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What is Project-Based Learning? A Complete Guide For Educators

What is project-based learning? And how can you use it to help your students succeed? Get all the answers in this guide.

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By Julia Bashore

project based learning

Project-based learning is a hands-on educational approach where students gain knowledge and skills by working for an ongoing, extended project to investigate and respond to a complex question, problem, or challenge.

In today’s educational world, it’s easy to feel like standardized tests have all the power.  From elementary to high school, multiple-choice tests carry a great deal of weight concerning everything from district funding to college admissions. Despite this, though, standardized tests aren’t exactly exciting, nor are they especially empowering for students.

As a teacher myself, I can tell that many of us lament the relentless drilling of skills to prepare students for a test they probably won’t even remember a few months later, but without standardized tests, how can we engage students in learning and applying important content?

The answer lies in Project-Based Learning. Researchers discovered that almost 50% of students in project-based learning environments successfully passed their AP exams, surpassing their peers in conventional classrooms by a margin of 8 percentage points. Let’s find out why…

What is Project Based Learning?

Project-Based Learning, or PBL, is rooted in action.  Students work on an ongoing project related to their grade level standards and receive scores and feedback for each milestone they accomplish.

Rather than focusing on teacher-led discussions, Project-Based Learning lets students make discoveries on their own.  By working on a project for an extended period of time, students gradually build their problem-solving and critical thinking skills while acquiring and applying new knowledge.

This approach puts learning directly in the hands of the students. Instead of simply memorizing facts or plugging in numbers, they must collaborate with one another to grow in their abilities to reason, revise, and reflect on solutions for an ongoing educational question or challenge. This active engagement fosters critical thinking and problem-solving skills, encouraging students to take ownership of their learning journey and apply their knowledge in practical, real-world contexts.

How is Project Based Learning Different From “Normal” Classroom Projects?

Project Based Learning may sound familiar to anyone who recalls throwing together a science fair project or crafting a book report diorama back in the day.  Authentic PBL, however, is a far deeper dive into knowledge and learning than the classroom projects we remember from yesteryear.

In order to fit the criteria of Project Based Learning, the assignment students are working on cannot merely be an accessory to a unit of study.  Instead, the project is the unit of study.

Consider a second-grade reading class learning about different story genres.  In a traditional classroom setting, students might complete several quizzes and tests on each type of story, then put together a simple report or poster highlighting their favorite at the end of the unit.  While this is a perfectly viable way to teach this content, it’s not Project-Based Learning.

Project Based Learning might achieve the same goal by giving students a challenging question to work towards over the semester, such as: How can we make different types of stories come alive for young readers in the community?

Students would then be placed into teams or groups and given time to brainstorm their ideas.  They would work together to closely read several examples of each genre and map out storyboards and scripts to make them “come alive.”

Students would then revise and edit together before finalizing video performances of their favorite stories.  Each video might include a rubric of important plot elements, as well as a summary of the story’s main idea or theme.

Students could publish their completed video projects to a schoolwide channel or play them for other classes to share their finished work.  They might then reflect with one another on how and why it’s important to keep stories engaging and exciting for future readers.

This project, adapted from The Storytime Channel example offered by MyPBLWorks, is an example of an ongoing, meaningful project that comprises an entire in-depth unit of study.

The project itself is multi-faceted and requires thorough knowledge and understanding of the topic, as well as the capacity for critical thinking and self-reflection.

Instead of merely being the “cherry on top,” the project in a PBL classroom is the entire main dish.

How to Go for the Gold with Project Based Learning

To reach that main dish level of impact, Project Based Learning assignments should ideally incorporate seven project design elements.  Take a look at each below to get a better understanding of why they work together to form meaningful, successful projects.

