How to Create Effective PBL Unit With 5 Important Tips

PBL Concept Image
Create Effective PBL Unit


To help facilitate Project-Based Learning of your own, a fourth-grade teacher and James Fester, author of Creating a PBL unit Based on Local History in Elementary School, give 5 important tips that are effective in creating a Project-Based Learning unit: 

  • Determine Your Learning Goals 
  • Provide Context to Sustain Inquiry 
  • Survey Communities for Content 
  • Consult Outside Experts 
  • Create Something Public 

Creating a PBL Unit Based on Local History Background 

A fourth-grade teacher and James Fester embarked on creating a project to help students become the historiographers in their community. It all came about because of a small town located in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada called Placerville that has a rich history tied to the State’s Gold Rush. Placerville is best known for its lawless, vigilante justice system, which resulted in so many hangings that it was known as Hangtown. 

Fester describes the legacy of Placerville well-documented, even in the textbooks used in one of the town’s elementary schools. Fester quotes one student who succinctly summed up his community history by saying “People got murdered here and that’s it.” I believe this student could use some history lessons. 

5 Important Tips in Creating Effective PBL Unit 

Determine your Learning Goals 

Fester emphasizes that you make sure to incorporate standards that you are already teaching, so projects do not become “one more thing on our plate.” It is important to determine exactly what standards and skills the project would address because this is where you will create activities and instructional sequences that are taught and addressed throughout the project. 

The 4th grade teacher and Fester discovered so many curricular connections that the problem, described by Fester, was deciding which ones to choose because of all the literacy processes involved. Both settled on informational reading, writing, and California Social Studies Standards for their project. 4th grade teacher and Fester also decided that communication would be a skill that the project focused on teaching as well. 

Provide Context to Sustain Inquiry 

It is critical that students have sufficient background knowledge to conduct their own research and learning because without an understanding of subject-specific vocabulary and basic background information on the Gold Rush, students, especially English Language Learning students, would have a tough time with independent research. 

Fester states “while the majority of the projects was built around learner-inquiry, a more traditional teacher-centered sequence occurred at the beginning of the project that incorporated activities from the boxed curriculum.” This way, as Fester explains, the teacher had expert knowledge that could be shared quickly, banking time for inquiry and research later. Fester notes that do not be afraid to front-load something so that other processes can be more independent. 

Survey Communities for Content 

Fester points out the teacher supported learner independence through small group guidance and curating resources such as age-appropriate articles and short films when appropriate. Fester explains these allowed students to work as independently as possible while providing a mechanism for individual scaffolding. 

When stories that are easy to understand or empathize with are hard to find, you can check out the following resources: 

  • Expand your definition of “community” beyond your local context. Community may mean your region, your county, or a part of your state/province. 

Consult Outside Experts 

Fester believes the key to a project focused on community stories is to bring outside experts from the community into the classroom, because no matter how small or remote every community member has experts who can make a tremendous difference in providing more nuance for your students. Fester explains “Not only can they help turn you on to resources and narratives that you otherwise would have missed, but also they can be a great conduit for students to connect classroom learning with what goes on outside of it.” 

According to Fester “you can find experts at historical societies, local museums, or the reference desk at your local library, or even among senior members of the community. In addition to being a source of information, they can serve as your project’s audience and help assess student work. In our project, staff from a nearby state park answered questions for the students and provided additional readings from the park’s historical archive.”   

Create Something Public    

If students are not sharing their knowledge with the community, then playing the role of historiographer means little. Fester explains there are several ways that learning can be shared publicly: 

Ask yourself what is best for your students:  

  • A website  
  • A series of podcasts  
  • A printable map and brochure 

Fester believes regardless of their age; students can produce work that is professional and fills a need. 

Examination of Local History Expands Community Knowledge 

  As a result of doing this project, Fester describes the remarkable learning that had occurred when students were able to reveal some truly remarkable things that expanded the narrative of their community beyond “People got murdered here.” Students uncovered the following: 

  • The creative and artistic history of their town as home to painter Thomas Kinkade, writer Mark Twain, poet Edwin Markham, and rock guitarist Larry LaLonde.  
  • Students found the innovative side of their community as the birthplace of the Studebaker automobile company and as a stop for the Pony Express.  
  • Students also discovered hidden diversity and Black excellence with the story of Nelson Ray, a freedman who became a successful miner and rented several properties at a time when segregation was the norm. 


I am happy to share the news from Fester: 

“Their collected stories were published and linked into a Google Maps walking tour that they shared with their local historical society so that visitors to their town could access it via QR code—a real-world application of their newfound knowledge that ultimately benefited the community beyond the end of the unit.”