Project-based Learning

What is PBL?

Project-based learning is a form of inquiry-based learning in which the primary objectives are for students to develop an intrinsic motivation to learn, to hone their problem-solving and metacognitive skills, to practice teamwork, and to transfer knowledge to other contexts.
Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages, is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0

Defining Project-Based Learning

Too often, school does not engage students and leaves them unprepared for active participation and success in college, careers, and democratic life. For students and teachers who want education to be rigorous, personally relevant and connected to authentic challenges, project-based learning is a way to deeply learn the content and skills needed to engage and empower students to lead fulfilling lives and productively contribute to creating a better world. By making learning personally and socially meaningful, students have a sense of purpose in school, and teachers are motivated to stay in the profession and help students engage with topics that matter to all of us. In a project-based learning classroom:

Students Learn Through Meaningful and Challenging Projects:

Well-designed, coherent projects integrate content and skills across multiple academic subjects when possible, and gradually build student knowledge through challenging, complex tasks.

Students Deeply Understand Content:

Deep content understanding is supported when students create high-quality, complex work by conducting research, applying ideas to real-world scenarios, revisiting concepts from different angles, generating and revising artifacts guided by feedback and reflection processes, and publicly presenting their work.

Students Interact Socially:

Social interactions that connect to who students are as people facilitate authentic scenarios where students can feel safe to productively struggle and take intellectual risks, display empathy and care for others, advocate for their beliefs, understand diverse perspectives, build relationships, and collaborate productively within a learning community.

Students are Invested:

Students are invested in their own learning because projects focus on authentic issues that they care about and that spark a genuine love of learning.

Driven by Research

Project-Based learning has its roots in prominent student-centered learning theories including John Dewey’s experiential-based philosophy and William Kilpatrick’s “project-method” approach. More recently, research from cognitive science and the learning sciences on how people learn reveals that there is evidence behind some of the core principles of project-based learning supporting the acquisition of what researchers call adaptive expertise, which is the ability to apply meaningfully knowledge and skills flexibly and creatively in different situations. In building adaptive expertise in learners, three key findings from the research point to the importance of learning environments that place learners at the center and value and support:

  • deep conceptual understanding rather than superficial learning
  • coherent and authentic knowledge rather than compartmentalized and decontextualized learning, and
  • collaborative and active learning rather than learning in isolation.

Project-based learning is the current pedagogical approach most in line with this research. By engaging students in answering driving questions and finding solutions to authentic, complex problems through sustained collaborative inquiry and investigation, project-based curricula are organized to support learners with deeply understanding core subject area content as key concepts spiral (or loop) throughout the course and are revisited in new contexts, requiring students to apply understanding in new and creative ways. This coherent organization of knowledge and the application and adaptation of content to novel situations leads to clear benefits in the classroom:

  • deeper conceptual understanding and greater retention of content
  • increased ability of students to problem solve, collaborate, and think critically
  • increased student engagement and interest, and
  • increased sense of community and belonging.

For more information on the research behind project-based learning, see this literature review conducted by educational researchers MDRC. To learn more about project-based learning visit the articles section on the Lucas Education Research website.