PBL Research Summary: Studies Validate Project-Based Learning
Research shows the efficacy of an authentic form of education that expects students to immerse themselves in a topic and meaningfully demonstrate acquisition of skills and knowledge.
Teamwork, technology, and hands-on work are important elements of project-based learning.
Editor's Note: This research summary was published in 2001. For our full research review published in 2012 with tips, best practices, and an annotated bibliography, go to Project-Based Learning Research Review.
A growing body of academic research supports the use of project-based learning in schools as a way to engage students, cut absenteeism, boost cooperative learning skills, and improve test scores. Those benefits are enhanced when technology is used in a meaningful way in the projects. Following are synopses of a range of studies on project-based learning:
British Math Study
A three-year 1997 study of two British secondary schools -- one that used open-ended projects and one that used more traditional, direct instruction -- found striking differences in understanding and standardized achievement data in mathematics.
The study, by Jo Boaler, now a professor of education at Stanford University, found that students at the project-based school did better than those at the more traditional school both on math problems requiring analytical or conceptual thought and on those considered rote, that is, those requiring memory of a rule or formula. Three times as many students at the project-based school received the top grade achievable on the national examination in math.
Boaler, J. (1997). Equity, Empowerment and Different Ways of Knowing (PDF). Mathematics Education Research Journal., 9(3), 325-342.
In a five-year study, researchers at SRI International found that technology-using students in Challenge 2000 Multimedia Project classrooms outperformed non-technology-using students in communication skills, teamwork, and problem solving. The Center for Learning in Technology researchers, led by Bill Penuel, found increased student engagement, greater responsibility for learning, increased peer collaboration skills, and greater achievement gains by students who had been labeled low achievers.
The project conducted a performance assessment designed to measure students' skills in constructing a presentation aimed at a particular audience. Students from Multimedia Project classrooms outperformed comparison classrooms in all three areas scored by researchers and teachers: student content, attention to audience, and design. The Multimedia Project involves completing one to four interdisciplinary multimedia projects a year that integrate real-world issues and practices.
Penuel, B., Korbak, C., Yarnall, L., & Pacpaco, R. (2001). Silicon Valley Challenge 2000: Year 5 Multimedia Project report (PDF). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.
Cognition and Technology Group
A 1992 study of 700 students from eleven school districts in Tennessee found that students doing projects using videotaped problems over a three-week period performed better in a number of academic areas later in the school year. The study, by the Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt University, examined student competence in basic math, word problems, planning capabilities, attitudes, and teacher feedback. Students who had experience in the project work performed better in all categories.
Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt (1992). The Jasper series as an example of anchored instruction: Theory, program description and assessment data (PDF). Educational Psychologist, 27(3), 291-315.
A 1999 study by the Center for Research in Educational Policy at the University of Memphis and University of Tennessee at Knoxville found that students using the Co-nect program, which emphasizes project-based learning and technology, improved test scores in all subject areas over a two-year period on the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System. The Co-nect schools outperformed control schools by 26 percent.
Ross, Steven M., Sanders, William L., & Wright, S. Paul (2000). Value-Added Achievement Results for Two Cohorts of Co-NECT Schools in Memphis: 1995-1999 Outcomes (PDF). Memphis, TN: The Center for Research in Educational Policy, The University of Memphis.
Ross S.M., Sanders W.L., Wright S.P., Stringfield S., Wang L.W., & Alberg M. (2001). Two- and Three-Year Achievement Results From the Memphis Restructuring Initiative (PDF). School Effectiveness and School Improvement, Volume 12(3), pp. 323-346(24).
Does It Compute?
Analyzing data from the math portion of the 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress test given to students nationwide, Educational Testing Services researcher Harold Wenglinsky found that the effectiveness of computers in the classroom depended on how they were used. In his report, Wenglinsky found that if computers were used for drill or practice, they typically had a negative effect on student achievement. If they were used with real-world applications, such as spreadsheets, or to simulate relationships or changing variables, student achievement increased. Data were drawn from the samples of 6,227 fourth graders and 7,146 eighth graders.
Wenglinsky, H. (1998). Does It Compute? The Relationship between Educational Technology and Student Achievement in Mathematics (PDF). Princeton, New Jersey: The Policy Information Center of the Educational Testing Service.
Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound
Three elementary schools in Dubuque, Iowa, showed significant test score gains after incorporating the Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound (ELOB) program. At ELOB schools, students conduct three-to-six-month-long studies of a single topic with an emphasis on learning by doing. After two years in the program, two of the three schools advanced from "well below average" to "well above the district average" on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. One elementary school raised its average score from the 39th to the 80th percentile. After four years in the program, student scores were "above the district average in almost every area." Separate analyses showed similar test score gains in ELOB programs in Denver, Boston, and Portland, Maine.
Since 1996, Rockman et al., an independent research firm in San Francisco, California, has studied the impact of widespread use of laptop technology on teaching and learning. The focus of the firm's multiyear studies has been on dozens of public and private K-12 schools participating in a pilot laptop program sponsored jointly by the Microsoft and Toshiba corporations. Through both observation and feedback from laptop-using teachers and students, researchers have documented a shift from lectures and other teacher-centered forms of delivery to lessons that are more collaborative and project-oriented. Teachers, researchers note, become facilitators in project-oriented classrooms, with students increasingly assuming the role of directors of their own learning.
In a 1998 report, researchers note that three-fourths of the teachers who participated in a Rockman survey reported that project-based instruction had increased since the introduction of the laptops in their classrooms. Among the many reported benefits of this project-based approach to learning are greater student engagement, improved analytic abilities, and a greater likelihood to apply high-order thinking skills.
Laptop-using students also performed better on a Rockman-administered writing examination. The research firm did not, however, identify significant differences in the standardized test scores of laptop-using students. Researchers offered two possible explanations for the lack of significant improvement in this area: 1. Standardized tests are not designed to reflect the types of learning that laptops support. 2. Because the students had been using their laptops for less than two years, it might have been too soon to see noticeable gains in areas that are covered by standardized tests.
Successful School Restructuring
A five-year study by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers found that structural school reform works only under certain conditions:
- Students must be engaged in activities that build on prior knowledge and allow them to apply that knowledge to new situations.
- Students must use disciplined inquiry.
- School activities must have value beyond school.
In their report, "Successful School Restructuring," the researchers at Wisconsin's Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools found that even innovative school improvements, such as portfolio assessment and shared decision making, are less effective without accompanying meaningful student assignments based on deep inquiry. Researchers analyzed data from more than 1,500 elementary, middle, and high schools and conducted field studies in forty-four schools in sixteen states between 1990 and 1995.
Newmann, F., & Wehlage, G. (1997). Successful school restructuring: A report to the public and educators. Madison, WI: The Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools, Wisconsin Center for Education Research.
Union City, New Jersey School District
The Center for Children and Technology at the Education Development Center, Inc., monitored a two-year technology trial that was first implemented in the district in September of 1993. The study found that after multimedia technology was used to support project-based learning, eighth graders in Union City, New Jersey, scored 27 percentage points higher than students from other urban and special needs school districts on statewide tests in reading, math, and writing achievement. The study also found a decrease in absenteeism and an increase in students transferring to the school. Four years earlier, the state had been considering a takeover because Union City failed in forty of fifty-two indicators of school effectiveness.
Honey, M. and Henriquez, A., 1996. Union City Interactive Multimedia Education Trial: 1993-95 Summary Report. CCT Reports Issue No. 3, Princeton, NJ: Center for Children and Technology, Educational Development Center, Inc.