A Conversation About Project-Based Learning with Patsy Egan!

Welcome, Patsy Egan!

We are looking forward to learning much from you this week about the topic of project-based learning.

I know you have a great deal of experience in our field as a teacher and an instructional leader and that you have a special interest in project-based learning and its potential to engage adult learners and teachers.

To get us started could you tell us what exactly is project based learning? Isn’t project based learning for kids? Why do it with adults?  What do you see as the benefits?

Members, you are invited to post your questions for Patsy as well as share your experience with project-based learning with everyone here on LINCS.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, Teaching & Learning and English Language Acquistion CoPs

Patsy's Bio:

Patsy Egan, PhD, is the director of ATLAS, ABE Teaching & Learning Advancement System, housed in the Hamline University School of Education in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her teaching and research focus on literacy development and teacher education for adult learners, including adult basic education and English as a Second Language. As director of ATLAS, Patsy oversees multiple projects focused on identifying, planning, designing, and evaluating the training and professional development needs of ABE/ESL administrators, teachers, and support services staff across the state. As a subject matter expert on the OCTAE ESL Pro project, Patsy authored the Companion Learning Resource on Meeting the Language Needs of Today’s Adult English Language Learner. Patsy was also involved in the OCTAE-sponsored initiative for the new English Language Proficiency Standards and is currently working with the Teaching Skills That Matter project. Patsy is also the President of LESLLA, Literacy Education and Second Language Learning for Adults.


Hello!  I’m delighted to be a part of this discussion, and a big thank you to Susan for inviting me to talk about one of my favorite topics - Project-based Learning!  I live and work in St. Paul, Minnesota, where I design and implement professional development for teachers of adult learners.

At its core, project-based learning (PBL) is an instructional approach where students learn by working with essential questions or lines of inquiry, setting and prioritizing goals, and engaging with real-world, authentic tasks.  Project-based units of instruction result in the creation of some kind of “product” (defined broadly!) that demonstrates the skills and content knowledge learners gained in the unit.  This product can be elaborate, like a school garden or community event, or quite small, like a simple poster for the classroom wall or a brief oral presentation to a classmate. I hope we hear lots of great examples of projects from the LINCS community this week!

Susan asks a great question -- PBL with adults?  Really?? I hear you! PBL in K-12 is common, and perhaps images of that science fair baking soda volcano come to mind…  My own children attended project-based middle and high schools, so I can certainly understand how folks might associate PBL with younger learners!  However, PBL is used widely in education because it WORKS and because it offers engaging and effective learning opportunities. There is NO reason to avoid PBL when we work with adult students.  In fact, this instructional approach absolutely aligns with adult learning theory.

In completing PBL units, students must employ an array of basic skills (language, literacy, math) as well as soft skills (effective communication, self-management, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity). Projects are typically multidisciplinary, and they can be related to building learners’ knowledge of  community needs, careers or the workplace, or academic subjects such as social studies or science. Project-based learning is a rigorous and engaging approach that develops language, literacy, and math and also prepares learners for postsecondary and career transitions.

Dr. Nell Duke, University of Michigan, writes extensively about the benefits of PBL.  She lists the following skills that students work on via PBL unit of instruction. Consider how these overlap with common “employability skills” frameworks we use in adult education!

  • Creativity & Innovation

  • Critical Thinking & Problem Solving

  • Communication & Collaboration

  • Flexibility & Adaptability

  • Initiative & Self-direction

  • Social & Cross Cultural Skills

  • Productivity & accountability

  • Leadership & Responsibility

So, what can PBL look like in adult ed?  Today, I’ll offer just one example of a larger-scale project and one smaller one. More to come later this week, and I’m eager to hear from you with example projects and tips of the trade!

I'd love to hear from you all about your experiences with PBL.  What have you tried?  What benefits have you noticed for your learners?



