Project-based learning refers to any programmatic or instructional approach that utilizes multifaceted projects as a central organizing strategy for educating students. When engaged in project-based learning, students will typically be assigned a project or series of projects that require them to use diverse skills—such as researching, writing, interviewing, collaborating, or public speaking—to produce various work products, such as research papers, scientific studies, public-policy proposals, multimedia presentations, video documentaries, art installations, or musical and theatrical performances, for example. Unlike many tests, homework assignments, and other more traditional forms of academic coursework, the execution and completion of a project may take several weeks or months, or it may even unfold over the course of a semester or year.
Closely related to the concept of authentic learning, project-based-learning experiences are often designed to address real-world problems and issues, which requires students to investigate and analyze their complexities, interconnections, and ambiguities (i.e., there may be no “right” or “wrong” answers in a project-based-learning assignment). For this reason, project-based learning may be called inquiry-based learning or learning by doing, since the learning process is integral to the knowledge and skills students acquire. Students also typically learn about topics or produce work that integrates multiple academic subjects and skill areas. For example, students may be assigned to complete a project on a local natural ecosystem and produce work that investigates its history, species diversity, and social, economic, and environmental implications for the community. In this case, even if the project is assigned in a science course, students may be required to read and write extensively (English); research local history using texts, news stories, archival photos, and public records (history and social studies); conduct and record first-hand scientific observations, including the analysis and tabulation of data (science and math); and develop a public-policy proposal for the conservation of the ecosystem (civics and government) that will be presented to the city council utilizing multimedia technologies and software applications (technology).
In project-based learning, students are usually given a general question to answer, a concrete problem to solve, or an in-depth issue to explore. Teachers may then encourage students to choose specific topics that interest or inspire them, such as projects related to their personal interests or career aspirations. For example, a typical project may begin with an open-ended question (often called an “essential question” by educators): How is the principle of buoyancy important in the design and construction of a boat? What type of public-service announcement will be most effective in encouraging our community to conserve water? How can our school serve healthier school lunches? In these cases, students may be given the opportunity to address the question by proposing a project that reflects their interests. For example, a student interested in farming may explore the creation of a school garden that produces food and doubles as a learning opportunity for students, while another student may choose to research health concerns related to specific food items served in the cafeteria, and then create posters or a video to raise awareness among students and staff in the school.
In public schools, the projects, including the work products created by students and the assessments they complete, will be based on the same state learning standards that apply to other methods of instruction—i.e., the projects will be specifically designed to ensure that students meet expected learning standards. While students work on a project, teachers typically assess student learning progress—including the achievement of specific learning standards—using a variety of methods, such as portfolios, demonstrations of learning, or rubrics, for example. While the learning process may be more student-directed than some traditional learning experiences, such as lectures or quizzes, teachers still provide ongoing instruction, guidance, and academic support to students. In many cases, adult mentors, advisers, or experts from the local community—such as scientists, elected officials, or business leaders—may be involved in the design of project-based experiences, mentor students throughout the process, or participate on panels that review and evaluate the final projects in collaboration with teachers.
As a reform strategy, project-based learning may become an object of debate both within a school or in the larger community. Schools that decide to adopt project-based learning as their primary method of instruction, as opposed to schools that are founded on the philosophy and use the method from their inception, are more likely to encounter criticism or resistance. The instructional nuances of project-based learning can also become a source of confusion and misunderstanding, given that the approach represents a fairly significant departure from more familiar conceptions of schooling.
In addition, there may be debate among educators about what specifically does and doesn’t constitute “project-based learning.” For example, some teachers may already be doing “projects” in their courses, and they might consider these activities to be a form of project-based learning, but others may dispute such claims because the projects do not conform to their more specific and demanding definition—i.e., they are not “authentic” forms of project-based learning since they don’t meet the requisite instructional criteria (such as the features described above).
The following are a few representative examples of the kinds of arguments typically made by advocates of project-based learning:
- Project-based learning gives students a more “integrated” understanding of the concepts and knowledge they learn, while also equipping them with practical skills they can apply throughout their lives. The interdisciplinary nature of project-based learning helps students make connections across different subjects, rather than perceiving, for example, math and science as discrete subjects with little in common.
- Because project-based learning mirrors the real-world situations students will encounter after they leave school, it can provide stronger and more relevant preparation for college and work. Student not only acquire important knowledge and skills, they also learn how to research complex issues, solve problems, develop plans, manage time, organize their work, collaborate with others, and persevere and overcome challenges, for example.
- Project-based learning reflects the ways in which today’s students learn. It can improve student engagement in school, increase their interest in what is being taught, strengthen their motivation to learn, and make learning experiences more relevant and meaningful.
- Since project-based learning represents a more flexible approach to instruction, it allows teachers to tailor assignments and projects for students with a diverse variety of interests, career aspirations, learning styles, abilities, and personal backgrounds. For related discussions, see differentiation and personalized learning.
- Project-based learning allows teachers and students to address multiple learning standards simultaneously. Rather than only meeting math standards in math classes and science standards in science classes, students can work progressively toward demonstrating proficiency in a variety of standards while working on a single project or series of projects. For a related discussion, see proficiency-based learning.
The following are few representative examples of the kinds of arguments that may be made by critics of project-based learning:
- Project-based learning may not ensure that students learn all the required material and standards they are expected to learn in a course, subject area, or grade level. When a variety of subjects are lumped together, it’s more difficult for teachers to monitor and assess what students have learned in specific academic subjects.
- Many teachers will not have the time or specialized training required to use project-based learning effectively. The approach places greater demands on teachers—from course preparation to instructional methods to the evaluation of learning progress—and schools may not have the funding, resources, and capacity they need to adopt a project-based-learning model.
- The projects that students select and design may vary widely in academic rigor and quality. Project-based learning could open the door to watered-down learning expectations and low-quality coursework.
- Project-based learning is not well suited to students who lack self-motivation or who struggle in less-structured learning environments.
- Project-based learning raises a variety of logistical concerns, since students are more likely to learn outside of school or in unsupervised settings, or to work with adults who are not trained educators.