Understanding the power of project-based learning

Project-based learning may be the cure for a few of the problems plaguing modern American high schools.

Hank Pellissier | May 5, 2021

Originally published on GreatSchools.org | View Original

“Our project is gonna be lit!”

It’s the kind of enthusiasm parents want to hear from their teens — about anything, really, but especially about school work. Not only is this energy possible, both research and advocates suggest it’s common among students at high schools that have adopted project-based learning.

Ask anyone what’s wrong with high school today, and invariably, some common themes emerge: Kids are bored or disengaged; students have trouble seeing how their day-to-day learning connects with their future; teens aren’t practicing key skills they’ll need in today’s job market. When done well, project-based learning can be a remedy for all three.

What is project-based learning?

In the simplest terms, project-based learning is a way of teaching so that students learn by doing projects. Students actively participate in their education by “creating knowledge” as they work, rather than passively receiving information from the teacher, as is common in traditional classroom teaching. Typically, students devote themselves for extended periods of time to solving real-world, challenging, and/or personally engaging problems. In the beginning of a project, students seek in-depth understanding of a question. Next, they research and develop explanations and solutions. Then, students present their final product to an audience that can be a mix of teachers, peers, and real-world professionals who may actually benefit from their project’s findings, recommendations, or products. At its best, project-based learning requires creativity, leadership, listening and communication skills, project management, and sustained attention by “doing.” These projects range widely from business concepts and scientific research to social justice activism and artistic displays.

Why project-based learning is important

Multiple studies show that project-based learning is not just popular — it’s effective. A July 2016 article Project-based learning: A review of the literature from researchers at Durham University delves into many studies that show the instructional model works for students of all ages. For example, in a 1998 study in the United Kingdom, more 9th to 11th graders studying math in classes with project-based learning passed the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) than students who had traditional math instruction. A 2007 Israeli study reported 60 high school students in classes with project-based learning on programming, robotics, and electric motors showed “a significant increase” in technology knowledge and skills compared to 60 students in traditionally taught classes. In Greece, a 2011 study concluded that project-based learning taught elementary school students learned group skills, motivation, and positive attitudes toward peers from a different ethnic background as well as content knowledge. That same year in Taiwan, a study of female high school students participating in classes that used project-based strategies to teach STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) determined the hands-on learning led to increased engagement and enjoyment of the subjects. A 2014 study of 11th grade females in Oman studying environmental science found that the students in the project-based learning group significantly outperformed a control group on the Environmental Knowledge Test. A longitudinal study of high school social studies achievement in a rural southwest U.S. school district found the students in the project-based class “outperformed peers who learned from a traditional curriculum in both social studies and college and career readiness.” And a 2019 analysis of the performance of 48 students in Indonesia determined that project-based learning increased the students’ “creativity and self-reliance” in writing poetry.

Students participate in their education by “creating knowledge” as they work rather than just listening to teachers talk.

According to Joseph Krajcik and Phyllis C. Blumenfeld, who wrote the “Project Based Learning” chapter of The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences, students in project-based learning classes received higher scores on the Michigan state science test than their peers in traditional classrooms. Most recently, Krajcik and Barbara Schneider, Ph.D., co-authored a study funded by the National Science Foundation called Crafting Engaging Science Environments, which provided 10th, 11th, and 12th grade high school chemistry and physics students with 12 weeks of project-based learning in chemistry and physics. A third-party assessment found that the project-based students outperformed their peers taught in regular classes, with students moving from a C to a B- or from a B+ to a solid A — or on state examinations, from not proficient to proficient. (The paper is currently under review by the journal Educational Research.)

What project-based learning looks like in action

On any given day — and depending on where kids are in their projects — you might see groups of students clustered together discussing, independently researching, giving or getting feedback, or all of the above. Teachers may be at the front of the room explaining a key concept or skill to one group or the whole class, circulating around the room helping different groups with their projects, or sitting at their desk, where kids may approach to ask questions or solicit feedback.

“PBL helps kids understand why something happens,” explains Krajcik, a researcher at Michigan State University and a principal investigator of Interactions, a project-based learning science curriculum supported by the National Science Foundation. “Instead of studying the periodic table, they explore simple questions, like Why do things stick together? Why is there so much energy in a hurricane? How come it is so dangerous to have a temperature of 107 degrees? Why can we eat salt (sodium chloride) but we can’t eat either sodium or chloride?