Example of a more elaborate, longer-term project:

Students in an intermediate ESL class, (focusing on the question, "How can we help our school community learn about the school garden?”), designed and planted a garden one summer with their ESL teacher.  Each student created a short video showcasing a few of the vegetables growing in the garden, a recipe they make using at least one vegetable, and an explanation of why the garden was important for the school and students. Materials of this project and sample student videos can be found here, under “Our School Garden”: http://atlasabe.org/resources/project-based-learning/more-extensive-projects

(Credit: Mary Zamacona, Open Door Learning Center, St. Paul, MN)

Example of a smaller, one-lesson project:

Students in a high-beginning/intermediate ESL class (focusing on the question, “Where can we buy healthy food at the lowest cost?”) studied flyers from four local grocery stores.  In teams, one per store, they designed a meal for a family of four and calculated the cost. Each team created a poster that included all the food items (with visuals from the flyers), item prices, and the total cost for the meal.  Each team then presented their poster to the group and discussed the stores with the best value.

(Credit: Lia Conklin Olson, PhD, St. Paul Public Schools, MN)



Duke, N. K. (2014). Inside information: Developing powerful readers and writers of informational text through project-based instruction. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Patsy, Thanks for describing PBL and sharing the many benefits projects offer to adult learners. It's clear to me that projects can be highly motivating to learners when teachers make it clear what students are learning and how projects support them to achieve their goals. (I'm thinking about those highly motivated HSE learners who "just want a high school diploma" as soon as possible.)

You asked us to share examples of projects we've implemented with learners. I've done a number of projects in my classes over the years. One that comes to mind is a project in which advanced English learners researched an important African American in history and made a presentation to the class. Students created a listening guide with important points to listen for to ensure everyone stayed focused during the presentation. They also wrote a short paper about the historical figure. After all the presentations, the students were tested on the information. The students helped to develop a study guide to support everyone prepare for the test, and the students who were now experts on the person they had researched were able to help each other answer the study guide questions. 

Here's an example of a project that was completed in one class period in a lower level ESL class where several learners were looking for jobs. Students prepared simple posters about their work places with information about the kind of jobs that were available, the benefits and the starting salary. They then presented their posters to the class and talked about their experience working for the company and whether it was a good place to work. Those who were looking for jobs got a lot of helpful information from these presentations.

I'm looking forard to learning about more examples of project-based learning that can work in an ABE class, an ESL class or an HSE class.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, Teaching & Learning and English Language Acquisition CoP

Hello again!  Thanks, Susan.  You make a good point about the need to be ‘transparent’ with learners.  Yes! We want students to know what and WHY they are working on a lesson.  Setting clear learning targets in student-friendly language (“I can…" statements) is a great way to begin lessons.  Ending lessons and units with reflection so that students can articulate all they have been learning and doing is key as well.

Project-based learning can take many shapes and sizes, and it can be used to teach a wide range of content to adult learners in a wide range of settings!  Lower level learners will benefit from more scaffolds, time, and language support, of course. Since PBL requires students to choose roles and share work with a team, it works well for a multi-level class, too.  Students can be guided into roles that are appropriate for their literacy and language proficiency and that provide adequate challenge.

Susan shared a great job-exploration example in her post. Allow me to shard a handful more ideas with you below, particularly, as Susan requested, that would work at HSE/ABE levels as well. Some examples are extensive, some are smaller.  Certainly they would need to be tweaked and adapted for any particular setting, but I hope you'll read something that inspires some PBL thinking.

LINCS readers - do post more examples of past or potential projects to the group!



