Table of Contents Hide
- What is Project-Based Learning?
- The Benefits of Project-Based Learning
- 1. Improves Knowledge Retention and Deeper Understanding
- 2. Increases Student Motivation and Engagement
- 3. Promotes Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Other 21st Century Skills
- 4. Allows for Differentiation and Reaching Diverse Learners
- 5. Promotes Personal Skill Development
- 6. Prepares Students for College, Career, and Citizenship
- 7. Can Lead to Gains in Specific Subject Areas
- Evidence Supporting Project-Based Learning
- Implementing High-Quality Project-Based Learning
- Frequently Asked Questions About Project-Based Learning
- Does project-based learning take too much time away from direct instruction?
- How do you assess learning from projects?
- How can you implement PBL if textbooks and curricula only support traditional instruction?
- Won’t students learn better from direct instruction by content experts?
- How can you implement PBL with specific student populations (English learners, students with disabilities, younger students)?
- Isn’t PBL just “making projects”? How is it different?
- How can you implement PBL within a standardized test-driven culture?
Project-based learning (PBL) has become an increasingly popular instructional approach in K-12 education and beyond. With PBL, students 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.
Unlike traditional “lecture and test” teaching, PBL allows students to go deep with their learning through inquiry and applied problem-solving. The end products of PBL are public presentations or “artifacts” that demonstrate what students have learned and can do.
As an instructional strategy, PBL helps prepare students for academic, personal, and career success in the 21st century. Research shows that it leads to gains in subject area knowledge as well as the development of critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creativity, and other skills needed for college and career readiness.
This comprehensive guide examines the evidence behind project-based learning and why it is an effective approach for 21st century teaching and learning. It also provides practical information for educators, administrators, and parents looking to implement high-quality PBL.
What is Project-Based Learning?
Project-based learning is a teaching method where students gain knowledge and skills by investigating and responding to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge. PBL allows students to go through an extended process of inquiry and guided teaching to:
- Ask questions
- Find and use resources
- Develop answers
- Design and carry out projects
- Collaborate with peers
- Present artifacts and make their learning visible
The key components of PBL include:
- A driving question that captures student interest and directs the project
- Opportunities for inquiry and investigation of the driving question
- Collaboration amongst peers
- Scaffolding and guidance from the teacher as needed
- Artifacts or products that demonstrate student learning
- Reflection, critique, and revision of products and the learning process
PBL stands in contrast to more traditional forms of instruction where students play a more passive role, listening to lectures, absorbing pre-selected information, and reproducing that information on tests. PBL allows for much more active learning aligned with deeper understanding.
Projects in PBL are complex tasks based on challenging questions or problems that involve students in design, problem-solving, decision making, investigative activities, and collaborative work. Projects culminate in realistic products or presentations that have an authentic audience. With this approach, learning comes from the process students go through to produce high-quality work over an extended period of time.
The Benefits of Project-Based Learning
Decades of research show that PBL is an effective and engaging way to facilitate learning, with many benefits for students compared to more traditional instructional approaches:
1. Improves Knowledge Retention and Deeper Understanding
- Several studies have found that students in project-based learning classrooms score as well or better on standardized tests than students in traditional lecture-based classrooms.
- PBL leads to better retention of content over time compared to traditional instruction. Students are more likely to remember concepts they have learned through hands-on, contextualized projects.
- PBL allows students to develop deeper understanding of concepts rather than just memorizing isolated facts. Active inquiry helps students fully grasp abstract or complex ideas.
2. Increases Student Motivation and Engagement
- PBL gives students greater autonomy and voice in their learning, leading to higher engagement.
- Students perceive projects as being more interesting, challenging, and satisfying than traditional instruction. Their intrinsic motivation increases.
- Students often put more effort into projects compared to other work since projects feel authentic and meaningful. Students take greater pride in the end products.
3. Promotes Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Other 21st Century Skills
- The inquiry process of PBL fosters critical thinking as students develop questions, research issues, analyze sources, develop evidence-based arguments, and critique their own work and the work of others.
