Project-Based Learning

February 2012 • Sue Jackson

As we continue our journey into 21st century teaching and learning, this tip highlights an effective approach with inquiry at its core—project-based learning. Several questions come to mind when pondering this topic: What is project-based learning? How does it differ from doing 'projects'? Why would I want to use project-based learning in my classroom?

Project-Based Learning

Project-based learning involves students in an extended process of inquiry in response to a real-world problem. During the inquiry process, students work collaboratively, in teams or small groups, to complete complex tasks that result in authentic products, events, or presentations to an audience. It has five key characteristics:

(from 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times, Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel, 2010)

Project-based learning IS... Project-based learning is NOT!
  • driven by the inquiry process
  • deep cognitive engagement
  • personally meaningful to students
  • fulfilling an educational purpose
  • student choice and voice
  • the overlapping of multiple disciplines
  • preparing learners for the world beyond school
  • prepared "packets"
  • teacher-driven
  • all students responding in the same way
  • materials/resources provided by the teacher
  • theme-based (e.g., apples, dinosaurs, medieval times)
  • working in isolation

As in most inquiry experiences, project-based learning is focused on answering a 'driving' or essential question. This question is provocative, open-ended, complex, and linked to the core of what students will learn. Project-based learning begins with the vision of an end product or presentation. This creates context and a reason for students to learn and understand the information and concepts. Students search for answers to this question and arrive at conclusions, using higher-order thinking and collaborative team skills. An essential part of project-based learning is the production of high quality work. Students are provided opportunities to give and receive feedback about their products and, because they are presenting their work to audiences beyond the classroom, motivation to do well is heightened.

Typical projects focus around:

For great ideas about projects, check out some of the following websites:

Projects versus Project-Based Learning

Projects are not new to teaching and learning, being used in classrooms over the last 100 years. Traditional projects were usually short activities assigned after a series of teaching lessons about a topic. It was assumed students would apply what they learned during class time as they completed projects on their own. The project work was completed at home, evaluated by the teacher and then displayed in the classroom. These projects were add-ons or the 'dessert' after teaching occurred.

The projects in project-based learning differ significantly from more traditional ones. Students complete project work during class time. The projects require sustained engagement and collaboration from students. The tasks are complex and result in an authentic product or presentation to a real-world audience. Essentially, the projects are the 'main course' or essence of learning.

Benefits of Using Project-Based Learning

Recent research reveals that project-based learning, when fully realized, yields benefits to all students and noticeably improves student achievement. "Adopting a project-learning approach in your classroom or school can invigorate your learning environment, energizing the curriculum with a real-world relevance and sparking students' desire to explore, investigate, and understand their world." ("Why Teach with Project-Based Learning?: Providing Students with a Well-Rounded Classroom Experience", Edutopia, 2008)

As students work in small groups on a collective task they have ample opportunities to develop 21st century skills such as collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and digital competence. Since students are researching and investigating, they gain a deeper understanding of the concepts and standards at the heart of a project. Projects also build vital workplace skills and lifelong habits of learning. They allow students to address community issues, explore careers, interact with adult mentors, and use technology. Project-based learning also builds creativity and innovation skills as students work to solve challenges and problems. Teachers who use project-based learning notice improvements in student enthusiasm, confidence, social interactions, and feelings. In fact, project-based learning has been shown to motivate students who might otherwise find school boring or meaningless. Students who struggle in traditional classroom settings often are more successful working on a project because it matches their learning style or preference for social interaction.

Stay tuned for next month's tip which includes helpful suggestions and planning tools for getting started with project-based learning!