  • Academic Debate: 

This project-based academic debate unit ends with a service field trip. Over several weeks, students effectively develop and refute arguments; analyze controversial issues; evaluate evidence; and recognize opportunities for leadership.  https://atlasabe.org/resource/academic-debate-unit/ 

  • Finances & Budget creation: 

In this unit, students explore concepts and vocabulary that are important to the study of economics. Students think critically about wants versus needs and engage in exercises to help them prioritize spending and make financial decisions. Students also begin to learn about credit and how credit scores are determined. In the culminating activity for this unit, students track spending habits on a chart and use that information to create a personal or household budget. https://atlasabe.org/resource/economics-and-budget-creation/

  • Toastmasters Club: In this unit  with high-level ESL and GED/Adult Diploma students, as well as students from a Stroke and Brain Injury class, students worked on listening and speaking standards as well as soft skills during an elective Speech class..  https://atlasabe.org/news/encouraging-speaking-and-listening-in-abe/

  • Altered Shoes Project: 

An artful, reflective project written about in a local newspaper: https://www.hometownsource.com/sun_post/news/local/altered-shoes-project-at-crystal-s-adult-academic-program-combines/article_cba09331-d72b-546a-b878-cf9954a8ae4d.html


Hi Patsy,

Thank you so much for all the resources you've shared. Each project that I've looked at has been inspiring, both in its concept and in thinking about launching my own project based class. I am a professional developer for ESL, and this year I am back in the classroom teaching both a low level English class and a multilevel intermediate writing class.

I wanted to share "The Asthma Project" which was created by Paula Michelin, a teacher in the CUNY Adult Literacy HSE/ESL Program where I work. Paula used the We Speak NYC (formerly We Are New York) video "Asthma: The Soap Opera" to build students' knowledge base about the health topic of asthma. Students then did research on asthma and created a pamphlet to share with the larger school community, and they also created a video that raises awareness about asthma. The We Speak NYC videos are at https://wespeaknyc.cityofnewyork.us/episodes/. You can access "The Asthma Project" lesson at this link: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1NWPuuRWQ6QlvfvwAlcd2N2leAmCR4fwd.

Thanks again for the discussion this week.



ESOL Professional Development Coordinator, CUNY Adult Literacy Program






Thanks for all the great examples, Patsy! And Moira, thanks to you for sharing the Asthma project from the wonderful We Speak New York website. Members will find many great ideas for projects to supplement the 17 highly relevant We Speak New York videos on topics of special interest to immigrant adults. In fact, I would say these fully developed lesson plans --that include adaptatioins for different levels of learners-- are some of my very favorites. Members who are interested can check out the review of  the We Speak New York resources here on LINCS.

Some members might be interested in checking out the issue of Focus on Basics (FOB) on the topic of PBL. In this issue, you'll find numerous examples of projects for ABE, ESL and HSE classrooms. Additionally here a link to a LINCS review of an article, "Promoting Learner Engagement When Working With English Learners," that features several examples of projects that can be implemented with different levels of English learners.

Keep the ideas coming, friends!

Cheers, Susan

Hi Patsy and all, We've learned about many examples of project-based lessons, but I know there can be some challenges with implementing PBL in our context including dealing with persistence issues among adult learners. What might be some of the other challenges? What tips can help teachers and learners be successful with PBL?

Cheers, Susan

Thanks for the question, Susan!  Oh yes, as with many teaching endeavors, challenges are part of the deal.  Some frequent concerns I hear from adult educators are around turbulent attendance in particular, and around engaging a multilevel group of learners.  These are real, to be certain. It’s definitely a challenge to move a coherent project along when you’re not sure who’s going to come every day! Other concerns stem from not having a lot of class time with learners, as well as other constraints such as funding, lack of paid prep time, and access to technology.  Some of these challenges are easier to work around than others, to be sure! All are real. What to do?!

My advice: Be flexible, do what you can, and enlist help!  Be assured that nothing will go exactly according to plan (does it ever?).  Even if it requires scaling back, or revamping, or putting something on hold, or any number of “teacher pivots” during the project, your students are still learning a great deal of language, literacy, and soft skills in the process.  And don’t go it alone! Volunteers are often eager to get involved and use their skills to assist with these engaging lessons. Tell your coworkers what you’re working on, and see if you can collaborate or find other ways to support each other. It takes a village sometimes!

