What is Project-Based Learning?

What is Project-Based Learning?

*As part of our ongoing work to #ReThinkHighSchool, we created a series of long-form posts that seek to explain education topics central to our core work. Previous installments in this series looked at student based learning and student success. This week we are discussing student-centered learning and why it is important.

We live in a project-based world. Think about it. Whether you’re planning a virtual field trip or creating the perfect work-from-home space, you’re working on a project. In fact, many of us organize our tasks by projects and work collaboratively with other teams and colleagues to solve problems. This holds true whether you work in a traditional office environment or if you are one of the 35% of Americans who consider themselves freelance workers.

No matter how you look at it, every project means setting goals and making plans to reach them. And we use our knowledge and skills to accomplish each task necessary to implement those plans and achieve those goals. 

As Getting Smart and PBLWorks put it in Preparing Students for a Project-Based World, “For most workers, it will be a series of projects that mark their career rather than years of service for a particular organization.”

Working on projects is how we function in the real world—in both our personal and professional lives—and that’s why project-based learning is becoming increasingly popular in education. The teaching approach helps students build real-world skills like critical thinking, communication, problem-solving, and project management while tackling complex academic content. 

"When done well, project-based learning can be used to help students to master core academic content and build critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, communication, and self-management skills." - Alfred Solis, Director of Professional Learning, XQ Institute

But what exactly is project-based learning? Great question.

According to PBLWorks—a leading organization in the field of project-based learning—project-based learning (a.k.a. PBL) is “a teaching method in which 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.”

How Project-Based Learning Works

Project-based learning supports deeper learning—this is when students gain a deeper understanding of core academic content by applying what they’ve learned to new situations and solve complex problems and ultimately, creates a more meaningful, engaged learning environment. 

To better see the connections between project-based approaches and deeper learning for students, let’s take a step back and look at the goals of project-based learning as outlined by Getting Smart:

  1. To teach students academic content knowledge and foster deeper learning
  2. To help students develop 21st century skills like critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration, creativity, innovation, etc.
  3. To build student agency when it comes to their own academic, personal, and social development
  4. To teach students how to approach new challenges with confidence, resilience, and a growth mindset

Teaching students using a project-based learning approach helps them put their learning into context, deepening their understanding of the material. So, how does project-based learning work?

Students work on projects, lasting from one week to a semester, to solve a real-world problem or to answer a complex question. This immersive process allows them to “show what they know” by presenting a product or body of work in a public format that displays the knowledge and skills learned. (Yes, that means they present their work publicly—to the whole class, to a group of experts, or at a community event.)

"Project-based learning empowers students to think differently about themselves as learners, collaborators, and leaders." - Alfred Solis, Director of Professional Learning, XQ Institute

Let’s take a look at PBLWorks’ framework—Seven Essential Project Design Elements—which is designed to help teachers implement project-based learning in the classroom.. 

GOLD STANDARD PROJECT BASED LEARNING BY PBLWORKS IS LICENSED UNDER CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Here’s how it works:

7 ESSENTIAL PROJECT DESIGN ELEMENTS

1Present students with a challenging problem or questionFrame projects around a meaningful problem or question that needs solving. 
2Engage students through sustained inquiryPrompt students to pose questions, find resources, and apply information.
3Design projects that are authenticEnsure the project provides real-world context, tasks and tools, quality standards, or impact. And try to design projects that speak to your students’ concerns, interests, passions, and lives.
4Empower student voice and choiceGuide students as they make decisions about the project, including how they’ll support their claims, the kind of resources they’ll use, what they want to create, etc.
5Allow for reflection timeReflect together with students and encourage them to reflect with each other regarding insights uncovered during the project. These can include  the effectiveness of their inquiry and activities, the quality of their work, as well as the obstacles that took place and the strategies they used to overcome them.
6Facilitate critique and revisionProvide feedback for students, but be sure to encourage them to give each other feedback, too. Students use feedback to improve their processes and products.
7Instruct students to create a public product or body of workEnsure students publicly present or display their work to audiences in the classroom and beyond it.

PBL provides opportunities for students to get hands-on experience through real-world, work-like internships, integrated projects, as well as immersive experiences related to students’ interests and passions. That means students get a taste of exactly what it’s like in the world outside of the classroom. 

Here’s an example of project-based learning from Purdue Polytechnic High School:

Students worked together with United Way to research the greatest challenges Central Indiana’s community faces and to find innovative solutions for them.

In a project-based learning environment, students also get real-time feedback from teachers, other  students, and community partners while they work on projects. . 

But before we dive deeper into using a project-based learning approach in your classroom, let’s talk about why this teaching approach is so important and can help set up students for success as they forge their paths forward outside of the classroom.

Why Project-Based Learning is Important

Project-based learning empowers students to investigate real-world issues and to develop solutions for those issues. And the reality is that solving real-world problems—that matter and are fulfilling to us—is as important to students as it is to adults. 

