Developing the questions for project-based learning

Using big ideas to develop essential questions that guide project design and driving questions that guide student work.

two colorful question marks highlighted in pile of grey question marks

Project-based learning (PBL) involves a large time commitment, so you want to do everything possible to maximize its implementation. A PBL approach to student learning is most effective when it promotes deep thinking and helps students uncover the big ideas in your curriculum.

Clearly understanding the big idea is also essential to effective instructional design. The big idea helps you focus, choose, and develop both essential questions to guide your instructional design and driving questions to guide student work.

Identify the Big Idea

Big ideas form the core foundations of your course or curriculum. While you may want students to know facts and details now to support an argument or complete a specific assignment, the big idea captures the essence of what you want them to know and be able to do years from now as a result of learning with you at this time.

Focusing on the big idea can help you more effective frame student project work. Most educators are familiar with the “Backward Design” process outlined by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their book Understanding by Design.

Here is a simple process to help you determine the enduring understanding behind your topic:

  1. Brainstorm a list of ALL the different things you teach on this topic.
  2. Review the list. Group the items together by theme or other obvious relationship.
  3. Write the theme or relationship next to each grouping.
  4. Review the groups. Try to combine them together under a larger theme.
  5. Repeat this process until you have only one theme left.
  6. Write a sentence of no more than six words that articulates the big idea.

Have you ever heard of a six-word story? This online challenge arises from the story that someone prompted Ernest Hemingway to write a story in six words. His response?

“For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

Now this story is likely an urban legend, and may not even come from Hemingway, but the process of writing a six-word story can be a useful tool to help you narrow down the big idea. Use this format to try distilling the essence of the project. Remember, a story is more than a string of adjectives and should have some sort of conflict!

Develop an essential question

Once you have determined exactly what students should understand when they finish a project, framing project work becomes much easier. The next step is to write an essential question that will drive the project.

An essential question:

You can look to your standards, as well as online, for examples of essential questions. An easy way to evaluate the quality of your essential question is to consider whether it would be worthwhile and enjoyable to discuss or debate with colleagues in your discipline.

Sample Essential Questions

Language Arts

  • Can a fictional story be "true"?
  • How are stories from other places and times about me?
  • Does who tells the story (narrator) affect how I read it?


  • What can numbers show?
  • Can everything be quantified?
  • What can patterns reveal?


  • Do adaptations improve survival?
  • Are animals essential for our survival?
  • Does modeling improve science?

Social Studies

  • Why do we have rules?
  • Who should lead?
  • How can we know if we weren't there?
  • How does where I live impact how I live?

Write a driving question

Essential questions are useful as you envision the structure and supports for student project work. But often, these questions are too conceptual, abstract, and academic to hold a student’s interest. Instead, utilize what you know about the big idea and the essential question you have identified and craft a driving question to focus and guide student work.

For example, look at the topic of human migration. Why do people move? Most classrooms focus on immigration instead of the big idea of migration. Why? Immigration is often a local issue directly impacting our students. It is also political and while we want to avoid politicizing an issue, issues in the news are ones students have heard of and help connect classroom learning to the world beyond it.

We can also look to history to learn about past immigration events, successes, and problems, which provides a case study that is somewhat removed and safe for students to discuss. During research and exploration, we may ask a question like, “How many immigrants entered the United States from 1800-1850?“ but this is not an essential or driving question. It has a specific right answer and is not deep enough to hold interest or drive student project work.

image of immigrants arrive at Ellis Island

Instead, we could ask, “What factors contribute to successful relocation of new immigrants?” This question drives at the enduring understanding much more effectively. The question has more than one right answer. The topic was and is still an important issue.

Then, to drive student work, you could ask, “How can we develop policies and resources that support the new immigrants who arrive where we live?” This fosters deep discussions about what “success” means for immigrants and our local communities and can lead students to a range of efforts and products that require deep thinking, research, organization, project management, and collaboration to complete.

As you prepare

Knowing and using big ideas and essential questions to develop effective driving questions is imperative for the success of project-based learning. While this process may seem time consuming when you want to jump in and find leveled texts or thinking routines to prompt student reflection, determining these first makes it easier to choose the right resources for an even more powerful student learning experience.

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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