Behrman House Blog

8 Essential Characteristics of Project Based Learning

Diane Zimmerman is the Associate Education Director at Temple Sinai in Washington, D.C. She wrote the Project Based Learning section of the lesson plan manual for Building Jewish Identity, Volumes 3 and 4, which will be published by Behrman House in March 2013.

Project based learning (PBL) has captivated secular educators, and, fortunately, it is now gaining advocates in Jewish education. For PBL to achieve its ambitious goal; namely, to inspire students to probe deeply into each subject they study, the strategy must be implemented correctly. A common error that minimizes PBL’s effectiveness is to confuse PBL with its older, less effective ancestor, known simply as the “student project.” The following chart identifies what PBL is and what it is not from the students’ and teachers’ perspectives.

From Students' Perspective
  • A project that is relevant to my own life and personally meaningful. Completing it requires me to do tasks that really matter.
  • A clearly defined assignment given by the teacher, with little or no input from me.

  • An exploration into an authentic problem. My goal is to solve the problem and present my solution—or a tangible product—to a knowledgeable and interested audience, oftentimes from beyond my classroom.
  • Writing a report or creating an end-product that only the teacher sees and for which I receive a grade.

  • Having a voice in how I investigate the problem, and input on what the final outcome/product should be.
  • Choosing an activity or end-product from a list distributed by my teacher.
  • Doing research by myself only in books or online.

  • A learning strategy that encourages me to regularly evaluate my progress based on my individual work or my participation and contribution to a group’s work.
  • Completing my work and handing it in without any self-reflection or analysis.

From Teachers' Perspective
  • A meaningful project that fulfills objectives within a core curriculum.
  • A project that demonstrates what the student has learned AFTER classroom learning or an activity that supplements the classroom learning.

  • A strategy that begins with a driving question that engages students and motivates them to learn the material. The driving question might be stimulated by the teacher and/or the students.
  • An assignment that assess knowledge ALREADY learned.
  • A creative activity designed without specific educational value.

  • A learning process that encourages students to revise their research when necessary and to reflect on their progress throughout the project.
  • A project with a hard deadline that the teacher grades and returns to the student.

  • An evaluation based on a set rubric that assesses student collaboration, participation, in addition to the content.
  • A grading system with a teacher generated rubric.

  1. Project based learning begins with an inquiry into a real-world problem.
  2. Learning often takes place in collaborative groups, where students build a sense of community, and a connection to authentic Jewish experiences.
  3. Research into the authentic problem involves going beyond the textbook, and involves activities such as interviews, web searches, and inviting guest speakers to class.

About Behrman House's Project Based Learning Essay Series

This fall Behrman House Editorial Staff members wrote about ways to introduce this dynamic approach to learning into your own school, and provided an array of resources to get you started. Learn more and follow the PBL series here.