Key Elements in High-Quality Student Projects

(Originally titled “7 Essentials for Project-Based Learning”)

Check these key elements out against our criteria for authentic enquiry…

“Some projects border on busywork,” say California-based educators John Larmer and John Mergendoller in this Educational Leadership article. Here are their suggestions for projects that involve meaningful inquiry and engage students’ minds:

• A need to know – A unit should begin with a “hook” or “entry event” that grabs students’ interest and motivates them to think, I need to know this to meet the challenge I’ve accepted. The need-to-know event can be a video, a provocative discussion, a guest speaker, a field trip, or a mock letter setting up a scenario.
• A driving question – “A project without a driving question is like an essay without a thesis,” say Larmer and Mergendoller. “A good driving question captures the heart of the project in clear, compelling language, which gives students a sense of purpose and challenge. The question should be provocative, open-ended, complex, and linked to the core of what you want students to learn.” Examples: When is war justified? Is our water safe to drink? How can we improve this website so that more young people will use it?
• Student voice and choice – The more, the better, say Larmer and Mergendoller. This might involve students choosing a topic under the guiding question, choosing from a limited menu of options for creative products, or students deciding what products to create, what resources to use, and how to structure their time.
• 21st-century skills – Collaboration is a key facet of project work – teams of three or four students planning their tasks, figuring out how to produce their product, and monitoring their work quality through self-assessment.
• Inquiry and innovation – For example, students working on a water pollution unit might generate a series of specific questions: What diseases can you get from water? Do you have to drink it to get sick? Where do bacteria come from? Pursuing answers in books and the Internet – coached by the teacher – should lead to further questions.
• Feedback and revision – “Students need to learn that most people’s first attempts don’t result in high quality and that revision is a frequent feature of real-world work,” say Larmer and Mergendoller. The teacher should provide ongoing feedback, bring in experts and mentors to look over students’ drafts, and provide rubrics and other guides to help students self-assess.
• A publicly presented product – Students should present their final products to an audience that might include parents, peers, community members, and government officials in a big-deal exhibition night. “Schoolwork is more meaningful when it’s not done only for teachers or the test,” say Larmer and Mergendoller. “When students present their work to a real audience, they care more about its quality.”

“7 Essentials for Project-Based Learning” by John Larmer and John Mergendoller in Educational Leadership, September 2010 (Vol. 68, #1, p. 34-37); this article is available for purchase at Larmer is at and Mergendoller at

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1 Response to Key Elements in High-Quality Student Projects

  1. David Jackson says:

    What is really heartening about these ‘key elements’ is that they might just as easily have been a synthesis of evidence gleaned from our Learning Futures schools. They are entirely consistent with both the practice in the schools and with the material in the most recent LF pamphlet.

    Which is pretty good news, really!

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