- Through sustained problem solving, students learn and apply concepts from multiple disciplines in integrated ways as they develop projects and artifacts.
- The collaborative nature of projects helps students develop teamwork, communication, and presentation skills needed for college and careers.
4. Allows for Differentiation and Reaching Diverse Learners
- Open-ended projects can be tailored to varying student interests and skills. Students can demonstrate learning through different modalities and learning styles.
- PBL incorporates options for student voice and choice in artifacts and presentations. This motivates and empowers diverse learners.
- Collaborative projects with differentiated roles allow students at varying skill levels to make meaningful contributions.
5. Promotes Personal Skill Development
- The hands-on learning process of PBL helps students develop time management, planning, organization, research, technology, and self-direction skills.
- Public presentations of projects build confidence and communication abilities.
- Collaboration during PBL develops interpersonal skills and focuses on mutual support rather than competition.
6. Prepares Students for College, Career, and Citizenship
- PBL mirrors the tasks and environments found in many workplaces, preparing students with relevant career-ready skills.
- Through sustained inquiry, students develop the self-directed learning skills needed for college success.
- PBL connects students to real-world issues and audiences, fostering citizenship and civic engagement.
7. Can Lead to Gains in Specific Subject Areas
In addition to broader 21st century skills, research has also found subject-specific benefits of PBL instruction:
- Reading and Writing: Project work can motivate students to develop literacy and research skills as they read texts, gather information, develop narratives, and create presentations around project topics.
- Math and Science: Challenging, hands-on projects allow students to apply math and science concepts to answer authentic questions or design engineering solutions. This promotes deeper understanding of subject matter.
- Social Studies: PBL helps bring history, civics, economics, and geography to life through student-directed investigations, interactive projects, and real-world connections to the community.
- STEAM: Project-based learning naturally integrates science, technology, engineering, arts, and math as students research, design, and produce creative artifacts using subject-matter skills and knowledge.
So while PBL develops a wide array of success skills, the inquiry process also builds specific content knowledge and domain-specific abilities. Carefully designed projects allow for meeting curricular standards and subject area learning goals.
Evidence Supporting Project-Based Learning
The benefits of project-based learning are backed by decades of research comparing PBL to more traditional forms of instruction. Here is a review of some of the key evidence:
- A meta-analysis of over 19 comparison studies found that PBL students outperformed their traditionally-taught peers on standardized tests measuring content knowledge. The positive effects tended to increase over time.
- A study of over 500 students found that those in PBL algebra classrooms significantly outscored control students on standardized math tests given at the end of the school year.
- Research by Boaler (1998) found that PBL math students developed deeper conceptual understandings compared to traditionally-instructed students who relied more on memorization.
- A 5-year study of PBL in K-12 schools found increases in student motivation, ability to work collaboratively, and gains in general work skills through project work.
- A study of 1,000 biology students found greater content learning and increased conceptual understanding from those engaged in year-long PBL compared to traditional instruction.
- Research by Walker and Leary (2009) found PBL increased student engagement and motivation levels compared to traditional instruction.
- A study of STEM-focused PBL found increased gains in factors related to STEM-readiness: motivation, career knowledge, teamwork skills, and more.
These and many other studies demonstrate that well-designed project-based learning leads to gains in content knowledge plus critical thinking, collaboration, autonomy, work ethic, and other success skills needed for higher education and the modern workplace. The hands-on inquiry of PBL engages students more deeply than traditional learning and facilitates the transfer of learning to new contexts. While positive results take careful implementation, the research makes a persuasive case for adopting PBL.
Implementing High-Quality Project-Based Learning
To gain the full benefits of project-based learning, there are several guidelines educators should follow when designing and facilitating projects:
- Start with a driving question – The project should be framed by an open-ended question that focuses student research, guides inquiry, and allows for multiple responses.
- Develop authentic, meaningful projects – Real-world issues and topics that matter engage student interests and promote deeper learning.
