Project-Based Learning (PBL)

What is project-based learning?

What is PBL learning?

How can I teach project-based learning?

How can I implement project-based learning in my district?

How can teachers use project-based learning to meet the needs of all students?

Why is project-based learning important?

Is project-based learning effective?

What is meant by project work?

How can principals integrate project work in their schools?


What is project-based learning?

Project-based learning is a method of instruction in which students are given a challenging question to answer or problem to solve. Generally, project-based learning integrates student voice and choice, but the variations can also be assigned by the teacher. Project-based learning often incorporates research, creativity, collaboration, and presentations.

Project-based learning engages students in the pursuit of a worthy, challenging question or problem over an extended period of time. The students are responsible for delivering a public presentation, but … the teacher is primarily responsible for forming the essential question and task, even if students contribute to the deliverables’ design. After the project’s launch, the teacher may facilitate ongoing work while relinquishing some control to students.

—From The Quest for Learning (p. 3) by Marie Alcock, Michael Fisher, and Allison Zmuda

What is PBL learning?

PBL can stand for either project-based learning or problem-based learning, but more often refers to project-based learning.

Across content areas and levels, PBL starts with an open-ended question that has many potentially correct answers. ... [Students] must engage in extended inquiry to arrive at their own understanding and develop defensible arguments for their positions. Projects typically conclude with student teams applying what they have learned to produce something original, such as a product, demonstration, or exhibition that they share with an authentic audience.

—From Deeper Learning (p. 112), edited by James A. Bellanca

How can I teach project-based learning?

If you are considering this shift—for your classroom or an entire school system—recognize from the outset that it may not be easy.

PBL demands new roles for teachers and students alike. In Reinventing Project-Based Learning, coauthor Jane Krauss and I (2014) document several changes that teachers can anticipate, including the following:

  • Learning goals: Reconsider what you expect students to know and do.
  • Ways of talking and engaging with students: Interact with your students in different ways. Get comfortable with messier learning, with students working more autonomously (and not necessarily all doing the same thing at the same time).
  • Classroom management style: Help students better handle their own growth.
  • Physical classroom arrangement: Reposition the classroom fixtures to enable teamwork and collaboration.
  • Assessment thinking: Re-evaluate what you take note of during the learning process and adjust your teaching plan based on what you notice.
  • Collected materials: Reconsider which learning artifacts you preserve.
  • Communication with parents and colleagues: Defend the thinking behind the 21st century project approach, and encourage parents and other community members to find ways to support project work. For example, they might provide audience feedback, share their expertise, or help with the logistics of field research.

—From Implementing Project-Based Learning (p. 2–3) by Suzie Boss

How can I implement project-based learning in my district?

The shift from traditional teaching to project-based learning is challenging and requires teachers, students, and administrators to develop new ways of working together. ... Administrators need to encourage this shared vision through their leadership and also remove systemic barriers—such as poor technology access or inadequate teacher planning time—that can interfere with [PBL].

During project implementation, [PBL] teachers may use digital tools to scaffold instruction, encourage collaboration, provide students with feedback, and manage the flow of project work. ... As Jason Ravitz and Juliane Blazevski (2010) note, “online tools may provide an important way for teachers and schools to help address the challenges of PBL use” (p. 9).

Schools doing [PBL] wall to wall, such as those that are part of the Deeper Learning Network, allow generous time for collaborative professional development as part of their models. For teachers who do not have that sustained support on site, online communities of practice may help fill at least some of the gaps.

—From Deeper Learning (p. 130), edited by James A. Bellanca

How can teachers use project-based learning to meet the needs of all students?

Teachers can scaffold the learning experience by anticipating and responding to diverse learners’ needs and customizing instruction accordingly. Some students, for example, may need deliberate instruction and modeling to learn how to collaborate or provide peer critique effectively. Students working on the same project may bring different background knowledge and have diverse academic strengths. During a project, teachers might offer mini-lessons for students who need specific instruction or support, leaving others to work independently or with their team members.

—From Implementing Project-Based Learning (p. 12) by Suzie Boss

Why is project-based learning important?

Project-based learning has a long track record as a strategy to prepare students for college, careers, and citizenship. When students take on meaningful projects and share their work with authentic audiences, they find learning more relevant and school more engaging (Thomas, 2000). Along with producing academic gains, well-designed projects help students develop problem-solving skills (Finkelstein, Hanson, Huang, Hirschman, & Huang, 2010; Mergendoller, Maxwell, & Bellisimo, 2006). PBL also gives students expanded opportunities to practice and hone 21st century skills, such as collaboration, effective communication, and critical thinking (Ravitz, Hixson, English, & Mergendoller, 2012).

—From Deeper Learning (p. 112), edited by James A. Bellanca

Is project-based learning effective?

Research has proven that, when done well, project-based learning experiences have a tangible impact on the academic growth of our students.

Compared to peers learning in more traditional environments, students in PBL schools perform just as well on the kinds of traditional measures of mastery that still govern the work we do in schools.

Students in project-based classrooms also excel in mastering the kinds of high-value, hard-to-assess skills—creativity, critical thinking, complex problem solving—that we know matter. Barron and Darling-Hammond (2008) write that students in PBL classrooms:

  • Apply knowledge more flexibly and solve conceptual problems more easily than peers in more traditional schools
  • Show more sophisticated reasoning abilities and are better able to use criteria to support choices than peers in more traditional schools
  • Develop proficiency with design and planning skills that peers in traditional schools are often never exposed to
  • Spend more time learning to cooperate with other people than students in more traditional schools

—From Creating Purpose-Driven Learning Experiences (p. 14) by William M. Ferriter

What is meant by project work?

Project work is another term for project-based learning.

How can principals integrate project work in their schools?

Principals need to work collaboratively with teachers to make a plan for integrating project learning into the school year. How much time should they allocate? When? Where? And why? Project team leaders must address the benefits to students, parents, and the teachers themselves. The best place to start is a faculty-driven investigation project, one that includes the building administrators, gives everyone a taste of the project-learning experience, and contributes to the creation of a strengthened learning community—a planning process in which all participants learn and that results in a specific, detailed plan with measurable outcomes, a timeline and budget for intensive teacher development, and a means to assess the results. To introduce project-based learning with less support invites understandable resistance on all fronts.

—From Enriched Learning Projects (p. 5) by James A. Bellanca