How to Seek Rigor in Project Based Learning Classroom

Rigor in Project Based Learning

Seeking Rigor In PBL

What is Rigorous Project Based Learning?

Robert Marzano presents a way to design projects that emphasizes the enhancement of students’ options. He uses structures that provide clear pathways to rigor from his book Understanding Rigor in the Classroom. The goal of Project Based instruction is for students to design their own projects. However, because cognitively complex tasks are challenging and have unique features, Marzano suggests it is best to introduce them to students one at a time.

Complex Cognitive Processes Image
Complex Cognitive Processes

Marzano explains that the approach to doing this involves designing projects around cognitively complex tasks with a specific structure. The reason is that there are definitely cognitively complex tasks that require the application of knowledge and discernible structures. This is commonly used in academic and nonacademic situations. Marzano says those tasks are problem solving, decision making, experimental inquiry, investigation, invention, and system analysis. Many of these projects in which we engage in our daily lives are centered on these processes.

I will discuss Problem Solving, Decision Making, and Investigation.

Problem Solving

Marzano believes problem solving is the most flexible knowledge application task that can be applied to PBL. Problem solving can be used in both academic and nonacademic situations. Marzano notes having students develop projects that focus on academic problems teaches them a highly transferable skill. Addressing and overcoming constraints and limiting conditions impeding the accomplishment of a goal is described as problem solving.

Marzano Shows an Example of a Problem-Solving Process

When the teacher presents an example of famous problem that was solved can introduce the problem-solving process. The teacher describes some problems the Apollo 13 crew had to solve in 1970 on their failed mission to the moon. One of the problem was that carbon monoxide on the Lunar module was building up. There were no more air filters designed for the command module. Unfortunately, these filters had a square hose, but the opening for the filter in the Lunar module was round. So the crew of Apollo 13 had to design an adapter that let the square hose fit into the round hole of the lunar module. They did this using material available like tape, cardboard, and even a sock worn by one of the astronauts.

Teacher points out some of the defining features of problems after discussing a famous problem with students. The problem-solving process, such as:

  • It involves a goal for which there are constraints or limiting conditions.
  • To solve a problem, you have to consider alternatives.
  • You keep trying out alternatives until you have overcome the constraints or limiting conditions.

Once students have discussed problem solving at a general level, the teacher would present them with detailed steps for problem solving, such as:

  1. Identify the goal you wish to accomplish.
  2. Identify the obstacles or limiting conditions in the way of meeting the goal.
  3. Analyze the obstacles or limiting conditions to determine how they are stopping you from meeting your goal.
  4. Identify and describe at least two solutions that could be used to overcome the obstacles and limiting conditions you have identified.
  5. Try out the possible solution that seems the best and involves resources that are readily available.
  6. After you have tried out your solution, analyze how well it has worked.
  7. If your problem is still not solved, try another solution you have identified or generate a new possible solution.
  8. If you cannot solve the problem, identify a related goal you can accomplish.

Next, the teacher would show and exemplify these steps using a concrete problem. For example, the teacher might explain that he was leaving for work and realize his car would not start. The first step in the process is to identify the goal. Here, it is getting to work on time. The second step is to identify the obstacles or limiting conditions, which is that his typical means of transportation was not available. The teacher would continue to exemplify the steps he took to try to get to work. Once the students understand the problem-solving process, the teacher guides them in the design of a project such as:

To investigate how historical problems were solved, such as the air filter problems in Apollo 13. Students would be asked to describe:

  • The original goal
  • The obstacle or constraining conditions
  • The solutions that were considered
  • Why was the final solution selected?
  • Whether an alternative goal had been considered

Problem Solving projects require students to generate and describe new relationships-namely, the solutions hypothesized to overcome specific obstacles and limiting conditions. Problem solving also requires students to discern new distinctions—specifically, the distinction between an obstacle and a limiting condition.

