PBL Research Findings Detail

The research supporting PBL as an instructional approach that can improve student outcomes is strong and growing. Project-based learning helps students develop meaningful understanding, which results from the learner building relationships and connections among ideas and blending personal experiences with  more formal knowledge (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 1999; Krajcik, 2001). 40 years of research proves that project-based learning is one of the most effective ways to learn. Here is the latest research that proves that.

What Research Confirms

Research confirms that rigorous project-based learning has a positive impact on students, leading to increased achievement and higher levels of motivation (Larmer et al., 2015). Recent studies have found that PBL is connected to learning gains in an array of academic subjects. 

  • MDRC, a social-policy research organization, pointed out several  studies that showed a positive association between PBL and students’ development of knowledge and cognitive skills (Condliffe et al., 2017). The MDRC findings from the American Institutes for Research showed higher scores on the OECD PISA-Based Test for Schools, an international academic assessment given to 15-year-olds, and higher on-time high school graduation rates in schools that were part of the deeper learning network as compared with schools that taught with more-traditional instructional practices. The network schools in the study were part of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s deeper learning community of practice and used project-based learning (Zeiser et al., 2016). 
  • A recent meta-analysis of PBL research, looking at journal articles published over a 20-year period, found project-based learning had a medium to large positive effect on students’ academic achievement compared with traditional instruction (Chen & Yang, 2019). 
  • In  a study in four countries in South and Central America,  researchers reported that inquiry and problem-based learning improved students’ math and science scores  on standardized tests (Bando et al., 2018).
  • A randomized controlled study designed to determine the efficacy of Knowledge in Action (KIA) in five large school districts looked at the impact of project-based learning on students’ AP U.S. Government and Politics and  AP Environmental Science exam scores. The study  found KIA increased the likelihood of earning a score  of 3 or higher on the AP exam by 8 percentage points.  
  • A follow-up study showed when teachers had two years of experience using KIA, students had a 10-percentage point boost in the probability of earning an AP Exam score of 3 or higher with KIA.

When instruction is connected to outside-the-classroom practices, projects can promote a sense of civic purpose and engagement, which can be especially powerful when projects result in genuine products or performances for an authentic audience. This is consistent with research demonstrating that students learn most effectively when learning takes place in authentic contexts (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018).

Research highlights the need for projects to target specific learning goals, promote the development of content knowledge, and provide experiences through which students learn disciplinary skills (Condliffe et al., 2017; Thomas, 2000). Projects can deepen knowledge in individual subject areas and help students understand how to apply what they learn in core subjects—such as math, science, and English language arts—to addressing issues in the world beyond school. Integrating this knowledge-in-use approach in the classroom not only provides a richer experience but also can motivate student interest in learning (Blumenfeld et al., 1991; Krajcik & Czerniak, 2013).

The ML-PBL Study

A study by the Multiple Literacies in Project- Based Learning (ML-PBL) project, developed by researchers at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan, focuses primarily on science, but it also provides elementary school students  with opportunities to engage in purposeful reading, explanatory writing, and mathematics (Miller &  Krajcik, 2019), suggested that 

  • Interdisciplinary PBL can be an effective way to bolster achievement in science for all students, regardless of socioeconomic status, gender, race, or reading performance. 
  • The average performance on an end-of-year science test for students in PBL classrooms was 10 percentage points higher  than performance for students in the comparison  group. 
  • Findings revealed that the positive effects of PBL on science learning also extended to social and emotional learning. 
  • Students exposed to the interdisciplinary approach to PBL frequently reported the value of taking ownership of their work, reflecting on their work, and collaborating.

Study Led By University of Michigan

Another study, led by University of Michigan literacy expert Nell K. Duke and Anne-Lise Halvorsen, a  social studies education expert from Michigan State University, found 

  • Positive effects when using an interdisciplinary approach to project-based learning. 
  • They found that second graders in high-poverty schools closed the gap with wealthier peers in social studies knowledge and informational reading skills when engaged in project-based learning that interwove social studies and literacy instruction through a program called Project PLACE: A Project Approach to Literacy and Civic Engagement (Halvorsen et al., 2012).
  • A follow-up study , which was a randomized controlled trial, revealed significant improvements  for participating students in performance on measures of social studies knowledge and informational reading. 
  • In that study, PBL led to a gain in social studies achievement that was equivalent to five to six months of increased learning for the participating students over a comparison group and two months of increased learning in informational reading (Duke et al., 2020).
  • Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder developed and studied Compose Our World , a project-based approach to ninth-grade English language arts that emphasizes social and emotional learning. 
  • Students in these classrooms reported more collaboration and more authentic learning experiences than students in comparison classrooms, and teachers associated the course with positive instructional shifts and stronger English language arts teaching (Boardman et al., 2020). 
  • A qualitative study of a subset of those classrooms showed that everyday forms of care for one another influenced the experiences of students and teachers, and these were shaped by how space was used in classrooms, project requirements set by teachers, and the materials and modes students used to author products (Garcia et al., 2020).


In summary, recent research findings examining the impact of PBL reveal statistically significant, positive, and robust effects on student achievement across disciplines and grade levels. Examples include the following: 

  • An early elementary school curriculum led to a 63 percent gain in social studies knowledge and a 23 percent gain in informational reading skills.  
  • A curriculum for older elementary school students led to an 8-percentage point gain on a third-party measure of science achievement and significant, positive shifts  in students’ collaborative skills and reflection. 
  • An NGSSaligned PBL curriculum that integrates performance based assessments improved student engagement and achievement on state tests, including substantial improvements in language proficiency for English learners. 
  • Students using project-based learning in AP courses significantly outperformed other students with an overall 10 percent increase in pass rates.