What is Project-Based Learning?

Used under Flickr Creative Commons Brandi Jordan http://www.flickr.com/photos/brandijordan/5616745279/sizes/n/in/photostream/


I had a hard time recalling most of the projects I completed during my schooling. A few things came to me, like the 3D panorama of Salem, MA, or the puppet of Franz Kafka. I recall shopping for markers, poster boards, and glue sticks. The point that I don’t really remember the content behind these projects is, well, the point. They lacked meaning and relevance. While some allowed me to express creativity, they had little redeeming or lasting value.

Today, project based learning is the antithesis of what I experienced during school.  When designed well, a project based learning unit gives students an opportunity to actively participate in an authentic learning experience. Because of the level of effort, leadership, and collaboration required, students generally remember the content indefinitely. They are more motivated because they see meaning and relevancy to the world around them. They gain critical higher order 21st Century skills that will benefit them for years to come. Some projects have led to changes in the community or school environment. In short, projects “build vital workplace skills and lifelong habits of learning” (Buck Institute for Education, What is PBL? section, para 1). Isn’t that ultimately an educator’s goal?

What is Project Based Learning?

The Buck Institute for Education states that in PBL students explore a question (often called a driving question), problem, or challenge through inquiry, which helps students learn content standards and develop 21st Century skills. It is a constructivist approach to learning, where the students play an active role during the process and the teacher is more of a facilitator. Students try to answer a question, something that is relevant or has some sort of meaning for them, that is greater than the actual assignment (Curtis, 2011). PBL shares many similarities to problem based learning with a few noted exceptions. In problem based learning, students are generally given a problem, often in the form of a case study, in which to explore and solve. In project based learning, students form the question or problem and create a project to share outside of their classroom in a real-world environment. EducationWorld (2011) lists several components of both approaches to learning, noting their similarities and differences. It notes that the main difference is in their application, with project based learning focusing on the product and problem based learning focusing on the problem and the process.

Why should teachers consider incorporating PBL in their classroom?

Compelling research shows that project based learning is highly motivating for students because of its real-world scenarios and relevancy. If students feel like what they are doing matters, they are more likely to engage and enjoy. Engaging students by solving real-world problems is a great motivator (Curtis, 2011). Project based learning has been shown to cut absenteeism, engage students, boost cooperative learning skills, improve test scores and analytic abilities, and increase the likelihood of applying higher-order thinking skills (Edutopia, 2001). Students like a good challenge, especially if it is one that is authentic and will reach outside of the assignment and classroom.  Ultimately, students remember more when they are more engaged and when the content is meaningful to them.

What are the essential components of a PBL approach to instruction?

The Buck Institute for Education lists the following components to project based learning, noting that PBL is the main course, not the dessert:

  • significant content (aligns with specific curricular standards)
  • critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and various forms of communication (essential 21st Century skills)
  • requires inquiry as part of the process of learning and creating something new (students ask the questions)
  • organized around an open-ended driving question
  • creates a need to know essential content and skills (begins with the end product and thus creates a context and reason to learn the concepts)
  • allows some degree of student voice and choice (students make choices and express their own voice)
  • includes processes for revision and reflection (often through a journal)
  • involves a public audience (reaches outside of the classroom to the community or online)

These components are all generally found in a good problem based learning unit. I especially liked the idea of reaching outside of the classroom environment. Students perform higher quality work when they know they have a real audience.

Problem based learning is an exciting approach to education that can greatly benefit students, teachers, schools, and the community as a whole.

Additional Resources:


Buck Institute for Education. (n.d.) What is PBL?. Retrieved from http://www.bie.org/about/what_is_pbl

Curtis, D. (2011). Project-based learning: Real-world issues motivate students. Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/project-based-learning-student-motivation

EducationWorld. (2011). Project-based and problem-based learning. Retrieved from http://www.educationworld.com/a_curr/virtualwkshp/virtualwkshp002.shtml

Edutopia. (2001). PBL research summary: Studies validate project-based learning. Retrieved from  http://www.edutopia.org/project-based-learning-research

(The photo above is used under Flickr Creative Commons Brandi Jordan)


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