Project-Based Learning: Taking Students to a Deeper Level

middle school students working on a project around a table

By Nanda Krish

In learning, there may be no greater tool for students than hands-on experience. Consider a classroom of first-graders who were lead in an endeavor to raise trout eggs while understanding environmental impacts. Or a high-school biology teacher who had her students create a project on any system in the human body, with results that included everything from a board game based on the nervous system to a physical model of the knee. In both situations, the teacher acted as a facilitator, guiding students as they crafted their own work, all leading to a final presentation.

These are examples of project-based learning, a method that decades of research demonstrates has many clear benefits for students, but perhaps none greater than stimulating student interest in the topic at hand by putting students in control of their own learning. In many cases, project-based learning bucks the trend of traditional classroom instruction in that there is no so-called correct way of getting from start to finish. Instead, the goal is to create a collaborative, encouraging and rigorous environment that helps students–as both groups and individuals–to come to realizations on their own. Teachers, administrators, and product developers should take notice of these benefits, go beyond the traditional “culminating project” approach, and incorporate this instruction to ensure students reap these benefits. The result? Better content retention, improved problem solving skills and stronger collaboration.

Steps in the Process

Traditional projects tend to be assigned at the end of a unit as a culmination of the previous weeks’ materials–essentially making it the end point, along with an exam, to a cycle of lecture/activity/quiz segments. The goal of project-based learning is to take an entire unit’s worth of material and immerse the student in one large active project. Sectional benchmarks are still used to assess progress, but the path to each benchmark is a parallel effort involving multiple tasks. New Tech Network, a school network emphasizing the integration of project-based learning, cited a project workflow in the following stages:

Stage 1: Introduction of an authentic problem or task based in real-world context that students will explore throughout the project.

Stage 2: A parallel mix of traditional tasks such as lectures, research, homework and labs or other activities to establish the general principles and context of material.

Stage 3: A deeper level of analysis and collaboration, featuring simulations, modeling, interviews and discussions. Quizzes may also be used to assess progress.

Stage 4: Students begin using the cumulative lessons and material to prepare a final presentation. This includes content creation, drafts and feedback, writing and building materials (images, infographics, slideshows, etc.).

Stage 5: The culminating stage of the unit features presentations and/or a final product such as a video or blog as an authentic demonstration of deep understanding of the topic.

Each stage finishes with a reflection period following the benchmark achievement for teacher facilitators to reinforce facts, figures, materials and learned skills while also bringing in real-world context to the topic. Students frequently work in small groups of three or four throughout this process. Educators evaluate both the quality of students’ work and how it demonstrates an understanding of the content as well as their ability to demonstrate  21st-century skills (teamwork, organization, communication, etc.).

A Tangible Difference

Why is project-based learning beneficial to students? Traditional teaching aims to verify understanding, usually after a lecture-style environment. Project-based learning facilitates the development of internal learning processes in addition to topical understanding. This is achieved by “flipping the script” on the teacher-student dynamic–by shifting teachers into more of a facilitator role, students are given roles and responsibilities as part of a team. Rather than passively absorbing a lecture to memorize processes and facts, students are encouraged to build knowledge themselves through a variety of methods, though one constant is the student’s active engagement.

Because this is more about process and experience than memorizing facts, studies have shown that project-based learning generally creates stronger retention and deeper learning, along with building critical thinking, analysis, teamwork, organization and creative problem solving skills.  Benefits abound in academic, real-world and social applications.

Academic Benefits: Years of study on project-based learning have consistently demonstrated its range of tangible benefits for students. Because of its hands-on engaging process, students retain content longer, and because they discover solutions rather than passively listening to lectures, they achieve deeper understanding and marked improvements in critical thinking. This often translates to higher scores on high-stakes and summative tests, along with better preparation for the real world. Project-based learning classrooms also generally see a stronger attitude towards learning, both through engagement and attendance.

Real-World Benefits: Many project-based learning assignments include using tangible 21st-century skills that can propagate forward into professional environments. This includes using technology for presentation purposes–an article from Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas on project-based learning cites the creation of digital content such as wikis, podcasts and videos. This content creation encourages students to grow other skills and explore the possibilities of popular applications–not only using them to create content for the project, but also enacting the thought process related to picking up new skills. “When students share their work or challenges, a brainstorming session often helps them build on each other’s ideas for future possibilities,” notes article author Stephanie Bell. “This exercise promotes serious creativity and out-of-the-box thinking.”

Social Benefits: Project-based learning puts students in a role of responsibility. Because of this, a number of social benefits are inherent in the process. Leadership, collaboration, listening and teamwork are necessary to successfully reach project benchmarks. In small-group environments, students are forced to negotiate between role needs and social statures (demographic or social clique differences), helping them to make decisions while pushing through sometimes awkward or uncomfortable situations. The result is a natural development of interpersonal skills while gaining a wider perspective on social situations.

An Academic Paradigm Shift

Project-based learning is not new, but growing recognition for its abilities to push deeper understanding and develop critical skills has presented a paradigm shift for educators. In some cases, it has been implemented to benefit students in specific socio-economic circumstances, and in other cases, institutions have incorporated a system-wide approach. Regardless of scope, planning for a project-based learning unit is different than a traditional unit, and it is imperative for educators and administrators to understand  how to adopt project-based learning. While it takes effort to prepare and roll out, the results usually speak for themselves–not just student improvement, but student engagement at a level that often surpasses what teachers expect.

For more on PBL, see:

Nanda Krish is CEO of Wisewire. Follow them on Twitter: @WisewireEd.

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