Take students at Furr High School for example: 

Furr High School is located in Houston, a city with some of the worst air pollution in the U.S. One Furr student explained to us that, “Someone said, if you live in Houston your whole life you’ll never breathe clean air.” That’s why environmental sustainability is embedded in Furr’s school mission and vision.

One project Furr students work on is called a “trash audit.” In this project, students collect litter from a nearby park. Then, working with a nonprofit, they sort what they find, determine where the trash came from, and brainstorm preventative solutions. Some students who worked on this project were even invited to share their findings at the International Youth Summit on Plastic Pollution

Morgan Osegueda, one of the students who participated in the project and the Youth Summit, said, “We really want to hold companies accountable, so they can see what they’re doing and hopefully find a way to make products that aren’t so toxic.” 

When students are presented with opportunities to create solutions that are connected to their personal lives and passions, they’re more likely to foster community change. 

And as mentioned in the white paper we highlighted earlier, Preparing Students for a Project-Based World, “The goal of education is not to create exceptional students, but to create exceptional adults with careers that will help them be self-sufficient and contribute to society as a whole while flourishing in their personal lives. PBL provides the experience and training for students to become exceptional and meet the demands of whichever field they choose.”

"Project-based learning prepares students for college, career, and life, but more importantly, it readies young people to take on challenges they face in their communities and in their/our lives." - Alfred Solis, Director of Professional Learning, XQ Institute

Research shows that there’s also a connection between project-based learning and other skills like social-emotional learning and critical thinking. These genres of knowledge help students strengthen self-management, collaboration, synthesizing information, conducting research, and more. And these deeper learning outcomes help students succeed in college, their careers, and life. 

Education experts say project-based learning:

  • Develops students’ communication skills as they interpret content knowledge, explore solutions to real-world problems, develop and share opinions backed by research, and make collaborative decisions
  • Helps students see how their learning connects to the world outside of the classroom and allows them to put what they learn into action
  • Allows students to display their understanding of the material
  • Provides opportunities for students to revisit questions, ideas, and problems that took place in previous projects
  • Creates real-time feedback loops for students to learn from peers and teachers as they work through obstacles they face
  • Empowers students to reflect on what they learned and develop predictions based on those insights

Let’s look at another example of project-based learning from Elizabethton High School:

When students at Elizabethton High School found out that an event that took place over 100 years ago still tainted the image of Erwin Tennessee, a nearby town, they created a podcastto help revamp the town and its culture. . 

The student podcast, titled “Murderous Mary and the RISE of Erwin,” was an interdisciplinary project and engaged students’ knowledge of  social studies and English language arts. The podcast recounted the bizarre yet true story about an elephant hanging—yes, you read that right—that took place in 1916. We won’t get into the gory details, but let’s just say a lot of people are still very upset about the event even now, more than a century later.

The Elizabethton students conducted a series of interviews—including sessions with a librarian, the Mayor, people who grew up hearing the story, and more—to find out exactly what happened in 1916 and what the town is doing about it today. The students hoped the podcast would help the town clear its name by bringing all the details to light. (If you want to hear the full story, you’ll have to tune in yourself here.) 

In the end, the students submitted their podcast to the first-ever NPR Student Podcast Challenge and won! The students say one of their favorite parts of working on this project was getting to meet people from different fields and hearing their captivating stories. 

As students work on projects such as the Murderous Mary podcast, they’re able to learn by doing. This allows students to develop high levels of expertise over time as they work through the project. And when students publicly display their work, they not only demonstrate their own deeper learning but also create an opportunity to teach others.

In fact, research from the George Lucas Educational Foundation shows that project-based learning supports growth in three domains that foster deeper learning:

  1. Cognitive skills → the core skills your brain uses to think, read, learn, remember, reason, and pay attention
  2. Intrapersonal skills → the skills that help you manage emotions, cope with challenges, and learn new information
  3. Interpersonal skills → the behaviors and tactics a person uses to interact with others effectively

The National Research Council says building skills in these domains helps students master critical  21st-century learning competencies that are necessary to succeed in college, careers, and life. Check out this table to learn more: 

The Difference Between Projects And Project-Based Learning

Although the names are similar, there’s a difference between traditional projects and project-based learning. 

Typically, traditional projects require a teacher to cover a topic using a combination of passive activities like listening to lectures, reading textbooks, and completing worksheets. Students often rely on memorized information to complete these tasks. Then, teachers assign students projects to complete at home. 

For example, students might create posters that depict the effects of tobacco use on the lungs. Those posters might be displayed in the classroom, but the posters’ contents are never formally presented or discussed in detail after that.

When students passively learn, they’re less likely to retain information and build key skills. And as the University of Oregon Professor David Conley explains, this ultimately affects student success in college. Conley notes that many college professors have to reteach key cognitive skills and problem-solving skills like conducting research, interpreting results, and constructing quality work products to first-year college students, because students never mastered those skills in high school. 

