March 12th, 2021

What is Project-Based Learning (PBL)?

Project-Based Learning (PBL) is a novel educational method that helps children learn how to apply knowledge in real-life situations. Lectures, tests, and abstract concepts have been the “fundamentals” of traditional education. Project-Based Learning, on the other hand, is a way to bring real education closer to students and show them how the abstract things they learn work in real life.

In the 1980s and 1990s, education experts began to discover that boredom was a much more widespread challenge than previously recognized. This led to a movement to identify ways to motivate and engage students. It was literally a perspective shift from teaching students what to think to helping students learn how to think on their own.

The Basics of PBL

Krajcik and Blumenfeld developed a basic Project-Based Learning approach that empowers students to learn by doing and applying ideas through real-world activities similar to those an adult professional would engage in.

These are the fundamentals of PBL:

  1. Learning starts with a question – a problem that has to be solved.
  2. The research question is explored via authentic inquiry that draws on previous experience.
  3. Students and teachers search for solutions together.
  4. Scaffolding is employed, so students can participate in challenging activities that are above their developmental level.
  5. The final result is usually a tangible product that can be shared and presented to others.

As it turns out, Project-Based Learning increases student motivation and academic achievement. Also, most students respond favorably to the new educational methods.

Here are the essential tools of PBL:

  • Active construction – the students learn by constructing networks of meaning, which is based on interactions with the world.
  • Situated learning – learning is most efficient when situated in a real-world context. For instance, learning science should be situated in the context of designing investigations and experiments, making explanations and models, and presenting ideas to an audience.
  • Social interaction – ideas have to be shared and debated within a social group. The best kind of learning happens in an authentic (real-world) context, where the students, teachers, and other community members construct understanding.
  • Cognitive tools – examples of cognitive tools are graphs, computer software, and multimedia content.

Does Project-Based Learning Work?

There is no shortage of new teaching methods and strategies to consider. So does Project-Based Learning actually work? The answer is yes says two recent studies done on the efficacy of project-based learning.

Conducted by researchers at Michigan State University and the University of Southern California (USC), the research provides powerful evidence that project-based learning can be an effective approach for students. PBL was shown to outperform traditional methods, and was impactful across all grade levels, racial and socioeconomic groups. The study also worked on students no matter their performance levels.

Project-Based Learning Examples

Larmer and Mergendoller offered an example of a school project, led by a US high school teacher, based on San Diego’s High Tech High project, “Media Saves the Beach.” The project started with an “entry event.” This can be anything that motivates students to think about the problem at hand, for instance, a field trip, multimedia representation, discussion, etc. The “entry event” is crucial because it sets the whole context for subsequent tasks – students are not asked to do something because “they will need it later in life” or “it will be on the tests.” They are asked to think about it in a way that establishes a connection between themselves and the problem at hand.

This particular project revolved around pathogenic microorganisms. The teacher started the discussion with a fairly provocative video that showed how Foster beach gets closed due to pollution. The students were then asked to give their own experiences with pollution and how they felt. Then, the teacher helped students to focus on the main Driving Question, “How can we reduce the number of days Foster’s beach is closed due to pollution?” It should be noted that the Driving Question was the product of discussion. It wasn’t imposed by the teacher.

The project then got its name, “Don’t Close the Beach,” with students choosing to develop media kits, public service announcements (video), web pages, pamphlets, and letters to officials. These were teamwork activities, while students also chose to write individual papers.

The teacher then directed the discussion to crucial questions revolving around bacteria, pathogens that pollute water, their health effects, and sources of water contamination in general. “What disease can you get from water?” and “Do you have to drink contaminated water to get sick?” and “Where do bacteria come from?” emerged as the most important Driving Questions. The teacher then provided sources and gave suggestions on how to search for relevant information on bacteria.

The students were encouraged to revise their previous work and include the new things they learned about bacteria, in order to bolster their claims. It’s worth emphasizing that students were not simply asked to copy the information they found but encouraged to generate new hypotheses and generate new ideas.

Finally, with the help of their teacher, the students revised work. The critique and revision are necessary components to help students learn that their first attempts can almost always be improved just as real-world projects often have to be revised. Also, the students were encouraged to critically discuss others’ works.


Project-Based Learning is an efficient educational tool and it should be implemented in educational systems in order to bring the learning material closer to students. These types of meaningful projects can be time-consuming and perhaps difficult for teachers to organize while trying to “cover” other important lectures and materials. But PBL is certainly a valuable component within a broader educational approach.


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Larmer, J., & Mergendoller, J. R. (2010). Seven essentials for project-based learning. Educational leadership, 68(1), 34-37.

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