Building Blocks of PBL

Check out Building Blocks of PBL Video

Lesson Plan Check List for PBL

Jennifer Pieratt, author of Project-Based Learning: Assessment and Other Dirty Words, introduces deeper learning in the video The Building Blocks of Project-Based Learning. The Six Competencies are the building blocks of Project-Based Learning, and Pieratt uses it to give tips on how to integrate assessment best practices into your projects.

Deeper learning is an umbrella term for the skills and knowledge that students must possess to succeed in 21st century jobs and civic life. The deeper learning framework includes six competencies essential to prepare students to achieve at high levels. Six Competencies are:

  1. Master core academic content
  2. Think critically and solve complex problems
  3. Work collaboratively
  4. Communicate effectively
  5. Learn how to learn
  6. Develop academic mindsets

The foundation of deeper learning is mastery of core academic content, whether in traditional subjects such as mathematics or in interdisciplinary fields, which merge several key fields of study. Students are expected to be active participants in their education. Ideally, they are immersed in a challenging curriculum that requires them to acquire new knowledge, apply what they have learned, and build upon that to create new knowledge.

Start With the End in Mind

To master core academic content, students must develop and draw from a baseline understanding of knowledge in an academic discipline, and transfer knowledge to other situations. According to Pieratt (2018), a common best practice in teaching is to plan with the end in mind (known as Backward Design). Pieratt states “High-quality PBL is grounded in these same foundations:” (pg. 2)

  • Begin by deciding what the final product will be.
  • Ask what knowledge students will need to master.
  • Determine what skills students will need to develop to complete this final product.

For students to know and understand the content knowledge and skills, teachers must be clear on what content they will need to learn to complete the project. Also, you must identify what district or school performance assessments will need to be integrated into the project.

Build Your Rubric: Summative Assessment Tool

Once the content and skills have been identified, students must master the project for skills identified. This is the time to build your rubric. Pieratt recommends building your rubric based on expert tools, rather than coming up with your own from scratch. Pieratt’s favorite Open Education (assessment) Resources for 21st-century skills (which are embedded in PBL) are:

Pieratt recommends reviewing your rubric on these websites and identifying one row from two to three rubrics that highlight the nuanced, 21st-Century skills and content knowledge that students will develop in your project.

Building Rubric Rows

Pieratt (2018) suggests “Copy and paste the descriptors from the expert rubrics into your own document. At this point, you have 2-3 rows of your rubric already created. Next, you’ll visit your content standards, or perhaps your district assessment tools, and drop the language from these sources into the remaining rows of your rubric. Your summative assessment tool will end up being anywhere from 4-8 rows. To see an example, check out these PBL lessons done with Boeing, which all include rubrics in the teacher materials.” (pg. 2)

Engineering Design Process Video


Benchmarks are the digestible chunks that break down your project and allow students to provide you with deliverables they reflect on and formatively assess, using 1-2 rows from your rubric. Sample benchmarks for a Public Service Announcement are listed below.

Benchmark Image
Benchmark Example

Calendar It Out

Pieratt (2018) suggests “Once you’ve identified your benchmarks, you know the project milestones, which will allow you to develop a project calendar for planning logistics. But more importantly, it will allow you to cross-check that you are formatively assessing and providing formal feedback to students at multiple points throughout the project. This step is critical in high-quality PBL, because it serves as a “safety net” to ensure that students are mastering content before moving forward. For more on formative assessment, check out Tch’s Formative Assessment Deep Dive.” (pg. 4) (To access Teaching Channel’s Formative Assessment Deep Dive video you need to subscribe to their membership)

Pieratt (2018) says “This step also affords you the opportunity to re-teach if needed, and better differentiate teaching and learning throughout the project process. Assessing and receiving feedback multiple times in a project allows students to fully develop their content mastery and skills, therefore moving to the right columns on your rubric.” (pg. 4)


When you embrace the assessment best practices into Project-Based Learning, it truly allows students to have ownership over their learning. When we’re upfront with students about what we expect from them (through tools such as rubrics), learning doesn’t feel like a mystery.