  • Challenging Problem or Question. In order for a project to help students grow academically, it needs to spark curiosity.  PBL projects are centered around solving meaningful problems or answering impactful questions, rather than simply following directions. Again, consider the difference between “How can we make different types of stories come alive for young readers?” versus “Describe and give examples of your three favorite story genres.”  A meaningful question creates a more empowering goal for students to work towards.
  • Sustained Inquiry. Students should go through several rigorous cycles of asking questions, researching answers, and applying new skills as they work to complete their projects.  There should be ongoing growth as students wonder, learn, and then continue to wonder and learn at a more sophisticated level. If the assignment or activity does not prompt sustained inquiry over the course of time it takes to reach completion, then the project is not in-depth enough for real Project-Based Learning.
  • Authenticity. Just as the project’s central question or problem should be meaningful, every step along the way should also be rooted in real-world skills that matter to students’ everyday lives.  The project should be based in an authentic context and have a clear impact on students’ personal concerns and interests. By keeping authentic issues at the crux of the project, students are able to widen their focus, think more deeply, and, ultimately, get more out of their learning.
  • Student Voice & Choice.  Projects should also be structured to allow all of the contributors to express themselves.  Students should have a say in decisions related to the project, and each group member should be able to make choices on the roles they will play throughout the experience. As students get more confident in voicing their strengths and ideas, they will not only submit better work, but will also become better advocates for themselves.  Allowing students to have a measure of control over the work they do creates more personal investment and engagement in the process, and helps each individual tap into their own potential.
  • Reflection.  Making time for genuine reflection is often an overlooked part of today’s educational world, but I’ve found it’s one of the most essential steps in actually growing as a learner.  PBL classrooms factor in time for students and teachers to review the effectiveness of each project-based activity. Teachers can offer praise and guidance as students continue to progress, and students can identify areas where they have done well and where they might wish to improve.  This results in a clearer understanding of expectations and a more thoughtful approach to each element of the project.
  • Critique & Revision. Following a period of reflection, students are also expected to give and receive meaningful feedback throughout each unit’s project.  By collaborating on and revising their work, students create a more polished final product and learn to be comfortable with criticism. Learning to carefully and kindly critique a teammate’s work can build a student’s own thinking and learning potential.  On the other hand, practicing how to gracefully respond to others’ suggestions is an important skill both in and out of the academic world.
  • Public Product.  In PBL classrooms, students celebrate the completion of their hard work by presenting or displaying it to folks outside of the classroom itself. Whether it’s a performance, a presentation, a published booklet, a video, a speech, or a display at a local library or community center, making a finished product public is a huge part of PBL.  By taking finished projects outside the classroom, students can take ownership and feel proud of the real work they’ve accomplished.

Make PBL Work For Your Class

These seven gold-standard criteria are easy to implement across a variety of classroom levels.  From Kindergarten to high school, meaningful projects are always an important way to engage students and teach them to grow as classmates, researchers, and citizens.

Students in first grade may work in teams to design their ideal playground as they learn about force, motion, and simple machines.  They can practice simple math facts as they calculate the height of slides and swings, and work on their writing and reading skills as they record and diagram their ideas.  Finished ideas could be shared with the principal or displayed around local parks.

Students in fifth grade, meanwhile, might work to raise awareness about endangered animals by researching and writing about their habitats, predators, and defenses.  They could then design nonfiction books to distribute to their community and film campaigns suggesting ways to protect these animals in the future.

Middle schoolers, on the other hand, could team up to create an app that would benefit young people’s learning.  They could brainstorm, practice writing pitches, and ultimately learn about coding as they create an app in the field of their choosing.  Completed apps could be shared online or in a school-wide demo or fair.

Down the line, high schoolers might be involved in projects centered around local or international issues, such as promoting clean water quality, conserving natural resources, or solving issues like homelessness in the community.  These projects could be presented to the school board or local officials, as well as displayed on social media, to create authentic buy-in.

Moving Forward with Project Based Learning

Clearly, there are no limits to the potential of Project Based Learning.  If you can dream it, your students can do it.

Whether you’re teaching how to readhow to code, math, science, or something else, there are plenty of ways to incorporate PBL.

By adapting your vision to encompass the seven gold-standard criteria, you can guarantee that your project will promote collaboration, growth, and academic rigor for all the members of your class.

While PBL may take a bit more effort than grading those fill-in-the-blank worksheets, I truly believe that implementing it effectively will give your students the chance to achieve thorough, meaningful knowledge about a topic that genuinely interests them and contributes to their society.

Not a lot of standardized tests can boast the same.

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