What is project-based learning?
Definition of Project-Based Learning:
Project-based learning is more than just adding projects to the curriculum. It’s more than boxing your existing curriculum into steps. Rather, it involves making real-world, authentic, and relevant projects inspired by students’ interests and passions the central focus of learning. It assumes that students learn best when they are actively engaged rather than passively absorbing information. It teaches skills by giving students real-life problems to solve, making experiences meaningful and empowering.
Project-based learning is experiential, creative, and collaborative. In a project-based learning environment, teachers engage with students, and students work together to solve problems, develop skills that can be used in real-life situations, and build upon, identify, and discover what they are most passionate about. It is interdisciplinary because it requires students to draw upon knowledge and skills from disparate academic areas. It is demanding and challenging because it necessitates deep thinking and problem-solving skills. It is necessary to prepare students with the skills to navigate our world.
A Formal Definition of PBL
In order to understand Project-Based Learning (PBL), it is helpful to begin with an agreed-upon definition. PBLWorks offers a research-informed model of Project-Based Learning, Gold Standard PBL, that identifies seven essential project design elements. Within this model, educators adopt a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge. Sometimes associated with inquiry-based learning or learning by doing, PBL is an effective tool that has been shown to improve learning outcomes.
Student Voice and Choice
One key feature of PBL is that it allows for student voice and choice. In a traditional classroom environment, it is common for teachers to make decisions about what to learn and how to learn it.
In a PBL setting, students have more input into what they create and are encouraged to express their ideas in their own voice. Instruction is often differentiated by process, product, or environment by student interest, readiness, or learning style. This helps them build confidence in their abilities to make choices and provides them with opportunities to develop leadership skills. Because they have agency in what they learn, students are more invested and often find learning more enjoyable.
Feedback and Revision
Giving, receiving, and applying feedback is another defining characteristic of project-based learning. Unlike more traditional models that rely upon didactic lectures to give information and one-time assessments like tests and homework to educate students, project-based learning requires a sustained process of planning, revising, and presenting a project. This can take place over the course of weeks or even last an entire semester as learning is the constant and time is the variable. As a result, students acquire skills in critical thinking and time management that transfer beyond the classroom.
Authenticity is an essential design element of PBL because it makes learning relevant. Meaningful learning involves techniques that connect what students learn to real-world issues and problems. It is purposeful and relevant to students’ lives and ties into their interests and passions. This often increases students’ awareness of what they are learning and likely will lead to greater engagement and motivation.
Collaborative learning can be incorporated into a project-based learning environment along with individual learning to further enhance students’ engagement and active participation. Collaboration has great value because it teaches students how to listen to one another and to work as a team. It encourages the participation of students in many different ways in both an in-person and a virtual learning environment. Through collaboration, students build confidence and communication skills. Working together, students create more original and interesting projects because they each contribute their special talents and life experiences.
See How LiFT Learning Empowers Teachers to Empower Learners: Watch Our PBL Platform Demo Video
Time for reflection
The continual cycle of feedback and revision core to PBL gives students time to reflect on their learning. Through introspection, students self-assess to determine what worked and what didn’t work and, most importantly, remain curious as to why. Reflection gives them the opportunity to revise and refine their product or process and to deepen their thinking. This video shows a way of structuring student reflection by asking five questions.
A key element of gold standard PBL is the public product because it provides the opportunity to bring the project to life outside the classroom. By sharing their work with the public, students benefit by practicing their presenting skills and learning from the feedback they receive from adults in their communities. Making the public product the culmination of a project-based learning unit motivates students to do their best work and shows them that their work is important to the larger community. For example, High Tech High Schools post many of their projects for public view so that students can share their work with the community.
Understanding the definition and key elements of PBL is important, but taking a step back helps us to see the big picture and keep the ultimate goals in mind. At its core, PBL is about the students, taking them to a new level, helping them to become active learners, and empowering them to see that with the right tools and mindset, they can make a positive difference in the world.
Buckler, Victoria. “The Benefits of Collaboration in Project-Based Learning.” Magnify Learning. February 15, 2019. https://www.magnifylearningin.org/project-based-learning-blog/the-benefits-of-project-based-learning-collaboration
Experiential Learning Depot. Project-Based Learning End Product Ideas to Demonstrate Learning. https://www.experientiallearningdepot.com/experiential-learning-blog/100-final-product-ideas-for-project-based-learning
Farber, Katy. “8 Methods for Reflection in Project-Based Learning.” Innovative Education in VT. https://tiie.w3.uvm.edu/blog/reflection-in-project-based-learning/#.YbESVVNOm3U
”The Glossary of Education Reform. https://www.edglossary.org/
Lucas Education Research, Key Principles for Project-Based Learning. https://www.lucasedresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Key-Principles-for-PBL-White-Paper.pdf
Valenzuela, Jorge. “Ending Project-Based Learning Units With a Call to Action.” Edutopia, November 18, 2021. https://www.edutopia.org/article/ending-project-based-learning-units-call-action
As a New Hampshire educator at the forefront of the competency-based movement, Joey taught Cultural Geography in grades 9-12 at Pinkerton Academy. He was awarded New Hampshire’s Teacher of the Year in 2014 before taking a leadership role as Director of Education at Education First. At EF, he was responsible for improving the learning experience of participants in travel programs through accreditation, strategic partnerships, and product development.