If PBL seems overwhelming, consider the scale of your project. While some of the projects presented in this discussion are multi-week endeavors that require lots of planning and coordinating (summer garden for example, or a speech club), some are much simpler, such as creating a poster comparing food prices.   Another easier to manage project might take just a day or two, such as reading about flu symptoms and creating a list of tips for staying healthy, then telling the class next door their best advice.

Don’t have a full class to stage a presentation of the final product?  No worries! Consider having the student(s) make a short video instead, or simply have them share their product to a front office staff member or to a student or two from another room. Smaller-scale projects can be done with a student one-on-one, in a small group, or with a large class.  The project doesn’t have to be elaborate to be meaningful. Keep it manageable!

To help clarify the pieces of this approach, here are the basic elements of PBL:

  1. Line of Inquiry/Essential Question  -- What is the meaningful, relevant question you are exploring with this project?

  2. Plan and Product -- How are students going to complete the work, and what is the tangible “thing” they are creating?

  3. Schedule -- What’s the project timeline?

  4. Tasks and Teams -- Who’s going to do what? 

  5. Product and Performance -- How are students going to share what they have created and learned?

  6. Evaluation and Reflection -- How did it go?  Where did learning take place? What might happen next?

With these basic components, options for projects are staggering! 

I’ll sign off with a quote from Betsy Parrish, who writes in her 2019 edition of Teaching Adult English Language Learners, “Project Based Learning is an approach that allows for maximum learner involvement and choice in the learning process. Learners choose a topic of interest or concern to them, and then direct their learning through inquiry, research on a topic, and collaboration with others.”

Eager to hear more of your project ideas, successes, challenges, questions, and advice!




Patsy, You suggested that teachers work to ensure that projects are both meaningful to learners and also manageable in terms of all the potential moving parts involved in PBL. Great advice! These are the two words I try to live by in so many aspects of teaching and learning as well as in life!

Cheers, Susan

Hi Patsy and all, There are probably some members here in our LINCS community who have never implemented project-based learning but would like to give it a try. What guidance can you offer to a teacher who is just getting started with PBL? What resources can you recommend? Where can we go to learn more?

Members, please feel free to chime in with your own suggestions as well as any questions you might have for Patsy.

Cheers, Susan 

Thank you, Susan. I love this question!  If you’re looking to get started with project-based learning, this post is for you. Here are some great ways to read some background information and get some great ideas:

There are certainly lots of PBL resources and examples out there, but one in particular worth taking a few minutes to look at is this digital magazine from LINCS and developed by AIR in 2016, Meeting the Language Needs of Today’s Adult English Language Learner This resource contains a section specifically on Teaching Through Projects for rigorous instruction, pages 13-18, as well as an additional project idea for a low-level ESL classroom focused on construction career exploration on p.9.  As you read through this magazine, there are a LOT of things to click, download, listen to, and browse!

Eager for more resources and further reading?  Look no further!

What else do LINCS readers recommend?  Keep sharing your projects, questions, and ideas!




Hello Susan, Patsy, Moira and all,

Talk about synchronicity! I’m preparing to lead a professional development session next week on project based learning with some teachers in New York City, and came across this discussion. So here are a few of my thoughts.


Debating – this was one of the very first projects I did. Instead of selecting the topic of the debate myself, we had a brainstorming session in which the students (high intermediate to advanced) came up with topics, and then the class selected 3 topics, with teams of 3 each. The project lasted several weeks, The topics they were quite diverse- one related to high school education (separate or mixed-gender classes) diet (meat based versus vegetarian and capital punishment. After an initial day of teams working together to come up with initial arguments students did much of the research outside of class. Prior to the actual debates, we spent class time watching some video clips of debate, learning the language of persuasion and reviewing the structure of the debate. Prior to each debate, the students from each team pre-taught a few vocabulary words for their audience. During the debates, the audience had questions to answer, and the debaters themselves had a self-reflection to complete after the debate.

