Why is Project-Based Learning Hot Again: Benefits, Examples and Resources

Students working on project

Students working on project

As AI continues to advance, educators are realizing that conventional methods of asking students direct questions may no longer be as effective, given the availability of tools like ChatGPT that can readily answer those questions. However, there is an innovative solution that can rekindle students’ passion for learning: project-based learning. Let’s explore why this approach holds such promise.

What Is Project-Based Learning?

Project-Based Learning, often abbreviated as PBL, is a pedagogical approach that facilitates active learning through the execution of real-world projects. These projects are designed to encourage students to develop their knowledge and skills in a way that’s directly applicable to the challenges and problems they may encounter in the real world. The goal is not to memorize isolated facts, but to connect learning with the broader world.

More Than Just a Project

Students learn by doing, and produce a logical solution to a Driving Question that is then shared with the public. At its core, PBL is student-centered, inquiry-based, and authentic. It’s important to note that PBL is more than just “doing a project” or “making something”一it’s a deliberate teaching method that aligns with the above characteristics. The focus is not on the final artifacts or activities students complete along the way, but the level of rigor and purpose behind them.

We live in a world where many crucial activities and processes are essentially projects. From weekend chores and work presentations to organizing fundraising events, projects are a pervasive part of our daily lives. When we allow students to have authentic experiences, we equip them for the real-world challenges they will encounter. PBL aims to develop students into self-sufficient, creative, and critical thinkers capable of tackling any challenge. In the modern world, careers are often a series of projects rather than long-term employment in a specific organization, which is why solving real-world issues is as vital for students as it is for adults.

A Brief History of Project-Based Learning

While project-based learning may seem like the latest trend in education, its central ideas have actually been around for centuries. PBL dates back to the days of John Dewey (1859-1952), a famous American philosopher and educational reformer who believed children learn best by doing. It was his successor, William H. Kilpatrick (1871-1965), who coined the “Project Method” approach. During this time, Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori (1870-1952) developed the Montessori Method, which states that children can be self-directed learners in prepared environments. Pulling on all these principles, PBL first became popular in medical schools in the ’60s before reaching public schools in the ’80s and ’90s.

5 Key Characteristics of PBL

Project-based learning has certain defining characteristics, which, although they might vary slightly from one educational institution to another, remain consistent in essence. These seven characteristics include:

  1. More engaging and effective than traditional teacher-centered instruction

  2. Involves complex tasks around a central question, resulting in reflection, iteration, and creation of a final public product

  3. Surrounds core subject content, allowing students to build knowledge and develop skills like problem-solving, critical thinking, and collaboration

  4. Takes place in a student-centered learning environment

  5. Builds student choice into the process

  6. Develops students’ research and problem-solving skills, that allow for peer review and constructive criticism.

  7. Positively impacts students, specifically academic achievement, attendance, motivation, knowledge, and cognitive skill development

Buck Institute for Education, also known as PBLWorks, based on 15 years of literature review and distilled educational experience, identified seven essential elements of PBL that focus on project design. These elements, known collectively as “Gold Standard PBL,” are as follows:

  1. A challenging problem or question

  2. Sustained inquiry

  3. Authenticity

  4. Student voice and choice

  5. Reflection

  6. Critique and revision

  7. Public product

The Benefits of Project-Based Learning

Since its infancy, research has proven the power of PBL time and again. PBL empowers students to apply knowledge and skills creatively and flexibly across different situations, demonstrating “adaptive expertise.” In general, student-centered learning environments like PBL have the following key documented advantages over traditional teaching methods:

  1. Deep, conceptual understanding versus superficial, surface-level learning

  2. Authentic, contextualized knowledge that connects across content areas

  3. Collaborative, active learning versus learning in isolation

  4. It extends beyond purely academic learning to connect students with the real world, fostering their ability to meet professional challenges.

  5. PBL promotes deep engagement with the target content, emphasizing long-term retention over short-term memorization.

  6. It improves students’ attitudes towards education by keeping them engaged and fostering intrinsic motivation centered around a meaningful outcome.

  7. In February 2021, four studies published by Lucas Education Research in collaboration with five leading universities showed that PBL classrooms across the US significantly outperformed students in typical classrooms, even in low-income settings.

  8. PBL enhances students’ technology abilities and fosters the development of 21st-century skills, teamwork, problem-solving skills, and effective communication.

