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Rigorous PBL by Design

Rigorous PBL by Design
Three Shifts for Developing Confident and Competent Learners

Foreword by John Hattie, Afterword by Suzie Boss

May 2017 | 208 pages | Corwin

Thoughtful Design Guide for Maximum PBL Impact

When problem- and project-based learning (PBL) is designed and delivered effectively, it has the potential to create confident and competent learners. Educators must know how to thoughtfully design projects that move students from surface to deep and transfer learning.

Bridge the gap between expected PBL success and real-life classroom implementation by diving deep into the design for new and existing projects. Through in-depth examples, discover how to make three shifts essential to improving PBL’s overall effect:

  • Clarity: Students should be clear on what they are expected to learn, where they are in the process, and what next steps they need to take to get there
  • Challenge: Help students move from surface to deep and transfer learning
  • Culture: Empower them to use that knowledge to make a difference in their life and the lives of others

Be the key to help students discover, deepen, and apply their learning to a world beyond them.

“This is an outstanding resource for educators, providing a practical framework for creating effective and impactful PBL experiences. We are committed to strengthening our PBL practices and we look forward to adding this valuable resource to our professional reference library.”
Rachel Bergren, MSc, Director, Education and Guest Experience
The Marine Mammal Center

"Michael McDowells book provides powerful insights to ensure the conditions essential for PBL are present for increased impact on student learning. This magnificent book provides educators with practical ways to design authentic and 'ever-lasting' learning."
Sarah Martin, Principal
Stonefields School, New Zealand

Foreword by John Hattie
Chapter 1. Focusing on Confidence and Competence in Learning
Confident and Competent Students at Work: Sir Francis Drake High School

Confidence in Learning Attributes

Competence in Learning Levels: Surface, Deep, and Transfer

PBL as a Vehicle to Build Confidence and Competence in Learning

Chapter 2. Designing PBL for Student Confidence and Competence
Make PBL Effective

Advancing PBL by Design

Chapter 3. Design Shift I: Clarity—Understanding Expectations of Learning Upfront
Clear Expectations Motivate Learning

Where Am I Going in My Learning?

Steps for Determining Clear Learning Intentions and Success Criteria in Project Design

Chapter 4. Design Shift II: Challenge—Structuring and Sequencing Learning Through Projects
Designing for Challenge and Intervention

Step 1 (Plan A): Align Student Activities and Teaching Actions According to Surface, Deep, and Transfer Expectations

Step 2 (Plan B): Structure Inquiry to Identify Student Performance and Provide Support That Aligns With the Learning Needs of Students

Chapter 5. Design Shift III: Culture—Knowing and Acting on Impact Collectively
Developing a Culture of Confidence

Chapter 6. Reflections on PBL Practice
Working Together for Impact

Retooling PBL to Serve as a Vehicle for Confidence and Competence

Afterword by Suzie Boss
Appendix A. Project Design Template

Appendix B. Sample Projects

Appendix C. PBL Design Shift and Key Elements Checklist

Appendix D. Recommended Texts for PBL Implementation


"An excellent tool for any educator, administrator, or professional development coach who wants to dive deep into designing an effective and rigorous PBL. This book provides excellent details for the reader and step by step instructions on designing as well as implementing a PBL to enhance student cognition."

Tara Howell, Vice Principal and Educational Leader
Junipero Serra High School, San Diego, CA

"If we believe that ALL students will succeed in school today, it will require all of us to let go some of the things that have been most essential to what we know about teaching and learning (our past practice and experience) and how we have let that define our profession. The level of engagement and connection to the world around them is the driver of learning for students today. PBL represents one of our best strategies to connect those essentials with the desired outcome of success for ALL. Our students need the tangible connection of “learning to life experience” as they have an increased access to the rote knowledge that drove education a generation ago. It is critical that educators further enhance the opportunities and experiences of students by enhancing their professional toolbox. PBL is an essential tool for all educators."

Tom Hierck, Consultant/Author
Hierck Consulting, Gibsons, BC Canada

"This book has the potential to truly improve PBLs impact on student learning."

Tara Taupier, Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services
Tamalpais Union High School District, Larkspur, CA

"I’ve always advocated and often practiced problem-based learning in classrooms, but recently I’ve come up short with seeing the benefits of PBL that I expected. Rigorous PBL provided new direction and justification for why I need to change my practice. I can’t wait for school to start!"

Ernie Rambo, Teacher, 7th Grade U.S History
Walter Johnson Academy of International Studies, Las Vegas, NV

"This book is very thorough in explaining the differences between PBL done more as a project and done with student self-monitoring and transfer of knowledge.  The teacher’s role at each student’s level (surface, deep and transfer) is explained clearly."

Dana B. Leonard, SPED high school teacher
Ledford High School, Thomasville, NC

"There are more than enough matrices and examples throughout the book to demonstrate the authors points. I particularly appreciate the extended examples provided via hyperlink. The book offers varied examples of grade levels and content to help teachers create a PBL project based on the author’s recommendations."

LaQuita Outlaw, Middle School Principal
Bay Shore Middle School, Bay Shore, NY

"A highly practical and informative guide to project/problem based learning."

Jo Boaler, Professor and Co-Founder of YouCubed
Stanford University

"PBL, done well, helps students to develop the skills needed to be successful in a rapidly changing world.  This book offers both a thought provoking and practical guide for educators looking to transform their classrooms through PBL.  McDowell provides critical insights into common PBL pitfalls and identifies key design shifts that can deeply impact student learning.  Novice and experienced PBL teachers alike will find this book helpful in improving their practice and delivering on the promise of PBL."

Megan Pacheco, Chief Learning Officer
New Tech Network, Napa, CA

"Far too many people assume that problem based learning simply works.  It doesn’t.  It works when specific conditions are right.  It works when the experience is designed in a way that build students’ confidence and competence. That is easier said than done, which is why we are so pleased with this book. It guides readers through specific design features that they can use to ensure deep learning, and transfer of that learning, for students.  McDowell has solved the problem and is willing to share is findings with others."

Douglas Fisher & Nancy Frey
San Diego, CA

"Hattie’s research showed that PBL has a low effect size. However, Hattie’s intention behind exposing the effect size was not to have teachers throw it out. Rather, he wanted teachers and leaders to use evidence to look at how they do it, and improve on the process. In Rigorous PBL By Design, Michael McDowell does exactly that. McDowell provides a practical, step-by-step process using Hattie’s research to help teachers improve PBL so it provides the effect on student learning that it should."

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D., Author/Consultant

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ISBN: 9781506359021