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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Knowledge in Action Research: Project-Based Learning Course Design

What are the key design principles incorporated by the Knowledge in Action team for their project-based learning Advanced Placement courses?
By Edutopia
Edutopia Team

The Knowledge in Action (KIA) team initially identified Advanced Placement (AP) United States Government and Politics (also known as APGOV), one of the most popular and most often required AP courses, as the first course to be redesigned as project based for this study. During the third year of the research, the team also selected the AP Environmental Science course to be included in the program.


Make projects the central element of the course.

In designing these AP courses as project based, the Knowledge in Action team worked from the standards published by the College Board for each course, while incorporating the project’s design principles, which include these two key features:

  • Making projects the central element, or spine, of the course to provide a meaningful context for learning and applying critical course content
  • Using learning cycles (dubbed looping by the participating teachers), in which students revisit key concepts and questions in each successive project, applying their knowledge again and again -- cyclically -- in new circumstances, so they might achieve greater depth of understanding and be able to transfer that understanding to novel scenarios

The Knowledge in Action project-based AP U.S. Government and Politics course includes five key challenges that are tied together by a course master question: What is the proper role of government in a democracy?

Credit: University of Washington

For example, in the APGOV project-based course, instead of just reading about the Constitution and landmark Supreme Court cases, students take on the roles of justices and the lawyers who argue before them. In these roles, students think about how court cases they have studied could apply to the cases they are simulating. Using projects as the spine of the course, in which students take on authentic roles and participate in simulations of real-world scenarios, allows students to engage with the content in context as well as to apply what they learn throughout the year, not just on one test.

Use learning cycles in which students apply their knowledge again and again.

By structuring the design of the course to develop a need to know for students as they tackle new and complex material, the Knowledge in Action team created a learning experience that is both rigorous and engaging, while also keeping in mind the goal of scaling beyond the initial research groups of teachers and students.

Structure the design of the course to develop a need to know among students and create a learning experience that is both rigorous and engaging.

Continue to the next section of the KIA research review, Student Demographics.

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