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Volume XII Issue I

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Project-Based Learning

Bruce Oliver

Bruce facilitating a Leading the Learning® workshop


We often hear about the necessity of including 21st century skills in the curricula to ensure students are college or career-ready.  Project-Based Learning (PBL) has a growing list of advocates and includes many 21st century skills. 

PBL, as defined by the Buck Institute for Education (BIE), is a learning experience in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a complex question, problem, or challenge. Throughout the process, students create and refine questions, debate ideas, make predictions, experiment, collect and analyze data, reach conclusions, and take action. In short, PBL is learning by doing. 

Research on the Benefits of Project-Based Learning
Research findings on PBL method have concluded that there are a number of benefits as listed at www.bie.org/object/document/research_summary_on_the_benefits_of_pbl and outlined below:

  • Students retain content longer and develop a deeper understanding of what they are learning.
  • Students tend to perform as well or better on standardized tests.
  • Students demonstrate better problem-solving skills than in more traditional classroom settings.
  • Students show an increase in critical thinking skills.
  • Students are more likely to be able to apply what they have learned in new situations.

 The literature also reports the following observations and conclusions:

  • Educators who have engaged in the PBL process report that their students are highly motivated and thoroughly engaged in their learning.
  • Teachers have also noted that when students are given a choice about what driving question to pursue, they feel empowered and are more likely to complete the project.
  • When students are able to work together, they learn from one another through observation and conversation.
  • Through the presentation of their projects, students improve their ability to communicate their learning to an audience.
  • Teachers also report that students show interest in repeating the process with a new topic.

BIE has published an Essential Elements Checklist, available at www.bie.org, that lists what should be included in this comprehensive work. It notes that the focus of any project must be on content derived from the standards and key concepts contained in the curriculum. Another important variable is that while the end product is important, the processes involved in the deep inquiry students go through during their investigation build collaboration, communication, and problem-solving skills. The essential elements identified by BIE are:

  • Focus on significant content
  • Develop 21st century competencies
  • Engage students in in-depth inquiry
  • Organize tasks around a driving question
  • Establish a need to know
  • Encourage voice and choice
  • Incorporate critique and revision
  • Include a public audience

When some practitioners hear the term Project-Based Learning, their initial response is that it is just a new name for traditional projects that teachers have assigned to their students for decades. A deeper investigation into the two perspectives on learning reveals a clear picture of the distinct differences between the two approaches.

Traditional Projects Project-Based Learning
Topics are assigned by the teacher Topics are selected by students with teacher guidance
Topics usually relate to a single subject Projects are often interdisciplinary
Topics typically have a predictable outcome                        The outcome of the project is outcome is open-ended
Students complete projects outside of school work individually Students work collaboratively with peers during the school day
Emphasis is on the completed project Emphasis is on skills developed and learning that takes place throughout the project
The project is assessed by the teacher upon completion Students continually assess progress throughout the project with feedback from the teacher
At the completion of the project, each student receives a grade primarily their knowledge of the subject matter When projects are completed, strudents reflect on the lifelong skills they have been learning in addition to their increased knowledge
The final product is handed in to the teacher The final product is shared with an audience

Assessing Project-Based Learning
The number one online resource on assessing PBL is Top Ten Tips for Assessing Project-Based Learning prepared by Suzie Boss, an Edutopia blogger. It provides a toolkit for teachers to use as they plan PBL units. The suggestions found there can minimize frustrations and roadblocks as students launch into their projects. Access it at www.edutopia.org/pdfs/guides/edutopia-10tips-assessing-project-based-learning.pdf 

The use of rubrics in PBL not only helps students know what is expected of them, it allows students to self-assess along the way. The good news is that there is absolutely no reason to reinvent the wheel because there are many rubrics available on line. Resources include:

  • www.bie.org/objects/cat/rubrics- Prepared by the Buck Institute for Education, the site includes K-12 rubrics matched to Common Core and other state standards. Rubrics are designed to access creativity, innovation, presentations, and collaboration.
  • wvde.state.wv.us/teach21/PBLRubrics.html – Created by the West Virginia Department of Education, the site includes a wide variety of rubrics at the primary, intermediate, and secondary level.
  • www.bit.ly/1xSyS39 – The site presents hundreds of thumbnails of Project-Based Learning resources including rubrics. Because of the magnitude of resources available here, not all have not been reviewed by Just ASK.

PBL’s Impact on Our Work at Just ASK
Because of the continuous growth in the use of the PBL approach, Just ASK workshops and publications now provide support to educators who are using Project-Based Learning. This shift was an easy one because our work is based on the understanding that assessment is not a single grade, but is an integral part of the overall learning experience. Additionally, we believe that assessment practices fall along a continuum which ranges from checking for understanding, to self-assessment, and on to performance-based assessment, all of which are vital to the success of planning and implementing PBL. We are working to help readers and workshop participants see the connections to Daggett’s Rigor and Relevance Framework®, the inclusion of the four C’s of 21st Century Skills (communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking) in planning lessons, and the use of RAFT as a design tool. Chapter IX of Instruction for All Students is titled 21st Century Thinking Skills; that chapter and many other pages in that text provide information about how to structure the in-depth thinking that is essential in PBL work. 

Seeing is Believing!
The old adage, seeing is believing rings true. In the case of Project-Based Learning, it is helpful to see and hear from teachers and students who have become immersed in the process. When you view these videos, you can learn how to get started with PBL and how whole schools have embraced PBL.



Additional Resources and References

Our Number One Recommendation
www.studentguide.org/the-complete-guide-to-project-based-learning/ – From the website: StudentGuide.org is a collection of useful resources for students to assist their scholastic goals. We provide articles on hundreds of student related topics to help them improve their study habits, writing skills, organizational skills, and analytical skills.  This is, indeed, the complete guide to PBL because it provides links to dozens of other sites that provide not only descriptions and examples, but easily accessible background on the research behind the approach.

www.bie.org/project_search/results/search&project_search_channel=32/- Curated by the BIE, the site contains a library with a wide range of project examples including project descriptions and curriculum areas involved in the project

www.bie.org/object/document/research_summary_on_the_benefits_of_pbl – The article includes researched benefits of following the PBL model

www.bie.org/object/document/8_essentials_for_project_based_learning – The article describes necessary elements to include in PBL work that will make for a meaningful inquiry by students

www.edutopia.org/project-based-learning-history – The article contains background information on the origins of the PBL approach

www.edutopia.org/pbl-research-evidence-based-components – The article contains recommendations for research-proven steps to include when planning and implementing projects

www.projectfoundry.org – As described on the site, the resources “offer a streamlined, collaborative workflow, portfolio and reporting solution for project-based learning. Project Foundry scaffolds the process while embracing voice and choice in both teacher-guided and student-led projects.”

www.niost.org/pdf/afterschoolmatters/asm_2012_15_spring/asm_2012_spring_1.pdf – The article contains information about the systemwide implementation of PBL in the city of Philadelphia



Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:
Oliver, Bruce. “Project-Based Learning.” Just for the ASKing! January 2015. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2015 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.

Instruction for All Students