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Project-Based Learning

Project-Based Learning


What can you expect from this article?

  1. What is project-based learning?
  2. Characteristics of project-based learning.
  3. Benefits of project-based learning.
  4. How project-based learning is different from doing a project.
  5. The difference between project-based learning and problem-based learning.

About Thrively:

Thrively helps your child find their passion in life. Discover your child’s strengths using project-based learning and social emotional intelligence and ignite their curiosity today.

What is Project-Based Learning?

Project-based learning (PBL) is an instructional approach designed to give students the opportunity to develop knowledge and skills through engaging projects set around challenges and problems.

This approach encourages students to learn by applying knowledge and skills through active exploration of real-world challenges and problems.

PBL presents opportunities for deeper-learning in meaningful contexts and for the development of important 21st-century skills tied to college and career readiness.

PBL contrasts with paper-based, rote memorization, or teacher-led instruction that presents established facts or portrays a smooth path to knowledge by instead posing questions, problems, or scenarios.

Characteristics of Project-Based Learning

Characteristics of meaningful project-based learning activities that lead to deeper student understanding are as follows:

1) Interdisciplinary

Project-based curriculum is designed to engage students using real-world problems.

This is an interdisciplinary approach as real-world challenges are rarely solved using information or skills from a single subject area.

Projects require students to engage in inquiry, solution building, and product construction to help address the issue or challenge presented. As students do the work, they often use content knowledge and skills from multiple academic sources to successfully complete the project.

2) Rigorous

Project-based education requires the application of knowledge and skills, not just recall or recognition.

PBL assesses how students apply a variety of academic content in new contexts.

As students engage in a project, they begin with asking a question. Inquiry leads the student to think critically as they are using their academic knowledge in real-world applications.

The inquiry process leads to the development of solutions to address the identified problem.

They show their knowledge in action through the creation of products designed to communicate solutions to an audience.

3) Student-centered

The role of the teacher shifts from content-deliverer to facilitator/project manager in PBL. Students work independently through the PBL process with the teacher providing support only when needed.

Students are encouraged to make their own decisions about how best to do their work and demonstrate their understanding. The PBL process fosters student independence, sense of ownership of his/her work, and the development of 21st-century/workplace skills.

In essence, the PBL model consists of these seven characteristics:

  • Focuses the student on a big open-ended question, challenge, or problem to research and respond to and/or solve.
  • Brings what students should academically know, understand, and be able to do into the equation.
  • Is inquiry-based. Uses 21st-century skills such as critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity, among others.
  • Builds student choice into the process.
  • Provides opportunities for feedback and revision of the plan and the project.
  • Requires students to present their problems, research process, methods, and results.

Benefits of Project-Based Learning

Traditional learning never ventures beyond the realm of the purely academic approach. PBL connects students to the real world and prepares them to accept and meet challenges in it, mirroring what professionals do every day.

Instead of short-term memorization strategies, project-based learning provides an opportunity for students to engage deeply with the target content, bringing about a focus on long-term retention.

PBL also improves student attitudes toward education thanks to its ability to keep students engaged. The PBL structure lends itself to building intrinsic motivation because it centers student learning around an essential central question or problem and a meaningful outcome.

In a recent collaborative study, the implementation of project-based learning correlated positively with student achievement, particularly in schools serving high-poverty communities. This research emphasizes the importance of projects being standards-aligned and supported with research-proven instructional strategies.

PBL helps students develop teamwork and problem-solving skills along with the ability to communicate effectively with others. The collaborative nature of projects also reinforces the social-emotional learning (SEL) programs being implemented at progressive schools around the world.

These interpersonal aspects of PBL dovetail perfectly with the use of technology in the classroom. Technology-based projects are interdisciplinary, collaborative, inquiry-based, self-directed, motivating, and address the full range of student needs and learning styles. Additionally, digital literacies and digital citizenship objectives become ingrained in tech-based projects.

Below are some of the widely cited benefits of implementing project-based learning in the classroom:

  • Presents opportunities for deeper learning in context and for the development of important skills relating to college and career readiness
  • Boosts student engagement and achievement and helps students develop the 21st-century skills they need to succeed in their future careers. These include critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity, among others
  • Makes room for student choice, allowing students to feel like architects of their own learning journey
  • Improves student attitudes toward education, thanks to its ability to keep students engaged
  • Provides plenty of opportunities for feedback and revision of the plan and the project
  • Encourages students to make meaningful connections across content areas, rather than thinking about each subject area in isolation (multi-disciplinary pedagogical approach)
  • Engages students in real-world learning, giving them a deeper understanding of concepts through relevant and authentic experiences. This prepares students to accept and meet challenges in the real world, mirroring what professionals do every day
  • Engages students deeply with the target content, helping to increase long-term retention.

How Project-Based Learning is Different From Doing a Project?