Chronic Disease project   This project was to study and present to the class on a chronic disease Here’s a link to a slideshare about it with photos/comments from some of the learner participants  https://www.slideshare.net/jtrupin/project-based-learning-for-esol-health-literacy  (just don’t contact me via the email on the slide, as it isn’t current) and Units 8 and 9 of English for your Health (the old link from LINCS doesn’t work) contains all the instructions for the project. I also have a more recent version, that I can share via email of this lesson that was adapted for ESOL advanced learners in a program preparing them to take a Home Health Aide training.

Other topics I’ve done: photo journal of your neighborhood, A biography book, (beginners and literacy level), civics project (intermediate), a community guidebook for newcomers, a cookbook (intermediate) and probably my all time favorite – I taught a class called “Cooking up English” in which teams of students taught the class to make a dish from their culture. It was a very diverse group of learners at multiple English levels. We learned nutrition/health facts, measurements, recipe writing and reading , food safety, and the language of instructions and planning– the entire class took part in bringing in equipment and needed ingredients for the next lesson.  

A few more thoughts -

  1. Regarding retention – because my experience with adult learners is that there is always the chance that someone won’t be present on the day of the presentation or may drop out, groups of 3 or 4 are a better size, so that if one drops out or is absent, the remaining team members will still have a partner(s).
  2. If there is a group presentation to the class, give the rest of the class something to listen for either in the form of questions to answer, or to take notes and compare with a classmate following the presentation.
  3. If there are individual projects to present, present as a ‘gallery-walk style) – again with questions or note taking.
  4. If possible, give them a second opportunity to present – perhaps for another class.



Hi Judy, I'm so pleased you found our discussion and were able to contribute such wonderful PBL examples. Thanks for the practical tips, too. I love the suggestion to have learners present their  projects as a gallery walk. As you note, as everyone walks around the gallery, they can take notes or ask questions. They could do so by placing sticky notes on the posters/projects for the student creators to respond to,

Best of luck with your workshop next week, Judy!

Cheers, Susan


These are terrific projects (wow!), and I love the suggestions you have at the end of your post.  I'm particularly glad you mentioned having a 'task' for those listening to a presentation, as well as giving speakers/presenters a chance to do it more than once!  Both of these strategies lead to such wonderful listening and speaking practice.

Thank you!


I love the variety of PBL ideas shared in this discussion! It inspires me to try moving in some new directions! Some of the projects that my colleagues and I have tried include the following:

  • students creating a quarterly school newsletter (articles, interviews, book reviews, recipes, photos, artwork, poetry, etc.) distributed in print and via school website
  • creating career research slideshows and presenting the information to other classes
  • designing business prototypes in teams and presenting "Shark Tank" style
  • arguing for a cause, including writing letters to the editor of the local paper (some get printed) and presenting to peers
  • choosing an appropriate store (i.e. grocery), using information to map the best bus route, and guiding the class via bus for a shopping project
  • researching election and voting information, creating posters, and displaying them throughout school
  • building functioning heart models (plastic bottles and straws); creating videos demonstrating and explaining the effects of different variables on heart function

I agree with so many of the helpful insights already shared in the discussion. I love that PBL gives students voice and choice, allows them to pursue a line of inquiry, fosters true engagement, creates rich opportunity for productive struggle, allows for unpredictable and meaningful learning throughout the entire (often realistically "messy") process, and allows the teacher to be an activator/facilitator in guiding authentic learning. When students reflect on their learning in class, their perception of transformation as learners consistently validates the power of PBL!

Thank you for a great discussion!



I love this bulleted list!  You and your colleagues have done some inspiring projects.  As I read the list, I'm impressed with the array of rigorous content the various projects deliver, too.  The College & Career Readiness Standards (CCRS) are so present in these, particularly in those moments involving argumentation, research, and presenting orally. The final project you mention around science and health (building heart models) sounds intriguing, and it's a good reminder of how PBL can be used to deliver rigorous content knowledge as well as basic skills, soft skills, and digital literacy.  PBL offers an "instructional basket" in which we can put a lot of great teaching and learning!

Thank you for posting.  I perhaps am not the only one curious about the "shark tank" style of team presenting??  Say more, if you would! 



