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Project-Based Learning Research Review: Avoiding Pitfalls

The challenges many teachers face in implementing project-based learning well are not to be taken lightly, but we've compiled a list of strategies to avert the most common issues educators face.
Vanessa Vega
Former Edutopia Senior Manager of Research
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Two boys and a mentor student watching water pour into brightly painted plastic cups causing the wheel to turn
After a field trip to a historic water wheel, fifth-grade students at the Ferryway School in Massachusetts built their own water wheels with the help of a mentor engineering student. Photo credit: Edutopia

There are many potential barriers to implementing successful project-based learning -- it requires serious student and teacher commitment, adequate planning time, and buy-in from the top down. But with these practical tips based on research findings, you can stay away from the most common mistakes educators make, and be confident you are getting started on the right foot with PBL.

Don’t Be Afraid to Make Mistakes

Wrong turns often lead to some of the most memorable learning experiences. Like students, teachers must be ready to analyze tasks and adapt teaching tactics as a way of modeling those skills for students (Ertmer & Simons, 2005).

Model Active Listening and Full-Group Attention

Working in groups, students often fail to listen to each others' ideas, and may attempt to split up group work into individualized, non-interactive tasks. Truly effective collaboration requires the attention of everyone, which teachers can support by carefully describing and modeling what active listening, joint attention, and coordinated activity look like (Barron, 2003).

Encourage Students to Explore Discrepancies

Students should be ready to dig in to discrepancies that appear in a variety of resources -- and they should be provided with sufficient time to do so. Discussing differences and contradicting information that result in a variety of sources and evaluating the evidence that led to different conclusions, are important exercises in developing critical-thinking and self-directed learning skills. Barron and Darling-Hammond (2008) recommend presenting students with wide-ranging types of evidence (books, lectures, films, field trips) representing different perspectives and providing sufficient time for investigating, applying, discussing, sharing, and revising their conclusions.

Be Realistic and Flexible in Planning

If you are new to PBL, start with smaller teaching units before attempting larger, more complex ones, and look for potential problems to solve or projects that are already part of the curriculum (Ertmer & Simons, 2005; Kolodner, Camp, Crismond, Fasse, Gray, Holbrook, Puntambekar, & Ryan, 2003). Veteran teachers recommend setting the number of days expected to achieve a milestone, then building in a 20 percent overrun; teachers should be prepared to provide alternative instruction to reinforce subject matter and to know when to enforce deadlines (Mergendoller & Thomas, 2005).

Continue to the last section of the PBL research review, Annotated Bibliography.

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Melanie Link Taylor's picture
Melanie Link Taylor
Educator, Blogger, Southern California

Thanks for the article, especially the reassurances concerning 'bumps along the road.' It is problem solving learning that really sticks with the kids.

Ed's picture

I think it's crucial to model the active listening and full group attention especially in the primary grades. If students learn to listen and be attentive to help the group then project-based learning will be successful every time.

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