  9. It reinforces Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) programs in progressive schools worldwide through its collaborative nature.

Challenges of Project-Based Learning

Practicing project-based learning at school aligns what students are learning with the needs of the modern workplace, making it a desirable objective for schools to pursue. Yet, a large number of failed attempts lead a growing number of teachers to give up on the practice altogether. The most significant challenges are:

  1. Working in teams – an important skill that holds the potential for conflict and free-riding by students

  2. Adaptation – the difficulty experienced by teachers and students in adapting to non-traditional teaching and learning roles

  3. Workloads – demanding workloads for teachers and students

  4. Guidelines – lack of clear implementation guidelines

  5. Learning outcomes – lack of focus on identified learning outcomes

  6. PBL personnel – a lack of trained personnel that can lead PBL

  7. Professional development – lack of adequate professional development to train PBL

  8. Taking on responsibility – Students are forced to take on new responsibilities for their learning that they have never had before.

  9. What does success look like – If success is not immediate, it is common for teachers to give up on PBL and return to a teaching style they are familiar and comfortable with

  10. Understanding assessment – A lack of clarity around assessment create uncertainty for students, particularly for those accustomed to a correspondence between grades and correct answers

Project-Based Learning Examples and Lesson Plans

We face problems, big and small, simple and complex, clear and confusing every day in our lives. Those problems are not necessarily STEM projects. In fact, most problems that we face in life are interdisciplinary. The best approach for solving these kinds of problems is by having subject teachers collaborate on these projects.

One such project is “Design a Garden,” a science and mathematics unit that allows students to explore and gain knowledge about planning a garden space. The unit has interdisciplinary connections to mathematics by having students break up the garden space into designated areas for each plant type they intend to plant. Students utilize their knowledge of area and perimeter of composite rectangles to calculate each plant area. Additionally, the Design a Garden unit connects to the horticulturist and botanist career fields. Each student can choose from a variety of garden types (e.g., vegetable, wild flower, butterfly, succulent, herb, flower) or develop one of their own. Students learn about plants and their life cycles, research types of plants to include in their garden and investigate specific planting and growing requirements. Students create a life-size diagram of their garden design and trading cards for the plants represented. They conclude by presenting the diagrams and information about the type of garden, as well as their interest in the careers of horticulture and botany.

Another similar project is “Design a New Park That Supports Local Plant Life,” In which students are working in teams to design a park that supports local plantlife. The project starts with a brainstorming session in which students try to figure out what it entails to design a park from local plant life. This brainstorming session concludes with a clear identification of the main parts of the project that students need to investigate and work on in pursuit of their park design goals. Each team member assumes the responsibility of working on one or more of these project parts, such as identifying a park location or getting to know the population that is going to frequent the park, etc. As each team member thoroughly investigates and works on their project part, they also collaborate with other team members to make sure that their work is informed by what other team members have done. The final goal of this teamwork is the production of several park designs that the team, their classmates and the local community can vote on as they pick the final park design.

As I mentioned before, projects can cover the entire gamut of topics that we encounter in life. That may include creating a podcast, which may focus on any topic. In the “Creating a Podcast” lesson plan, students in grades 4 – 12 turn a topic, lesson or unit they learn about into a podcast. They turn their classrooms into a production studio, using a smartphone and a computer with easily available software. They start the process by listening to podcasts and answering questions about them, they will then brainstorm ideas to choose a topic, do the research to plan the story, delve deep into sounds and recording practice, learn how to conduct interviews, come up with a script and finally produce the podcast. They will conclude by sharing their podcast with classroom peers, get feedback and rework things that need fixing before they publish their podcast.

Solving a Problem in Society That We Care About” is probably the best example of a project that can cover multiple disciplines. As I mentioned above, solving projects in life can never be done by focusing on one topic. It always consists of multiple topics that are part of the problem that need to be resolved as part of the project. In this project, students work in teams to solve a problem in society that they really care about. Students may choose things like solving homelessness, global warming, bees disappearing, or any other problem they believe that impacts their community or society in general in a negative way. They start by identifying the problem, its main components, and its possible solutions. They conclude by coming up with an action plan detailing how to get involved and documenting their experience as they make a difference. Students work in teams, dividing the work amongst themselves and making sure that all team members stay up to date by collaborating with each other at all times.

