Middle school science students work on a project with their teacher (left), and a boy identifies the parts of a fish before painting it to make a Japanese-style gyotaku print (right). Learn more about this school.
Credit: Grace Rubenstein
What is Project-Based Learning?
Project-based learning hails from a tradition of pedagogy which asserts that students learn best by experiencing and solving real-world problems. According to researchers (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008; Thomas, 2000), project-based learning essentially involves the following:
students learning knowledge to tackle realistic problems as they would be solved in the real world
increased student control over his or her learning
teachers serving as coaches and facilitators of inquiry and reflection
students (usually, but not always) working in pairs or groups
Teachers can create real-world problem-solving situations by designing questions and tasks that correspond to two different frameworks of inquiry-based teaching: Problem-based learning, which tackles a problem but doesn't necessarily include a student project, and project-based learning, which involves a complex task and some form of student presentation, and/or creating an actual product or artifact.
These inquiry-based teaching methods engage students in creating, questioning, and revising knowledge, while developing their skills in critical thinking, collaboration, communication, reasoning, synthesis, and resilience (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008). Although these methods of inquiry-based teaching differ slightly, for simplicity they're combined in these pages and referred to as project-based learning or PBL.
A 2015 literature review found that the design principles most commonly used in PBL align well with the goals of preparing students for deeper learning, higher-level thinking skills, and intra/interpersonal skills (Condliffe et al., 2015).
Keys to Project-Based Learning Success
Researchers have identified several components that are critical to successful PBL (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008; Ertmer & Simons, 2005; Mergendoller & Thomas, 2005; Hung, 2008). While project-based learning has been criticized in the past for not being rigorous enough, the following features will greatly improve the chances of a project's success:
A realistic problem or project
aligns with students' skills and interests
requires learning clearly defined content and skills (e.g. using rubrics, or exemplars from local professionals and students)
Structured group work
groups of three to four students, with diverse skill levels and interdependent roles
individual accountability, based on student growth
multiple opportunities for students to receive feedback and revise their work (e.g., benchmarks, reflective activities)