Project-Based Learning in the Social Studies Classroom

PBL gives students the opportunity to “gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge.”[1] What truly makes PBL special is that it taps into student inquiry and sparks genuine interest and discovery in the topics we cover in the social studies classroom and brings them into the real world.

One exemplary implementation of PBL in the social studies classroom is through programs like Ohio History Day. Ohio History Day offers students a platform to explore historical topics aligned with a yearly theme, culminating in regional, state, and national contests where students present their findings. By adhering to the fundamental principles of PBL, Ohio History Day empowers students to succeed by fostering curiosity, research skills, and the ability to communicate their insights effectively.

What’s the Process?

PBL follows a fairly simple process with lots of room for movement and modification. Students will Get Ready, Get Set, and Build. During the Get Ready phase, students initiate the investigation process, exploring broad topics and refining their focus into research questions. In the Get Set phase, students delve deeper into research, analyze sources, and construct historical arguments. Finally, in the Build phase, students create projects to share their knowledge, selecting formats that best convey their findings to others.

Building PBL into your social studies classroom

PBL can feel overwhelming when you think about all of the moving parts for each project and each student. Here are some basic considerations when bringing PBL into your classroom.

  1. Start with your standards.
    1. PBL hits standards from across the curriculum. Start with your classroom content first- what topics and areas should students focus on? Then branch out into the RWC and SEL standards.
  2. Develop a plan.
    1. PBL is extremely flexible. Projects can be worked on anywhere from a month to the entire school year. Work backwards from your project end-date to develop a timeline including initial inquiry, research and thesis development, and project creation.
  3. Consider project presentations.
    1. While PBL offers students a lot of freedom, you can guide students’ presentation types to best fit your classroom and resources. For example, Ohio History Day allows students to build documentaries, exhibits, performances, papers, and websites. Also consider how students will show off their work. This could be in a class or school-wide fair, or even better, through a community night!
  4. The “After” work
    1. Don’t forget to consider how you will evaluate and assess students’ work. Be sure to set clear rules at the beginning of the process and build in checkpoints for students along the way. Using rubrics, like Ohio History Day Evaluation Sheets, can help make sure students understand expectations of their projects.

Ready to get started? Check out some of the resources to help you implement PBL in your classroom!


Blog Image Citation: “1980 Ohio History Day Exhibit.” Photograph. Cleveland, Ohio: Ohio History Day, 1980.

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