And that’s where project-based learning comes in—the immersive educational experience fills those gaps. 

Project-based learning incorporates inquiry as part of the learning and creating process. Students are confronted with open-ended questions that frame student work around important issues, debates, challenges, and problems. Students ask questions that point back to the original driving questions and explore answers in that field. And their conclusions—based on their learnings—inspire the work behind the solutions they create. 

Here are some benefits of project-based learning that differ from traditional projects:

  • Project-based learning allows for more student voice and choice.
    While traditional projects allow for student voice and choice, project-based learning makes student voice and student choice more sustained and authentic. For instance, students learn both how to work independently and how to collaborate in group efforts. They also develop agency when they’re asked to make choices about how they work and what they create. And the opportunity for students to present their findings in their own voice increases student engagement. 
  • Project-based learning incorporates revision and reflection.
    Students build the capacity to give and receive feedback as a means to improve the quality of their work. They’re also asked to reflect on what and how they learn; this helps students see how their learning connects to the world outside of the classroom.
  • Project-based learning involves a public audience and display of work.
    Publically presenting learnings to communities and experts outside of their classmates and teachers helps motivate students to produce high-quality work. It also brings a level of authenticity to the project. 

Project-based learning equips students with knowledge and skills for success in the future. John Larmer and John R. Mergendoller reiterate this in their paper, The Main Course, Not Dessert, “If we wish to prepare a generation of students who can solve real-world problems, we must give them real-world problems to solve. If we want to graduate students who can manage their time and collaborate with others, we must give them guidance and practice managing their time and collaborating with others.”

How to Implement Project-Based Learning in Your Classroom

Once you’re ready to implement project-based learning in your classroom, be sure to revisit PBLWorks’ Seven Essential Project Design Elements

PBLWorks explains that one of the biggest obstacles teachers face when transitioning to project-based learning is having less “control” over the classroom. That’s because PBL shifts focus toward a student-centered learning environment where teachers act as a guide that provides support as needed, rather than a well-defined instructor. That means teachers act as active participants in the learning process rather than the sole agents. 

Teachers who use project-based learning often rotate around the classroom to offer constructive advice as students lead their own investigations and learning. This turns the teacher into the student’s most valuable resource as they help students study and develop research, oversee design-cycle thinking, guide students toward relevant resources, provide feedback, help students process complex concepts, and more. 

7 Project Based Teaching Practices

1Design and planCreate a project focused on open-ended, driving questions. Plan implementation from launch to completion, including opportunities for student voice and choice. 
2Align to standardsUse curriculum- and grade-level standards to guide the project as you design and plan it. Address key knowledge and understanding from all necessary subject areas involved.
3Build the culturePromote student independence, growth, inquiry, collaboration, and work ethic both explicitly and implicitly. 
4Manage activitiesWork with students to help them manage workloads, organize tasks and schedules, set checkpoints and deadlines, find and use resources, create products, and more.
5Scaffold student learningUse a variety of lessons, tools, and strategies to support students as they work to reach their project goals.
6Assess student learningUse formative and summative assessments to check for understanding and evaluate skills gained. Be sure to also include self- and peer assessment of individual and group work.
7Engage and coachWork alongside students as they learn and create. Help students identify areas in need of improvement and provide redirection, feedback, and encouragement along the way.

It’s also important to keep in mind that no two project-based learning environments are identical. But, high-quality project-based learning environments do have common elements:

  • Educators at a school operate under the same values, definitions, and assumptions regarding what constitutes good instruction.
  • Schools develop project libraries that teachers can use and adapt, depending on student needs. These projects are also vetted for quality, classroom-tested, and often made easily available.
  • Educators receive professional development and coaching from experienced PBL teachers, including workshops, site visits to model schools that use project-based learning, and sustained support from peers and instructional coaches.
  • School culture, policies, and practices aim to improve PBL quality and implementation. Teachers have the time to meet with colleagues, plan interdisciplinary projects together, critique and refine each others’ lessons, and share resources. 
  • Educators at a school use calibrated rubrics for 21st-century skills; grading policies and practices are standardized to account for project-based learning, too. 
  • Schools have access to facilities, materials, and technology that support project-based learning.
  • Schools readjust schedules to account for longer, more flexible blocks of class time. 
  • School leadership prioritizes high-quality PBL and provides the resources to support the approach to teaching. School leadership also communicates the importance of PBL to parents and families

Research tells us that when students participate in meaningful, engaged learning, they’re more likely to retain and apply knowledge learned. And when implemented well, project-based learning helps students do exactly that. 

Setting up Students for Success Through Project-Based Learning

Project based learning helps students see that learning takes place everywhere and at any time, not just in the classroom. More importantly, it shows them how much fun learning can be. And research shows that it can be more effective than traditional instruction. 

We hope you use project-based learning to inspire and ignite meaningful, authentic learning among students and educators alike.