Solving Problems in Science: How the Driving Question Motivates Students In PBL

STEMscopes Staff | Published  June 16, 2023

Teachers using the project-based learning approach generally agree that creating the driving question for a project is the hardest part of the process.

It’s true!

It’s a challenge to create a question that’s a great hook to engage students, meets your learning objectives and standards, and has enough content and “meat” to catalyze a rich, meaningful process of exploration.

In this blog, we’ll cover some fundamentals of driving questions: what is a driving question, and how does it differ from other types of questions? What makes a good driving question?

We’ll also share some pro tips for creating a powerful driving question and some examples and links to help you with the process. 


assortment of question marks


what is a driving question?

In PBL, the driving question is a question or problem that piques students’ curiosity and has a real-world purpose that catalyzes them to explore and learn.

Educator Tony Vincent describes it as a “mission statement... that captures the heart of the project by providing purpose... [and posing] simply stated real-world dilemmas.”

Since the driving question launches the project, it needs to be intriguing and compelling enough to ignite students’ curiosity from the outset. It needs to be stated in such a way that students connect to it and see its relevance.

But it also needs to provide focus and guidance throughout the project, so students can return to it whenever they “lose the thread” of their work, using its guidance to remind them of what they are trying to discover.

It also enables the teacher to focus the teaching and learning as the projects evolve.

PBL projects can be straightforward and short in duration for younger students or complex and lengthy for older students.

In either case, the driving question needs to both narrow the scope of the project to a specific real-world issue and be open-ended and interesting enough to generate a range of responses and require a range of learning activities: discussion, inquiry, investigation, analysis, evaluation, creativity, and critical thinking, to name just a few.


Differences between the driving question and the essential question

While some educators use the terms “driving question” and “essential question” interchangeably, many make a clear distinction between them.

The key difference is in their specificity and who they target. Essential questions are broad, conceptual, and frequently abstract or academic.

While they prompt research and reflection and the development of an argument or viewpoint, they are not specific enough to “operationalize the challenge” the way the driving question does.

Essential questions guide the teacher’s instructional design while driving questions focus and guide student work.

For example, a teacher exploring the “big idea” of human migration and why people move might ask the essential question, “What factors contribute to the successful relocation of new immigrants?”

The driving question for this might be, “How can we develop policies and resources that support the new immigrants who arrive where we live?” 


What makes a good driving question?

  • It’s a great “hook.” An effective driving question is engaging and easily understood. It’s intriguing enough to drive students to discuss, inquire, and investigate, and it pushes them toward a solution or product that, as Steve Jobs says, “makes a dent in the universe.”

  • It’s open-ended. A driving question should prompt more than just fact-finding; there should not be an obvious answer or one correct answer. One way to test for this is to see if the answer can be answered by Googling or using another search engine. If it can, keep working on the question. Another is to ask yourself if every student project could have a different solution or outcome. If the answer is yes, you’ve got a good open-ended question with room for student creativity.

  • It communicates the purpose of the project succinctly to students. The question should be specific enough to drive focused action and focused inquiry, not trying to solve the world’s problems but a specific problem. For the students, it helps create a focus, while for the teacher, it helps guide the teaching and learning. A good driving question also frames the standards so they’re accessible and relevant to student interests. The test of this criterion is that it will enable students to answer their own (perennial!) question, “Why are we doing this?”

  • It supports learning goals. A strong driving question provides a container where students learn the skills, content, and vocabulary the teacher has identified as the goals of the project. As students investigate facts, analyze what they have gathered, identify and assess potential solutions, and present their solutions, the question provides a meaningful purpose for what might have seemed like boring skill-building or fact-finding.


Types of driving questions

Driving questions can take a number of forms, which keeps things interesting for your students!

Here are some types of driving questions.

  • Product-oriented – e.g., “How can we create/build/design...”
  • Role-oriented – in these, the student takes on a real-world role and solves a problem within a scenario – e.g., “As a scientist, how could I design a solution to...”
  • Philosophical or debatable – e.g., “Should we do X to solve Y problem?”
  • Educates or persuades others or calls them to action – e.g., “How can we increase people’s awareness and advocacy of...?”
  • Speculative – in this type of question, students are challenged to imagine history or science differently, e.g., “What if...?”

Creating powerful driving questions

Creating driving questions with the power to spark and sustain curiosity and inquiry may feel like a tall order, and it may be hard to get started.

Melinda Kolk, writing for Creative Educator, advocates for identifying the big idea and then a “6-word story” that describes the essential question; these two conceptual questions will help you craft a driving question that supports learning goals, fuels student interest and sustained inquiry, and has many potential correct answers.

As a practical matter, Edvocate contributor Matthew Lynch suggests starting your question with words like “why” or “how,” then finding a challenge verb like “build,” “create,” or “design.”

Then identify the specifics of who will benefit from the project and where it will apply.

Other recommendations from seasoned PBL educators include developing questions collaboratively with fellow teachers, getting feedback from students informally or in a formal “focus group” type process, and developing questions collaboratively with students.

Allison Zmuda et al. comment, “...when we let students come up with their own questions, the power shifts, and students are in control of their own learning and interests.”

Including students in the development of the driving question also helps build their understanding of the topic, reveals what interests or puzzles them, and creates opportunities to introduce students to resources and networks.

While the process places a facilitation burden on the teacher, who needs to engage with questioning and organizing principles, “Having students accustomed to generating driving questions as a lens to pursue deep understanding creates energy, joy, and intention in the classroom.”

Finally, one educator suggests tackling your driving question yourself, either beforehand or alongside your students, to see what ideas, needs, and pitfalls come up.

Some pitfalls to avoid include writing questions that are biased (“Explain why not getting a college degree is bad”), have a yes/no answer, can be easily answered through an internet search, are not age appropriate to the particular classroom, or are not specific enough or sufficiently rooted in the real world.


Driving Question Examples

  • How can we (1st-grade students) teach other kids how to be safe when there is a fire at school, at home, and in public places?
  • How can we (3rd-grade students) organize an event to help fight hunger locally and globally?
  • How can our school become a carbon-neutral facility? (high school STEM)
  • How might we reduce the negative impact of plastics in freshwater and the oceans? (high school STEM)
  • How can we use the properties of chemistry in food preparation?
  • How might we design a safe, sturdy bridge to replace [one nearby]?
  • How might our region change if the climate became an average of 10°F warmer?


Driving TOWARDs solutions

The good news is that if you’re an educator struggling with creating driving questions, you are not alone!

In addition to the resources listed below, check out this cool tool, this rubric, this chart, and this cheat sheet.

The effort you put into creating a good driving question is time well spent.

It will energize and guide your students throughout the process, and it can make or break a project. It’s worth the effort!


Kolk, Melinda. (n.d.) Developing the questions for project-based learning. Creative Educator.
Lynch, Matthew. (1/10/2019). “Driving questions to use in your PBL classroom.” The Edvocate.
Magnify Learning. (n.d.) “Driving question rubric.” 
Magnify Learning. (n.d.) “What is a driving question in PBL?” 
Miller, Andrew. (8/17/2011). "How to write effective driving questions for project-based learning."
Miller, Andrew. (8/30/2017). "In search of the driving question."
Vincent, Tony (10/10/2014) "Crafting questions that drive projects," Learning in 
Zmuda, Allison, Alcock, Marie, and Fisher, Michael. (3/12/2018). “The power of driving questions.” Solution Tree. 


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