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Project-Based Learning

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.

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.

  • Project-Based Learning

    Knowledge in Action Research: Project-Based Learning Course Design

    The Knowledge in Action team used two key design principles when designing the AP Government coursework: 1) Projects are the central element, or spine, of the course, and 2) learning cycles (dubbed "looping" by the participating teachers), enable students to revisit key concepts and questions in each successive project.
  • 9-12 High School

    Knowledge in Action Research: Student Demographics

    The Knowledge in Action Project was first introduced Bellevue, WA, and continues to expand into the Des Moines Public Schools in Iowa, the Envision Charter Network in San Francisco, and Seattle Public Schools.
  • Project-Based Learning

    Knowledge in Action Research: Results to Date

    According to the Knowledge in Action research project, students taking a project-based learning (PBL) course do as well or better on the AP test, and in some cases significantly better, when compared to control classes.
  • Project-Based Learning

    Knowledge in Action Research: Next Steps

    The Knowledge in Action project is underway with plans to refine curricula, improve learning tools, develop formative assessments, understand challenges to implementation, and expand into additional subject areas.
  • Project-Based Learning

    Knowledge in Action Research: Resources

    Resources and background information about the Knowledge in Action team, the project, and the results.