What research says about project-based learning

ASCD magazine coverASCD’s always excellent magazine Educational Leadership, hits another home run with this month’s issue (Feb 2008). The overarching theme, Teaching Students to Think is supported by a dozen articles from a wide range of perspectives – teaching, classroom practice, assessment, content areas, and more.

One article of particular interest to tech-loving educators is Jane David’s What Research Says About Project-Based Learning. Educators often find that technology supports project-based learning, and vice versa. So finding research that supports project-based learning and outlines successful practice is one more tool in the toolkit of technology-using educators.

This article is a terrific, easy-to-read introduction to project-based learning and clear, quick summaries of relevant research. Many people believe that project-based learning is “good”, but something akin to magic. Articles like this can dispel some of these myths and help define what project-based learning might look like in real life. Some conclusions:

  • Some studies measure project-based learning impact on student achievement. Not surprisingly, it’s not as simple as test scores. Some studies found simple test score increases across the board or in different populations, but some didn’t. But improvements were seen in more complex assessments – attitudes towards learning, problem-solving, and planning ability. (Do you hear 21st century skills here?)
  • The wide variety of project-based learning experiences make a single research conclusion hard to find. However, this same variety meant that project-based learning is adaptable to many classrooms.
  • Some studies focus on the challenges of project-based learning–outlining the obstacles created by short class periods, mandated curriculum, lack of teacher planning time, and narrow focus on multiple choice tests. There are some terrific nuggets of information here about what commitments a school needs to make to create a serious project-based learning environment. It’s not something you just do every other Tuesday.

David concludes:

These studies suggest that project-based learning, when fully realized, can improve student learning. However, the research also underscores how difficult it is to implement project-based learning well. Together these findings suggest caution in embracing this practice unless the conditions for success are in place, including strong school support, access to well-developed projects, and a collaborative culture for teachers and students.

Yet, teachers can use the key ideas underlying project-based learning in some measure in any classroom. Using real-life problems to motivate students, challenging them to think deeply about meaningful content, and enabling them to work collaboratively are practices that yield benefits for all students.

I’d like to add that students themselves can be part of the solution that makes project-based learning possible in schools. Students can learn to be mentors in their own classrooms, leveraging the teacher’s ability to assist more students and overcome logistical obstacles. Student ownership of the project and encouraging a collaborative environment increases the likelihood of success. By including students in the planning and implementation of project-based learning, you gain student perspective and an opportunity to teach students valuable skills. They learn how to advocate for their ideas, plan, troubleshoot, and work in a group. When technology is involved, students can become experts in the technology too, and help mentor fellow students which further supports the collaborative process.

Our TechYES model of student technology literacy certification is built on this kind of research and practical experience. Student peer mentors can make project-based learning possible in situations where the obstacles might otherwise be too high. We believe that technology literacy and project-based learning are inseparable from 21st century skills. It’s too important to write project-based learning off as a “nice to have.”

Hopefully this article finds its way into administrator inboxes world-wide.

6 Replies to “What research says about project-based learning”

  1. I agree with you that project-based learning and critical thinking should be given a higher priority in our schools. I believe it is crucial to teach children the art of analytical thinking and problem solving. It is important to remember that our job as teachers is to impart general knowledge, but also to teach the children how to think critically.

    Unfortunately, I can see how project-based learning might be difficult to accomplish. It might be difficult for teachers to overcome time constraints, to provide the necessary support to students, and for children to take an active role in participation. The teacher might also face internal challenges since the teaching method is more abstract, teachers might have trouble determining whether or not their project is accomplishing the ultimate goal of improving analytical skills. It is also much more difficult to measure success and student development as opposed to traditional testing where there are clear right answers. Lastly, teachers might find that “shyer” students may not be as willing to participate and might be overshadowed by the more outspoken students.

    With that said, I still think that traditional, fact-based, teaching methods are also vital to the development of the “whole child”. By having a wealth of information at their fingertips, students will be better equipped to think critically and argue their point effectively.

    In summary, I agree with you that part of the problem in our public schools is that the current education system deprives students of project-based learning, but at the same time, substituting traditional methods with project-based learning entirely ignores the benefits that traditional teaching methods provide. I believe that a balanced system that integrates both, project-based learning and traditional learning into the same lesson plan would be ideal.

  2. I think it’s a common misconception that project-based learning means that teachers never tell students facts or check for understanding.

    I do think it’s a problem, however, if students can’t count on consistent assessment. There will always be a sense of mistrust of a project that might just be test prep in disguise.

    I also disagree that “fact-based teaching methods are vital.” What you are describing is a “banking model” of education in which children supposedly can be taught facts for later recall. Paulo Freire dealt with the flaws in this model this very thoroughly in his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

  3. You highlight an important question: What does PBL look like in real life? Too many educators have never had a chance to experience this kind of learning themselves, or see it in action in the classroom. That’s why we’ve included many authentic project examples from classrooms around the world in our new look at this important subject. Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age takes teachers through the whole process. You’re absolutly right that students are part of the solution. Tapping their expertise as tech mentors makes perfect sense. It’s all part of the shift to student-centered learning that happens with the project approach.

  4. Thanks for this interesting post!!

    I’m actually in the process of writing a chapter that considers the value of project based learning for both authentic instruction and differentiated instruction. Computer based projects are extraordinarily useful for meeting these two important objectives of instruction. But for as useful as they are, they are also very difficult, and perhaps expensive, to develop. I look forward to watching this technology evolve in the next few years.

  5. HI Andrew,
    I don’t think that PBL is difficult OR expensive. It only looks that way because we try to layer it onto teaching practices that don’t support it. It may not match a standards-driven assessment, but that’s different. Using direct instruction may seem “easy”, but if the results are poor, you end up wasting a lot of time, energy, and money. Authentic assessment strategies SAVE time and money in the long run, because you do them in line with student work, and student’s get the help they need to succeed when and where they need it.

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