Jennifer, Thank you for sharing the many projects you and your colleagues have implemented. I especially appreciate your emphasizing the "productive struggle" that leads to in depth learning and that projects can be "realistically messy." PBL does require the teacher to take some risks since we are not always sure what's going to happen when learners are in the driver's seat. PLB rrequires that we be willing to learn as we go.

Given that we are in a presidential election year, I wanted to share one more project that I've done several times with high beginning level to advanced learners. This project is designed to teach the students about the electoral college. Learners are assigned a set of states and need to work together to research information. The students look online to locate the following details: the abbreviation for each state, the location of the states on a US map, the population, the number of members in the House of Representative, and which presidential candidate won the state in the previous election.  After gathering all the details, the teams add the information to a class poster and present their findings to the rest of the class. Their classmates add the details to their own handout. They also add a red or blue dot to each of their assigned states on a large map of the US in the classroom.

This project turned out to be a great way to help learners understand the electoral college and how our presidential elections work in the US. You can find the handout I created for this project here. Feel free to make needed changes for the upcoming election. 

Cheers, Susan

Patsy and all, This has been a wonderfully rich conversation this week. Thanks to everyone who has participated and especially to our guest, Patsy Egan.

Please feel free to add more ideas and questions, everyone!

I wanted to pose one last question. In what ways is project-based learning differerent from problem-based learning? It seems like there are a lot of similarities.

Cheers, Susan

Great question for this Friday morning!  Thank you for posing it, Susan.

Project-based learning and problem-based learning are both powerful instructional approaches!  They have many similarities. Both are learner-driven and learner-centered, and they focus on immediate, relevant issues in students’ lives. With these qualities, they both very much embody what we know about adult teaching and learning.  Both problem-based and project-based teaching involves work that is hands-on and engaging, with the teacher acting as a facilitator of learning, creating the conditions in the classroom where learning happens.  

The differences between the two approaches are not terribly substantive and dwell more in the beginnings and ending of the units of instruction than anything else.  In project-based learning, the distinguishing characteristic is the END project, something tangible, a product of some kind that can be shared.  

In problem-based learning, the distinguishing characteristic is that it is organized around a PROBLEM worth solving from the beginning. For example, students notice there is a lot of trash in the local park, so they are working on: How can we keep our kids' park clean?"  or maybe they want a way to have coffee at school, so they work through a unit around, "How could we coordinate a coffee corner in our building?"  But otherwise, classrooms working in both approaches will appear very similar - a great deal of student-student interaction and teamwork, with the teacher as a guide around difficult texts, tasks, keeping everyone actively engaged, and providing support or challenge as necessary.

Both approaches provide space where teachers can be intentional about including basic skills (language, literacy, math) as well as those ever-important soft skills such as self-awareness, and navigating systems.

In fact, if your state or program does not actively use a soft skills/employability skills framework, you might want to look at one on LINCS!  While PBL is a fantastic vehicle for basic skills and content knowledge, as we’ve seen and noted this week, it is also a remarkable way for students to gain those hard-to-define yet make-or-break soft skills such as effective communication and critical thinking.  Here are two frameworks worth exploring!  

I look forward to hearing how soft skills are taught and practiced in your contexts, through engaging projects!




I want to thank Patsy Egan for sharing her expertise on the topic of project-based learning with our community. Patsy, we appreciate how you laid out the many benefits of PBL for the learners we serve in ABE, HSE and ESL classes. You also offered us many examples to explore as we all consider new ways to engage adult learners in projects. We also appreciate the many wonderful examples of projects offered by members Moira, Jennifer and Judy. It's clear that projects are definitely NOT just for kids.

We know that implementing PBL has some inherent challenges. Thankfully, we learned some practical tips for dealing with those challenges.

This has been a wonderfully rich discusison. Thanks to all and especially to you, Patsy Egan!

Members, this conversation certainly does not need to end. Feel free to continue sharing ideas related to PBL!

Cheers, Susan