Decision Making

The knowledge application process of generating and applying criteria to select between alternatives that seem equal is called decision making. Marzano describes decision making, like problem solving, is a process that can be used in academic situations and in life outside of school. You can introduce the decision-making process by describing famous decisions that have been made, such as the now infamous decision by Decca Records in 1962 not to sign the Beatles. Decca’s reasons included criteria like people were not interested in quartets, bands that relied on guitars were losing popularity, and British bands would not be accepted in the United States. This was not a wise financial decision for Decca.

Teacher can use this example to discuss the defining features of decision making:

  • It involves selecting among competing alternatives.
  • It involves identifying criteria on which alternatives will be judged.
  • To some extent, all problems involve decisions, but not all decisions involve problems.

Once decision-making has been discussed, students should receive a detailed decision-making process:

  1. State the decision you are trying to make and the alternatives you are considering.
  2. Describe the criteria you are using to select among the alternatives.
  3. Assign a score (e.g., from 1 to 3) to each criterion to indicate its importance.
  4. For each alternative, assign a score (e.g., from 1 to 3) showing how well it meets each criterion.
  5. Multiply the importance score for each criterion by the score showing how well each alternative meets the criterion.
  6. For each alternative, add up the products of the criterion importance scores and the scores showing the extent to which the alternative met the criterion. Identify the alternative with the most points as your decision.
  7. Reexamine your criteria and alternatives to make sure you have made the right decision.

A teacher can illustrate this process by presenting students with the example of when she decided where to go on vacation. The alternatives she considered were San Diego, Orlando, and Denver. The criteria she considered were:

  1. Warm
  2. Costs less than a $1000
  3. Not too far from home

For step #3 involving importance scores, the teacher assigned these scores:

A. Warm = 3

B. Costs less than a $1000 = 2

C. Not too far from home = 1

For step#4 involving the extent to which each alternative satisfies the criterion, teacher assigned these scores:

 San DiegoOrlandoDenver
A. Warm (3)331
B. Less than $1000 (2)212
Not too far from home (1)313
Alternative Criterion Table

For Step #5 and #6 involving the multiplication and summation of scores, the teacher performed the following computation:

 San DiegoOrlandoDenver
A. Warm (3)3 x 3 = 93 x 3 = 91 x 3 = 3
B. Less than $1000 (2)2 x 2 = 41 x 2 = 22 x 2 = 4
C. Not too far from home (1)3 x 1 = 31 x 1 = 13 x 1 = 3
Final Score Results

The teacher acknowledged that given these calculations, San Diego was the best choice given the alternatives that were considered and the criteria that were used.

For step #7, teacher considered if she wished to reexamine the criteria or alternatives but decided this decision to go on to San Diego adequately represents what she valued.

Once students understand the decision-making process, the teacher guides them in the design of projects around decision-making. It is to investigate how historical decisions were made, such as the decision President Truman made to drop the atomic bomb on Japan on August 6, 1945. Students would be asked to collect information on the decision and come up with reasonable estimates of:

  • the different alternatives being considered;
  • criteria used; and
  • the scores

Truman and his team likely assigned in steps #3, #4, #5 and #6 of the process.

Marzano emphasizes that students must forge new relationships by cross-referencing criteria with alternatives within the decision-making process. It is the criteria they select that renders their decisions rigorous or not. Marzano notes that an important new distinction for students is that all criteria are not created equal. They should consider criteria more important than other criteria, and make this explicit in the decision-making process.


Marzano describes the process of investigation as identifying and then resolving differences if opinion or contradictory information about ideas, historical events, or possible future events. This implies there are three types of investigation tasks: definitional investigation, historical investigating, and projective investigation. See table below.

