PBL Design: From Essential Questions to Authentic Tasks

How to design prompts and tasks that promote thinking deeply and taking action

chalk on blackboard of question mark, lightbulb and rocket launch

Project-based learning engages students in deep thinking while connecting their learning in the classroom to the world around them. The essential question drives a project and describes what you want students to think about, explore, and formulate an answer to at the end of the project. The authentic task is the work that students will do to help them better understand and respond to the question.

The essential question drives the "Why are we learning this?" and the authentic task drives the "What are we doing?"

Consider a PBL approach for immigration with an essential question of, "What factors contribute to successful relocation of new immigrants?" An authentica task must ask students to apply their knowledge about past immigrants and the immigration process to solve a problem and gain the understanding necessary to answer this question.

Immigration Station

Your city has recently had a large influx of immigrants. Some of them have found work and are settling in, while others are having problems with assimilation. Based on what you know from past immigration experiences, devise a plan to help these new immigrants relocate successfully in your city. Your plan might address housing, education, language barriers, cultural pride, job training, and health care. Be prepared to make a 15 minute presentation on what needs to be done as well as share materials (handbooks, posters, training materials) necessary to implement your plan.

An authentic task should ask students to apply information to solve problems, determine connections, and assess relationships. As they complete the task, students gain the knowledge, skills, and understanding necessary to answer the essential question.

As you determine what students should do, and begin writing an authentic task, here are some thoughts to consider:

Authentic or Real-World

An authentic task should create a bridge between the content learned in the classroom and why this knowledge is important in the world outside of it. By connecting to the world outside of the classroom, you help students understand the relevancy of what you are learning and working on inside the classroom.


Students don't often get a chance to truly CREATE in the classroom. Taking a project-based approach also means a conscious effort to move power and agency to students. While time and expertise may seem like legitimate constraints, students need to be empowered to and responsible for choosing the product that best represents and communicates their ideas and effort.

Creating a product provides students with an opportunity to demonstrate their learning and gives you an obvious summative assessment. Formative assessments occur throughout the project-building process to support student ideation, thinking, research, and communication.

Interdisciplinary Thinking

Like STEM, the best PBL addresses messy problems that can't be addressed or limited to a single discipline.

As students work to answer the essential question, they will draw on their expertise and experiences in a variety of disciplines and stretch their knowledge and understanding of many subjects. The task should also require students to apply knowledge and skills from many different disciplines.


Real-world, or authentic, problems don't have an easy answer and require diverse thinking and skills. Working in teams on these complex problems helps students identify their own strengths and weaknesses and utilizing this awareness to achieve their goals.


Develop and write a task that requires students to be responsible for locating information and developing an answer on their own, with you as a resource or "guide on the side". Requiring students to determine what and how information is learned transfers the responsibility for knowing and learning onto the students and helps them develop metacognitive skills (learning how they learn).

Creative Educator can help bring PBL to your school or district.Find out more >
Melinda Kolk

by Melinda Kolk

Melinda Kolk (@melindak) is the Editor of Creative Educator and the author of Teaching with Clay Animation. She has been helping educators implement project-based learning and creative technologies like clay animation into classroom teaching and learning for the past 15 years.

Creative Educator can help you bring project-based learning to your school.

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