Project-based Learning

Project-based learning (PBL) is an increasingly popular instructional strategy, through which students construct some type of physical project, presentation or visible event at the conclusion of a unit of instruction. Project-based learning is increasingly employed for several reasons:

  • adds relevance to learning
  • leads to greater learning retention
  • allows  for better integration of knowledge
  • develops life-long learning skills, and
  • increases student engagement.

Teaching with project-based learning starts with posing to students a relevant problem or challenge. Students are then responsible for researching, gathering and analyzing information to “address” the problem. Through this process, students constantly reflect on what they’re doing, which helps develop more rigorous thinking, and thinking linked to learning standards. Students plan/design and complete a final a project to address the challenge. Projects do not necessarily have to be physical objects, but might take the form of a report or presentation.  The project produced is evaluated for quality against clear criteria related to learning outcomes. Student learning results from the thoughtful research, analysis and creation as part of the process of producing a solution.

The key for PBL is to give students just enough information to start, but then to let students frame the problem or challenge. Throughout the process, teachers need to ask thoughtful questions to trigger more rigorous thinking and deepen student understanding.  In PBL, it is essential to give students feedback and to encourage reflection on quality of their own work.  When project-based learning is done well, it promotes high-level thinking and develops students’ perseverance and “grit” to solve challenging problems.

A variation of PBL is the recent “Maker” movement. A Maker is defined as an individual who communicates, collaborates, tinkers, fixes, breaks, rebuilds, and constructs projects for the world around him or her. A Maker, is a true learner — valuing the process of making as much as the end-product. A Makerspace classroom attempts to create life-long learners through exciting, real-world projects, developing student’s confidence, creativity, and interest in science, technology, engineering, math and art — and learning as a whole.  There are many similarities between the Maker movement and PBL, the principal differences being that Maker movement advocates suggest that “making” be more unstructured and student-driven than many typical projects in PBL.

Connection to School Improvement

Project-based learning is a natural teaching strategy to promote career readiness. Well-selected challenges and projects provide real world relevance that show the connection of education to a student’s future. PBL is also an opportunity for students to develop interests and encourages students to think about the types of work they might enjoy doing in the future. The learning process of starting with a challenge and completing a “visible” project — that students can be proud of — helps to develop student’s confidence to tackle unknowns and to solve problems, certainly a career readiness trait.

Recommendations

  • Begin with the End in Mind — The project should be the culminating activity of a unit of instruction. Begin planning with the end goal of identifying the project, but then work backwards to decide how to facilitate students’ thinking toward planning, undertaking and completion of a successful project.  The project challenge can often be introduced initially; but then the teacher should lead students through learning steps to develop the skills and accumulate the knowledge necessary to do the project.  Avoid over-planning the students’ steps in the lesson; let students figure out the steps. Carefully identify the steps along the path to the project in order to guide students through questions and feedback.
  • Seek Out Project Ideas — One of the hardest tasks for moving to project-based learning is finding suitably challenging project ideas.  Ideas are unlikely to come from past experience and old lesson plans. There are online lessons that can provide  some ideas, but the best ideas come from teachers’ own professional networks, which may need to be expanded. To gather  project ideas for your classroom:
    • brainstorm with teachers in other disciplines
    • meet with employers and community leaders to learn what problems exist in their organizations that students might tackle, or
    • talk with other school employees: security, maintenance, or cafeteria workers.

The real world is full of challenging problems, look outside your classroom for projects to bring to your students.

  • Embrace Interdisciplinary Projects — There is a natural connection between PBL and interdisciplinary learning. It is almost impossible to find projects that involve, for example, exclusively math or social studies.  Teachers should allow those concepts from other disciplines into project topics. Assessing some of these other skills as well provides a chance to work collaboratively with teachers in other subjects to improve your PBL.
  • Think through Individual and Group Work —  Projects lend themselves to students working together, so they can brainstorm and share the work load. But the best projects that contribute to student learning have a blend of individual and group work. In any group work, students should be prepared to follow routines in working effectively with others and are able to define roles and responsibilities and to decide which portions of the work might be done jointly and which alone. Feedback is most important to learning, but if project grades are to be assigned, decide in advance how those group and individual grades will be determined.
  • Tolerate Error and Change — One of the biggest challenges moving to project-based learning is breaking student tendency to simply try to find the “right answer.”  Students are typically conditioned that learning is just about giving the teacher the “right answer.”  Some students are fearful of trying something because the answer is often unknown and they want to avoid failure.  Create a climate that tolerates initial failure and encourages students to learn from mistakes. In project-based learning, not all initial attempts are successful and students need support to learn from mistakes. PBL is not about finding the right answer, but in finding the best solution to a complex problem or challenge.
  • Pay Attention to Assessments – Carefully design rubrics to assess student work.  It is the form of the assessment that drives student learning. Even the simplest of projects can drive higher levels of learning when underlying skills or knowledge are assessed in the project.  For example, students can learn higher level mathematics when the assessment of, for example, a simple catapult-building  project is assessed on launch-angle variation and target accuracy rather than merely assessing the distance of the catapult launch.

Resources

Following are several resources that SPN is familiar with that will assist school staff in strengthening instruction in Project-based Learning. To suggest additional resources, please let us know at info@spnet.us or in the Community.

Buck Institute of Technology 

One of the early advocates of PBL, offers wide variety of curriculum resources.

Project Based Learning from the EduPLN

A great video introducing the concept of project based learning and case study in a Canadian school.

Edutopia

PBL is one of the strands of resources from this excellent education online resource supported by the George Lucas Foundation.

Edutopia: Resources for Assessment in Project-Based Learning

If you are looking for tools and strategies for effective assessment in project-based learning, Edutopia has  assembled a guide of helpful resources.

New Tech Network

PBL is at the heart of the instructional approach used by the network of schools in the New Tech Network.

MakerEd

This is one of the leading resources in the Maker movement.

Harvard’s Project Zero

Project Zero is an educational research project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education that has examined the development of learning processes in children. Although, initially focused on the Arts, the web site has a number of PBL resources.

The Web Project

This is an excellent resource for teachers exploring the benefits of project-based learning. This site demonstrates the power of collaborative learning, and offers a space online to discuss and create projects.

Design Share

Design Share hosts a paper by Susan Wolff entitled, “Design Features for Project-Based Learning” that discusses the findings from a study of 32 design features that enhance collaborative project-based learning.

Mathematics Assessment Project: Assessing 21st Century Math

The Mathematics Assessment Program (MAP) is a collaboration between the University of California, Berkeley and the Shell Center team at the University of Nottingham. The project has developed dozens of mathematics summative tests or tasks that math standards imply. The tasks, with the associated guidance, equip teachers to monitor overall progress in their students’ mathematics through reelvant projects.

Education Week Spotlight: Project-based Learning

Education Week, occasionally assembled compilations of resources on selected topics of interest.  This compilation or articles is on project-based learning.