oh, distance learning. 2020 brought about a lot more screen time for our kiddos (and ourselves!), and it doesn’t look like we are going to get back to in-person paper-pencil anytime soon. With that in mind, let students use their hands and other resources available to them that are off-screen. Anything from hand-written worksheets to asking the relatives to help contribute to their projects – this is a great time to think out of the box. In the Design Your Own App project, students can complete the worksheets digitally to allow for collaboration, and then complete the final posters hands-on at home.

Presentation pages for Design Your Own App PBL Distance Learning

4. Schedule whole-class meetings where you provide each group with a “Hot Seat.”

Have you tried out “Hot Seat” in your groups before? This is a great tool all across the board! I would say that it’s a MUST when using PBL in a distance learning setting. It’s a situation where a student or a group can submit their questions, scenarios, problems, or even just project updates, and then the focus of the meeting is for everyone else to offer feedback, advice, and support.

I love this as a way to hold class meetings where all the students give feedback on one group’s work so far. For the Design Your Own App project, you could use this method throughout certain stages of completion. For example, one group’s Hot Seat could be focused on their Business Plan.

The Hot Seat not only provides valuable peer feedback, but it also inspires the other students and serves as a jump point to help others develop their own ideas. This method has endless opportunities and applications.


Are you going to try to incorporate more PBL during distance learning, or are you barely hanging on? Have you tried any fun projects or activities that you think other teachers would love to hear about? Let us know in the comments below!

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