Not just any project qualifies as well-designed project-based learning. Bob Lenz, CEO of PBLWorks, a nonprofit organization that supports schools in implementing project-based learning around the country, says that high-quality projects should be intellectually challenging, authentic, relate to the world outside of school, offer students opportunities to collaborate, have a public audience, engage project management skills, and include opportunities for reflection.

Even within such criteria, projects range widely. For example, students at the Impact Academy of Arts and Technology in Hayward, CA created 6- to 8-minute simulations for their World History class evaluating how effective various revolutions (French, Cuban, Russian, Haitian, etc.) have been for improving the conditions of the people. Susanna Pierce McConnell’s students at Westlake High School in Austin, TX focused on building sustainable cities. Chris Fancher’s math students at Manor New Technology High School in Manor, TX worked on programming video games. Mike Lim, chemistry teacher at Gardena Senior High School in southern California, chuckled as he recalled his favorite project: Why is it impossible to un-cook a boiled egg? The investigation wasn’t half-baked. “Each project has rewards — skills acquired and knowledge gained — that allows students to understand other projects.”

Why aren’t all schools adopting project-based learning?

Project-based instruction requires different skills than those used in traditional classrooms. Teachers need to be “very skilled at asking questions,” Krajcik explains, as well as supporting students in their research, setting kids up for effective group work, scheduling projects, encouraging peer feedback, monitoring both group and individual progress, and assessing student learning and evaluating projects. Chemistry teacher Mike Lim characterized his transition to project-based learning as “two months of agony.” Now, he finds the method “totally fulfilling” and he helps new teachers navigate that same transition. Teacher training and whole-school adoption of project-based learning can require a major investment of time and money.

And when not done well, project-based learning may fail students. According to writer Terry Freedman, challenges include coming up with a rich problem, monitoring who is doing what, and giving kids chances to catch up when they’ve missed class. Skeptics argue that teenagers can’t or won’t work cooperatively or that some will bully or coerce others to do all the work. Still others decry the “socialist group think” or are alarmed at the loss of more traditional, teacher-led instruction. Researchers suggest that project-based learning works best as part of a two-phase approach. On any given unit, teachers should teach content directly first and then offer project-based learning as a way for students to explore the material, deepen their understanding and develop skills.

What do students think? While studies show mostly positive student attitudes and outcomes, Duncan Haus, who graduated from project-based New Technology High School in Napa, CA thinks that this instructional approach “seems to work better for people able to guide-themselves… [it] would not work well for people who prefer rote memorization.” Still, he says, most of his classmates preferred project-based learning to traditional classroom learning. PBLWorks’ Bob Lenz, however, offers this assessment: “All students excel at PBL. Ones who struggled before in traditional schools, immediately find success.”

How to recognize when project-based learning is being done well

  • Implementation. Look for schools that have adopted project-based learning as a whole school and implemented over the long-term. How long has the school been using project-based learning? (Longer typically shows more commitment.) Is project-based learning schoolwide or only in certain classes? (Whole school adoption doesn’t mean the school can’t teach traditionally as well, but whole school commitment is different than a single project for a few students or in a few classes.) How do instructors balance instructional time and project time? (The best teachers can explain how they balance these different approaches.)
  • Teacher training. Teachers often need dedicated training to adopt this kind of teaching. Ask who is trained, how, and when? Is teacher training ongoing or only was it a one-time event?
  • Student work. Schools with great project-based learning are proud of what their students have done and students can readily talk about their work. Can you see examples of final presentations? What members of the community have participated in evaluating student presentations? What do the students say about their learning?

Key takeaways

For parents

  • Watch these videos of project-based learning in action in elementary school, middle school, and high school and think about whether your child would thrive in this type of learning environment.
  • Ask about how project-based learning is implemented in the classroom and throughout the school.
  • Ask to see examples of completed projects and presentations.

For educators

For education leaders

  • Read Project-based learning: A review of the literature by researchers at Durham University to review the research backing PBL and to get the six key recommendations considered to be essential for a successful adoption of PBL.
  • Read the “Project Based Learning” chapter of The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences.
  • Check out Interactions, a PBL science curriculum supported by the National Science Foundation.


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Hank Pellissier
Hank Pellissier is a freelance writer on education and brain development, and the founder/director of Humanist Global Charity