 Type of Investigation Example
Definitional InvestigationDesigning and defending a precise definition for an idea for which there are differing opinions and no generally agreed upon definition
Historical InvestigationArticulating and defending an explanation for a past event for which there are differing opinions as to what occurred and no generally agreed upon account of the event.
Projective InvestigationArticulating and defending a prediction for a possible future event for which there are differing opinions as to what might occur and no generally agreed upon account.
Type of Investigation Table

Marzano likened all three types of investigation to investigative reporting. The teacher can introduce the process by relating to how the investigation process discloses common misconceptions about the development of the light bulb. The teacher explains that while most people believe Thomas Edison invented the “electric light,” this is inaccurate. If you conducted a historical investigation, you would find it correct to say Edison produced the first commercially useful incandescent
light bulb, but he was neither the first nor the only person who tried to develop an incandescent light bulb. Some historians assert that as many as 20 inventors had created versions before Edison’s. Edison’s version outshone the others because of three factors

  • an effective incandescent filament
  • a better vacuum
  • a system that made power distribution from a centralized source economically viable

The teacher can use this example to point out some of the defining features of an investigation, such as:

  • It focuses on identifying the facts about a specific topic
  • It involves researching what people agree on and disagree on regarding a topic
  • It involves taking and defending a position

The teacher would then give students detailed steps for investigation:

  1. Identify and describe
    • the idea you will define (definitional investigation);
    • the past event you will explain (historical investigation);
    • the hypothetical event you will explain (projective investigation).
  2. Describe what is generally known about or agreed upon about your idea, past event, or hypothetical event.
  3. Describe what people disagree or are confused about regarding your idea, past event, or hypothetical event.
  4. Describe your position about disagreements or confusions, and provide support for that position.

Teacher would then show the process using a concrete example. Teacher can illustrate a time when he became curious about the idea of old-growth forests. Teacher had moved to Oregon and kept hearing the term “Old-growth Forest” but was not sure what it meant. He finally became curious enough he started investigating the term. He found that it became popular in the 1970s when loggers in Oregon used it to describe forests that had reached substantial longevity with no substantial change to their ecosystems. Although this seemed intuitive and logical, when he dug further, he found there were a lot of issues about old-growth forests on which people disagreed, such as their common features. He continued researching enough about old-growth forests to come up with an answer to the common features question that satisfied him.

The teacher can guide students in designing their own projects once students have a working knowledge of the investigative process. Marzano suggests have students study famous investigation such as the one conducted by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein around the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s. Students would be asked to:

  • Describe the general findings articulated by Woodward and Bernstein.
  • Describe how they collected their information.
  • Describe controversies associated with Woodward and Bernstein’s conclusions.
  • State a position regarding one or more controversies, and defend that position.

Marzano reminds us that the investigation process directly fosters rigor by focusing on identifying and solving areas of disagreement or confusion. Students must discern features they have not previously been aware, and articulate support for those features.

Students Creating Their Own Projects

Marzano advises students to generate their own projects quickly. In an environment, it affords students many options. To create projects, students could ask these questions in a specific subject area to generate ideas for projects. For example, a literature teacher has students ask questions as tools for creating their own projects. One student might find she wants to study a decision to ban a specific book in the district (decision making). Another student might find he wants to investigate the final days of Ernest Hemingway’s life leading to his suicide (historical investigation), etc. Students would use these steps to describe the structure of their projects.

Problem Solving
Is there a problem that I would like to solve and for which I would defend my solution?
Is there a problem that has been solved that I would like to analyze?
Decision Making
Is there a decision I would like to make and defend?
Is there a decision that has been made that I would like to analyze?
Is there an unresolved issue about the defining features of something (definitional), or why or how something happened (historical), or what might occur under specific circumstances (projective) I would like to study?
Is there an investigation conducted about the defining features of something (definitional), or why or how something happened (historical), or what might occur under specific conditions (projective) I would like to analyze?
Experimental Inquiry
Is there a prediction I would like to make and test?
Is there an experiment that has been conducted that I would like to analyze?
Is there a situation I would like to improve on by creating something new?
Is there an invention I would like to analyze?
System Analysis
Is there a system I would like to analyze?
Is there an analysis of a system I would like to study?
Planning questions for Projects Table

If you would like to learn more about cognitive complexity tasks, read Understanding Rigor in the Classroom by Robert J. Marzano.

To review Components of Rigor, check out What You Need to Know Two Key Components of Path to Rigor Post