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Four Proofs That Project-Based Learning Actually Does Work

January 20, 2020

By: Elizabeth Kelsey, Kendall Hunt RPD Intern

Project-based learning (PBL) is an innovative way of teaching that lets students become the directors of their learning. Along with inquiry science and other student-centered methods of teaching, PBL has become all the rage.

You know that PBL is beneficial for student learning. You’ve seen the articles on how to get started and the lists of perfect projects. And you know you should be jumping in with both feet, but you’re secretly wondering …

So, how is one specific project actually teaching my students the overall content?

It’s a fair question. After all, for one specific project, it might seem that students learn to use a concept or skill in only that one specific way. But nothing could be further from the truth. Because of their open-ended nature, PBL projects help kids apply content in a variety of ways, making them one of the most effective teaching methods today. PBL works, and here are four ways in which it does.  

  1. PBL asks students to connect prior knowledge and skills as they begin the project.

Worksheets can feel like contained, “no-prior-experience-necessary” environments, with all the skills needed to solve the problems provided on the paper. Worksheets help students practice skills—but in isolation, without linking them to pre-existing knowledge. With a PBL project, where there are no templates or exact answers, students must use what they already know. Initial decisions must be made to move the project forward, and those decisions are based on prior experience. This helps students make connections between what they already know and what they’re learning, reinforcing content by giving it more “hooks” and connections in their memory.

  1. To complete the project well, students are forced to learn the content.

Yes, it’s possible for students to “guess and check” their way through some projects without learning the content, but not if they want to do it efficiently and well. In Johnny Devine’s AP Physics class, students built model Mars rovers in an expanded egg-drop experiment while learning about terminal velocity, surface area, and air resistance. If the students didn’t learn how to quantify and combine these variables, they wouldn’t know the best way to build a rover or understand how to test it and what to look for. PBL isn’t a “fun way out” of learning because the learning is essential for doing well on the project.

  1. PBL requires fine-tuning and fixing.

As students work on a project, they adapt their ideas based on new research they uncover, new data they observe, or new discussions they have. They often must fix problems that arise in their designs or experiments—and in order to fix something, students have to be able to understand how it works. Plus, the more students tinker with their projects, the more exposure they have to the material. Elizabeth, a student in Devine’s class, noted, “You have to repeat the equations over and over again with different trials … just being able to use that math over and over again helps it stick.”

  1. PBL reinforces for students what the concept is actually used for.

On a worksheet, directions tell students when to solve for the derivative, divide the word into syllables, or find the terminal velocity. They don’t need to figure out what they should be looking for. They don’t need to understand when or why to use this equation and not that one. Traditional learning teaches kids the skill, not the situation in which the skill is used.

But in an open-ended project, learners must figure out which equation gives them the information they need—not to mention figuring out what information they need in the first place. And because they must figure that out, they get a more accurate understanding of the information that equation is actually giving them. They understand the equation rather than just knowing how to do it.

And that’s why PBL works—it helps students understand the why and when, not just the how. With open-ended PBL projects, students don’t just learn information. They learn why they’re learning it, and that makes all the difference.

When have you seen the power of project-based learning in action?