- Allow student voice and choice – Students should have input in project topics, methods, roles and final products. This increases ownership.
- Incorporate multiple content areas and standards – Quality projects link together ideas from different disciplines into integrated learning.
- Build in opportunities for reflection and revision – Self, peer, and teacher assessments during project milestones improve final products and the learning process.
- Have public display of artifacts – Presenting work to community members beyond the teacher emphasizes purpose and motivates quality.
- Assess both processes and products – Evaluation rubrics should address both academic skills and success skills like collaboration, work habits, and presentation.
With careful planning and facilitation focused on these components, educators at all grade levels can design PBL experiences that deepen engagement and understanding while allowing students to demonstrate learning in authentic ways.
Administrators also play a crucial role in supporting high-quality PBL implementation through appropriate scheduling of extended blocks of project time, linking projects to standards, developing assessment systems, facilitating professional development, and ensuring adequate resources and technology access.
When implemented well, project-based learning leads to a wide array of benefits for students, teachers, schools, and communities.
Project-based learning is a proven, research-driven instructional approach that leads to increased student engagement, deeper learning, and success skill development. While it requires effort to implement effectively, the benefits for students make it a worthwhile shift for schools. Additional planning, appropriate professional development, and administrative flexibility can help ensure PBL is done right. When well implemented following established best practices, both students and teachers gain from replacing more passive learning with active inquiry through projects.
Frequently Asked Questions About Project-Based Learning
Does project-based learning take too much time away from direct instruction?
It’s a common misperception that doing in-depth projects reduces time spent on academic content. But well-designed projects actually enhance standards-based learning because students are motivated to learn necessary information and concepts in order to successfully complete projects. The hands-on inquiry and application of PBL leads to deeper retention and understanding compared to passive listening. So projects don’t detract from learning academic content, they provide a more engaging way to learn it.
How do you assess learning from projects?
PBL allows for using a wider range of assessments compared to traditional tests. Rubrics can assess academic knowledge, understanding, and skills along with success competencies like critical thinking, communication, and collaboration. Assessment should look at both the processes students engage in during projects as well as the quality of final products. Student reflection is also a key component of measuring growth.
How can you implement PBL if textbooks and curricula only support traditional instruction?
Quality PBL experiences can be designed to meet required standards in any content area. Educators may need to supplement mandated texts with other primary and secondary sources that allow for inquiry. But with creativity, student projects can incorporate required material while going deeper into topics in ways curriculum materials don’t facilitate on their own. Effective PBL implementation does require administrative flexibility.
Won’t students learn better from direct instruction by content experts?
Decades of research on learning science shows students gain a deeper understanding of content when they are actively engaged rather than passively listening. Lectures have their place to introduce topics, but effective learning requires active inquiry, critical thinking, and knowledge application like that facilitated by PBL. Guidance from teachers is crucial, but as learning facilitators rather than just content providers.
How can you implement PBL with specific student populations (English learners, students with disabilities, younger students)?
The hands-on, collaborative learning of PBL provides opportunities for differentiation and scaffolding that can make it highly effective for diverse learners. Multimodal projects allow options for how students access content and demonstrate knowledge. Individualized accommodations and modifications ensure accessibility. Careful project design, facilitation, and grouping enables PBL at elementary levels.
Isn’t PBL just “making projects”? How is it different?
Quality PBL is not just students making posters, dioramas or PowerPoints at the end of a unit. It involves extended, student-directed inquiry that leads to the creation of authentic artifacts that demonstrate deep learning. The process includes sustained collaboration, multiple drafts and revisions, and development of critical academic and life skills. High quality PBL takes careful planning and facilitation.
How can you implement PBL within a standardized test-driven culture?
Research shows that quality project-based learning actually leads to improved performance on standardized tests because the active inquiry helps student master academic standards and content in deeper, more integrated ways. Administrators do need to allow time and space in the curriculum for meaningful projects tied to standards. But well-implemented PBL improves the skills tests measure while also facilitating richer learning.