George Lucas Educational Foundation

Knowledge in Action Research Helping to Make the Case for Rigorous Project-Based Learning

Can project-based learning in Advanced Placement (AP) classes deepen student learning and increase AP test scores? This award-winning research study intends to answer that question.
Edutopia Team
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Knowledge in Action Research Project: Winner 2013 NCSS Exemplary Research


To succeed in today’s complex, dynamic, and globally connected world, students need to have a depth of understanding and learning that is far more than memorization and recollection of facts and figures. Rigorous project-based learning (PBL), as well as the skills and resources for achieving it, offers a promising pedagogical approach to helping all students succeed.

Is it possible for students to demonstrate deeper conceptual understanding and get the same or better scores on an AP test?

One of The George Lucas Educational Foundation’s (GLEF’s) current initiatives is a research program called Knowledge in Action (KIA), for which the Foundation provides funding, design, and collaboration. It received the 2013 Exemplary Research in Social Studies Award from the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). The program is designed and managed by a collaborative group of learning scientists, curriculum experts, teacher leaders, and GLEF Research staff. The research team is applying a rigorous PBL approach to the design of college-preparatory courses, so students can participate in authentic tasks that provide an experiential platform for learning that prepares them for college and careers.

Background and Purpose of the Research

In 2008, the Knowledge in Action Project was started through a collaboration with a research team from the University of Washington’s College of Education and the Bellevue School District in Washington. The project began with the redesign of Advanced Placement (AP) courses because they have been considered the gold standard for rigorous courses in American high schools. The research project sought to answer two questions:

  • Is it possible for students to get the same or better scores on an AP test with a well-designed project-based learning course when compared with students of similar backgrounds and prior academic performance who are taking a traditionally taught course?
  • Is it possible for the students taking the PBL course to demonstrate deeper conceptual understanding of the subject matter as measured by an assessment of deeper learning when compared with students experiencing the traditionally taught course?

"Many want equity of access to rigorous courses; what we really want is equity of outcomes."
-- Dr. John D. Bransford, University of Washington

In addition, by deploying PBL, researchers were committed to designing a course that provided opportunities and support for greater student disciplinary engagement across a diverse range of learners, with an architecture that was both sustainable and scalable.


While the push for equity of access to rigorous upper-level academic experience is an important first step, the Knowledge in Action Project team also believes that working toward equity of outcomes for all students is what it takes to truly eliminate the achievement gap for students.

Continue to the next section of the KIA research review, Project-Based Learning Course Design.

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Aep Suryana's picture

I am glad to have the opportunity to read the result of this research and I will implement it in the school where I work for
Thank you

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