Home Project Based Learning 5 Step Blueprint for Designing Great Social Studies Projects

5 Step Blueprint for Designing Great Social Studies Projects



This Example can Serve as a Template for Projects of Many Types

Project Based Learning (PBL) has become a major pedagogical focus today, and well it should. The idea behind PBL is that students will gain far greater comprehension and their learning will be far more meaningful if it is inquiry-based and results in an original creation. In essence, students will engage in investigation that answers a question or solves a problem and then craft an artifact of some type, whether that be in the form of a prepared paper/report, a presentation, or a physical object.

The value of this methodology is obvious – students direct their own learning rather than that learning being controlled by a traditional external provider – the instructor or professor.

With that in mind, this learning methodology is a natural for social studies classes at any grade level, up to and including college study. The concept can perhaps be more concretely demonstrated by an example of PBL in a modern world history course.

Unit – World War I

Question: How did technology during world War I alter warfare?

1. Preparation

Obviously, a great deal of scaffolding must occur before a project to answer such a question can be assigned. It is the professor’s task to ensure that students have a solid background of the causes, events, and results of World War I. This, of course, occurs through classroom lectures, text, and outside reading assignments, etc. Perhaps mastery is assessed through a unit exam. The goal is that students have a solid foundation of knowledge and understanding of the context within which their PBL projects will occur.

2. Project Parameters/Options

Given that the project parameters must relate to technology, students can then be divided into groups, with each group determining the specific area of technology they wish to explore – communications, weaponry, medicine, espionage, maritime warfare, and so on.

Another parameter must be set regarding allowable sources of information. Obviously, much of the research will be digital in nature; however, the professor may wish to restrict resources to original sources only and/or to specific scholarly journals on the topics.

Duplication of specific technologies by groups is not an issue, although ideally, all types of technology will be “covered” by group selections. The process of inquiry, the collaboration, and the resulting project is more critical than the specific topic that has been chosen.

3. Setting Timeframes/Benchmarks

Most instructors/professors will want to approve the project topic prior to a group proceeding with its inquiry. These should be submitted according to a specific deadline and include at least an initial list of resources that will be used. It is the professor’s task to review those resources and ensure that they are appropriate and scholarly.

Other benchmarks may or may not be set, according to a professor’s desire to keep the groups on track or to allow them to manage their own timelines based upon the final submission deadline. Students will have varying degrees of experience with the group and long-term projects, and this should be considered. Generally, the lower level courses may see more benchmark submissions, while upper-level PBL projects may only have a final submission date.

4. Instructor/Professor as Facilitator

During the course of the project completion, an instructor’s role is that of facilitator only. This can mean several things:

  • Some instructors will allot class time for project work, holding “office hours” during those times, so that groups may present issues and challenges they are facing and receive suggestions.
  • If normal class time is not to be allotted, many instructors discover that groups should be smaller in size, so that there will be greater opportunity for members to meet and work.

5. Project Presentation/Peer Assessment

One of the purposes of PBL is that students have “real world” experiences of self-directed inquiry, collaboration, and communication – skills that will bode them well in the world of work, so much of which today is project-based. Simply producing a college essay or paper as an individual project only provides experience in research and writing – not something that fosters the soft skills that careers demand.

Teams must present their projects to their peers and receive feedback on their work. This, again, is excellent preparation for the newer workplaces they will be entering. Newer organizational structures in business mean that there is no long a top-down hierarchy of individual task assignments. Organizational structures are moving to a lateral model – one in which peers collaborate, share, and evaluate one another.

A Paradigm Shift for Educators

It is difficult for educators, particularly those who have been in their professions for years, to make the shift from being in control of educational delivery to being more of a facilitator of the learning process. Being a facilitator means giving up total control, and this is difficult for many. The resistance has meant that technology has been slow to be implemented in the classroom; it has meant that moving students toward self-direction has been slowed. But two things must be remembered here:

  • Students are far more invested in their learning when they are in charge of it and when they see value in learning independently.
  • PBL means that students will retain what they have learned far better and will gain valuable experience in inquiry-based learning, rather than contrived teacher-directed learning, which is not translatable to the real world.
  • PBL means that students are far better prepared to enter the new workforces of the 21st century with both the hard and soft skills necessary to be successful.



  1. Good points, Pat! Unfortunately to my mind giving up the total control is the toughest and at the same time the most important thing that educators should do.

  2. You should check out HSTRY (www.hstry.co), a website designed for social studies!

    HSTRY is a free digital learning tool that enables teachers and students to create and explore interactive timelines. In just a few clicks, users can include text, images, videos and audio files, but also multiple choice and drag and drop quiz questions. We set out by recreating historical events on Twitter but since have grown into a tool used in classrooms across the world 🙂


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