PBL is becoming widely used in schools and other educational settings with different varieties being practiced. However, there are key characteristics that differentiate “doing a project” from engaging in rigorous project-based learning.

PBL requires critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and various forms of communication. To answer a driving question and create high-quality work, students need to do much more than remember information. They need to use higher-order thinking skills and learn to work as a team.

ProjectProject-Based Learning
A project is a culminating event that happens at the end of the unit after all student learning has already taken place.

The knowledge and skills taught in the unit are not necessarily needed to complete the project and the project itself does not typically reflect all student learning.

Oftentimes, the project has no real-world connection and after being graded, the project is no longer used.

Project-based learning poses an authentic problem, challenge, need, or issue at the start of the unit. Students receive rubrics outlining what tasks or end products they will have to create.

From the very start of the project, students see their need to learn the course content and skills to complete each step or benchmark of the project.

Their end goal is clear from the beginning and their learning is meaningful because they need the content and skills to solve the problem, challenge, need, or issue that has been posed to them.

The PBL unit involves a community partner and ends with a publicly presented product that will be used even after the unit has been completed.

What’s the Difference Between Project-Based Learning and Problem-Based Learning?

Problem-Based Learning

Problem-based learning is student-centered teaching. Students learn about a topic through the solving of problems and generally work in groups to solve a problem where there may not necessarily be any one correct answer.

When students complete a problem-based learning task, they often share the outcomes with their teacher and learning goals and outcomes are set jointly.

Problem-based learning is more likely to be a single subject, and take less time to complete. Additionally, problem-based learning follows specific steps to complete.

Project-Based Learning

Project-based learning, meanwhile, is an instructional approach where students learn by investigating a complex question, problem, or challenge. It promotes active learning, engages students, and allows for higher-order thinking.

Students are tasked with exploring real-world problems and finding answers via the completion of their project. Students also have some control over the project they are working on, particularly in terms of the end product.

Project-based learning is typically multi-disciplinary–meaning it utilizes skills and knowledge from a variety of subjects.

Project-based learning follows general steps.

While this article focuses on project-based learning, both problem-based and project-based learning have a rightful place in today’s classroom and can promote 21st-century learning.

Students Advocate for Authentic Learning

As he planned instruction for his high school English classes, Scott Reindl asked himself, “How is this going to help my students prepare for life beyond my classroom? Will they be able to think critically and collaborate effectively? Will my students be able to differentiate themselves in cover letters, resumes, and interviews? Ultimately, that is what we’re doing; we’re giving students the internal resources to navigate the world on their terms,” explained Reindl. Now, as the Program Administrator for Career Education, Reindl brings the pursuit of student voice, empowerment, and agency to 30,000 students in the Anaheim Union High School District (AUHSD).

The most resounding demonstration of student voice and agency is political action. In 2013, 200 high school students–with 5,000 petitions in hand–went to Anaheim City Hall to appeal for change. They wanted an education that would lay a foundation for a future of their choosing, an education that would capitalize on the resources in their own community to advance their aspirations. Students whose career goals ranged from future naval office to business leader responded to the question: “Does education serve us, or do we serve education?”

“I feel that right now, we are serving education and that’s not the way it should be,” shared aspiring Naval officer, Fabiana Munoz. “Give me the tools I need to succeed in life. Show me how to get to college, pick a career, and come back and contribute to my community,” added aspiring future Anaheim Police Chief, Abel Ardiaz.

Following the student-citizens’ impassioned and articulate pleas for change, Anaheim Mayor, Tom Tait and Anaheim Superintendent, Michael Matsuda partnered with the California State University, Fullerton’s GEAR UP program to launch a model public-private partnership to advance both the needs of young learners and the workforce. Together, they created Anaheim’s Innovative Mentoring Experience (AIME), and since its inception, they’ve created over 9,000 mentoring and internship experiences for students. Funding sponsors the United Way of Orange County and the Disneyland Resort, along with others, have joined the effort and have allowed the program to expand this premiere mentoring and internship program to AUHSD students. In what is surely a model for the nation, AUHSD has transformed their district into a launchpad for a future full of promise and possibility.

Thrively was the right fit for what we’re trying to achieve. All of our students are now taking the Thrively Strengths Assessment, and we’re working together to create virtual work-based learning experiences, or what Thrively calls Business Connections projects, so that every learner in our district has the opportunity to experience real-world problem solving,” explained Reindl.

AUHSD’s commitment to authentic learning is gaining both momentum and attention. This year, Reindl and his team won the prestigious ePrize grant, offered by Chapman University’s Attallah College of Educational Studies, in partnership with the CEO Leadership Alliance of Orange County, which recognized the district’s efforts to prepare the next generation of students for high-growth sectors in the region. Thrively is thrilled to support the successful implementation of this critical work.