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The case for project-based learning

By Nicole Krueger
May 19, 2020
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Project-based learning is not some new-fangled teaching method just coming into vogue. In fact, use of the PBL approach can be tracked back to the big thinkers, including Confucius, Aristotle and Socrates. Its longevity is due to one of the key outcomes it provides: keeping students happily engaged in rigorous learning.

Of course, the ancient philosophers didn't foresee PBL's connection to edtech, but they did understand the benefits of the approach, including a deep understanding of content, the ability to transfer knowledge to new contexts, improved ability to collaborate and better content retention, to name a few.  

What the research says

Modern research, conducted since the 1990s, further backs the value of the PBL approach to learning and shows that it gives students a range of additional gains, including increased student achievement, stronger motivation to learn and mastery of critical-thinking skills.

And it's not just students who benefit. Teachers who make the shift to PBL — with proper professional learning and peer collaboration — report heightened job satisfaction. Educators say it reinvigorates their practice and gives them a sense of renewal and enthusiasm.

Here's what else research into PBL tells us:

  • Students learning through PBL retain content longer and have a deeper understanding of what they are learning. (Penuel & Means, 2000; Stepien, Gallagher & Workman, 1993)
  • Regarding the effects of PBL on achievement, a meta-analysis of 164 studies on cooperative learning pointed out that cooperation among learners had a significant positive impact on achievement. (Johnson, Johnson, & Stanne, 2000)
  • Students demonstrate better problem-solving skills with PBL than in more traditional classes and are able to apply what they learn to real-life situations. (Finkelstein et al., 2010)
  • Through PBL experiences, students improve their ability to work collaboratively and resolve conflicts. (Beckett & Miller; ChanLin, 2008)
  • Compared to traditional instructional methods, students engaged in small-group learning (a component of PBL) achieve higher grades, retain information longer, and have reduced dropout rates, improved communication and collaboration skills, and a better understanding of professional environments. (Johnson, Johnson & Stanne, 2000Springer, Stanne, & Donovan, 1999Terenzini, Cabrera, Colbeck, Parente, & Bjorklund, 2001)
  • Collaborative learning, a requirement of PBL, promotes time on task as well as friendships across diverse groups, such as race, ethnicity, gender or school cliques. (Johnson & Johnson, 2009)
  • Collaborative learning benefits students across grade levels, academic subjects, genders, ethnicities and achievement levels. (Slavin, 1996)
  • PBL has been found to be more effective than traditional instruction for long-term retention, skill development, and satisfaction of students and teachers. (Strobel, J., & van Barneveld, A. 2009)

In the real world

If the science that backs PBL hasn't yet convinced you of its value, consider the real-world benefits practitioners point to.
Jane Krauss, co-author of Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age, 3rd Edition, with Suzie Boss, notes that when students are enthusiastic about their studies, their tolerance for hard work goes up, as does their resiliency when they hit the inevitable snags.

"Being able to adjust, reconsider, tear apart and do over are aspects of projects that present an opportunity to discuss how we grow as learners," Krauss explained.

And students find this kind of learning invigorating — and memorable. "Students can't tell you much about a math unit, but they can tell you all about the project they did in fourth grade. It has a stickiness to it," Krauss explained.

The overall engagement factor of PBL is also a huge win. PBL creates a context in which students understand the purpose of what they are learning, Boss explained. "The open-ended questions they tackle may connect to their own lives, to their communities, to the wider world or to emerging fields that are anything but boring," she said.

This type of engagement opens the door for educators to help students get to deeper understanding of content and develop competencies like collaboration, critical thinking and technology fluency.

If you're on board with PBL but need to make the case to parents, administrators or the school board, "build your brand" in a public way, suggested Krauss.

"Shine a light on students' great work with local media coverage. Take on projects that make a difference in the community. Encourage kids to talk about what they are learning through their projects using the vocabulary of the discipline," Krauss said.

And if you're an educator on the brink of implementing PBL for the first time, be sure to build connections by joining a network of like-minded educators who can provide advice or brainstorm collaborative projects.

You'll find PBL'ers on Twitter at #pblchat. And you can learn a lot more about this topic by reading Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age, 3rd Edition.

Need PBL ideas? Discover real-world projects for real-world classrooms. Read ISTE's book Reinventing Project-Based Learning.

Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for finding out what makes learners tick.
This is an updated version of a post that originally published on April 29, 2015.