George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Implementing Project-Based Learning in AP Courses

Carefully designed PBL experiences provide students with the knowledge and skills they need to excel in Advanced Placement classes.

April 27, 2022
High school students in classroom
Fredrick Kippe / Alamy

Teachers of Advanced Placement (AP) courses often face a dilemma when it comes to project-based learning (PBL). They want their students to gain all the deep dispositional and academic learning that student-centered frameworks like PBL provide. However, they worry that adopting a PBL framework will take up too much class time and will trade off with developing the skills and content students need to do well on AP tests.

Thankfully, this is a false choice. PBL certainly can, and should, be used in your AP classroom. By using the questions below as a framework for learning-experience design, you can use PBL and ensure that your students are getting the skills and knowledge they need.

6 Things to Think About in Using PBL in AP Courses

1. Can PBL work in an AP context? New research shows that students may actually perform better on AP tests while learning through PBL. A recent study investigated the efficacy of a PBL program entitled Knowledge in Action (KIA), which was designed by researchers from the University of Washington with funding from Lucas Education Research. Forty-five percent of students who completed the KIA PBL program earned a score of 3 or higher on their AP tests, while only 37 percent of students within the traditional learning environments earned this important benchmark score. The researchers concluded that the KIA PBL program resulted in an 8 percent increase in each student’s likelihood of earning a 3 or higher on the AP Exam.

The key is that the KIA units purposely structured compelling questions that inevitably required students to master the requisite content and skills in the process of answering their compelling question and solving the required problem. If educators hope to help students acquire both content and skills, then a well-designed PBL experience is indeed an incredibly efficient learning modality.

Once you decide to use PBL in an AP classroom, the following questions can help you design the learning experience.

2. What themes or commonalities exist in my content? The first step to begin the PBL construction process is to group content and skills together. This may seem obvious, but it is often overlooked. The KIA program was successful because the designers chose compelling questions that organized the required content and skills around common themes. They designed PBL experiences inspired by those themes that required students to construct knowledge related to the overarching compelling question or problem.

I’ve used this method in my AP Psychology class. Cognitive psychology is a major unit of study in this course. I determined that the themes of memory inputs and outputs were common across much of the material I teach during this unit. Identifying this theme led me to question 3.

3. Why would my students care about this? The next step is to construct a compelling question. A few years ago, in an attempt to capitalize on the buzz among my students about the film Inception, I constructed a project around the question, “How do I know if my memories are real?”

In other years, I’ve constructed a PBL experience based on the simulation of a criminal trial in which the key evidence against the defendant was eyewitness testimony. The students served as “expert witnesses,” prosecutors and defense attorneys and had to conduct a cross examination in court on the validity of memory and then follow up with a letter to a local prosecutor or judge summarizing their research and conclusions about the validity and reliability of memory.

To solve both of these problems, students needed to have a detailed content knowledge of the latest research, theories, and theorists pertaining to memory formation and recall—information necessary for high-level performance on the AP exam.

4. What must my students know to score well on the AP exam? To answer this question, use Understanding by Design principles to identify desired content and skills. Remembering and understanding content are the key skills necessary for success on the AP Psychology Exam, and thus I need to design PBL experiences that are guided and explicit in nature to ensure my students access and comprehend the necessary content.

5. How do I know that my students know what they need to know? For many teachers, AP and otherwise, this is the hardest question to answer. Very simply, if you want to ensure your students address a certain component of content through their PBL or inquiry journey, then put it in the rubric. For example, in the feedback rubric for the “expert witness” AP Psychology PBL experience, the rubric was backward designed from the AP Exam and very specifically assessed the content, theories, and theorists that students needed to include in their testimony or brief.

6. How will my students share their knowledge? A key tenet of PBL is authenticity. This authenticity can come from the type of learning experience the students have as well as the audience for whom they are producing the knowledge. Considering this important element as you design your students’ PBL experience helps inspire ideas and innovation.

Whenever possible, I allow my students to share their knowledge however they choose; in cases such as the trial PBL example, however, I have prescribed their method of learning articulation. Whatever method of articulation you allow should showcase the desired knowledge and skills and be designed with the rubric in mind.

Asking these questions has allowed me to bring PBL into my AP classroom and to increase the quality of learning, engagement, and self-efficacy of my students. I’ve also ensured they are getting the content knowledge they need to be successful on their AP Exam. This model can work across the AP curriculum and lead to more-fulfilling learning experiences for both teachers and students.

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