Getting Started With Project-Based Learning

Project-based learning stands out as one of the most effective methods for enhancing students’ learning experiences. However, over the years, some teachers have faced challenges in implementing it successfully, leading some to abandon the approach altogether. Several reasons contribute to these setbacks, such as inadequate training, confusing professional development, time constraints, and more. One significant factor that often goes overlooked is the students’ lack of essential skills before embarking on their first project-based learning endeavor.

To ensure a fruitful implementation of project-based learning, it is essential for teachers to prepare students at least one year in advance. This preparatory period should focus on equipping students with vital skills that will empower them to succeed. These skills include how to do research effectively, how to communicate with peers, how to collaborate with peers, and how to manage projects. By dedicating an entire year to instilling these competencies in students, their initial experience with project-based learning will feel like a seamless journey. Moreover, the newfound confidence resulting from acquiring these skills will transform their learning experience into one that is student-centered and self-driven.

The five essential skills needed for student success in PBL are:

  1. Communication: the ability to share what one has learned in a clear and coherent way

  2. Inquiry: the ability to analyze, evaluate, and apply knowledge to the problem at hand

  3. Collaboration: the ability for students to work together to generate and share information and develop solutions to a problem

  4. Research: the ability for students to explore and access critical information that is relevant to the problem

  5. Project Management: the ability of students to manage the entire project, by dividing the tasks amongst team members, sticking to deadline and supervising the entire process

Project-Based Learning Resources

Rogers, R. (2014, October). Overcoming implementation challenges with problem and project based learning in advanced technological education programs within community colleges https://repository.library.northeastern.edu/files/neu:349670/fulltext.pdf

Mapes, M. R. (2009, April 9). Effects and challenges of project-based learning: A review

Ravitz, J. (2010, October 28). Federally funded study provides evidence of PBL effectiveness in high school economics:

Lathram, B., Lenz, B., & Vander Ark, T. (2016). Preparing students for a project-based world. Getting Smart https://www.gettingsmart.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Preparing-Students-for-a-ProjectBasedWorld-FINAL.pdf

Harmer, N., Stokes, A., (2014, November). The benefits and challenges of project-based learning: A review of the literature https://docplayer.net/28084217-The-benefits-and-challenges-of-project-based-learning-a-review-of-the-literature-nichola-harmer-and-alison-stokes-pedrio-paper-6.html

Tally, T. N., (2015). The Challenges of Implementing Project Based Learning in the 21st Century Classroom https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/document?repid=rep1&type=pdf&doi=c3024fee78cd91fbbfacae83816f0751ade0c578

Ravitz, J. (2012, April 16). Using project-based learning to teach 21st century skills: Findings from a statewide initiative https://docplayer.net/20892981-Using-project-based-learning-to-teach-21-st-century-skills-findings-from-a-statewide-initiative.html

Lucas Education Research. (n.d.). Project-Based Learning Boosts Student Achievement in AP Courses https://apcentral.collegeboard.org/media/pdf/project-based-learning-boosts-student-achievement-in-ap-courses.pdf

Lucas Education Research. (n.d.). Project-Based Learning Leads to Gains in Science and Other Subjects in Middle School and Benefits All Learners https://www.lucasedresearch.org/publication/project-based-learning-leads-to-gains-in-science-and-other-subjects-in-middle-school-and-benefits-all-learners/

Lucas Education Research. (n.d.). Project-Based Learning Increases Science Achievement in Elementary School and Advances Social and Emotional Learning https://www.lucasedresearch.org/docs/mlpbl_brief/

Lucas Education Research. (2020, June 8). The Impact of Project-Based Learning on Social Studies and Literacy Learning in Low-Income Schools https://www.lucasedresearch.org/docs/project_place_brief/

Lucas Education Research. (n.d.). Why Social and Emotional Learning Is Essential to Project-Based Learning https://www.lucasedresearch.org/docs/sel/

Lucas Education Research. (n.d.). High-Quality Professional Learning for Project-Based Learning https://www.lucasedresearch.org/publication/high-quality-professional-learning-for-project-based-learning/

Lucas Education Research. (n.d.). Key Principles for Project-Based Learning https://www.lucasedresearch.org/docs/pbl/

Lucas Education Research. (n.d.). Enabling Conditions for Scaling Project-Based Learning https://www.lucasedresearch.org/docs/enablers/