Office of the Faculty Teaching Fellow

Project-Based Learning

According to Blumenfeld et al. (1991,) project-based learning is an active learning educational approach in which, a question or problem serves to organize and drive learner activities, which then culminate in a final product that addresses the driving questions. The following is a good definition of project-based learning, which summarizes the parts in a nutshell:

(1)   Projects involve the solution of a problem

(2)   They involve initiative by student(s) and a variety of educational activities

(3)   They commonly result in an end product (e.g., thesis, report, design plans, etc.)

(4)   They often work on the project for a considerable amount of time

(5)   The faculty serves as an advisory role at any or all of the stages – initiation, conduct and conclusion.

Frequently adopted in business and professional schools, project-based learning is not a new concept. It is an active learning educational approach that has been used in higher education since the 1990s. Similar pedagogies emphasizing active learning are gaining prominence in higher education. A literature review of project-based learning brings up problem-based learning, frequently used in medical schools (Norman & Schmidt, 1992; Albanese & Mitchell, 1993; Major & Palmer, 2001), and puzzle-based learning, a similar approach used in engineering and computer sciences (Parhami, 2009; Falkner, Sooriamurthi, Michalewicz, 2010). All of these approaches have a great deal in common; they all involve realistic problems and situations based on authentic educational goals, are intrinsically engaging and motivating, and improve students’ research and critical thinking skills and ability to work collaboratively with others.

Types of PBL

According to Morgan (1983), there are generally three models of project-based learning:

Model 1: In the first model of project-based learning, also known as Project Exercise, students apply knowledge and skills already acquired on an academic issue in a subject area already familiar to them. This model of PBL is teacher-centered and designed to integrate subject material learnt during a specific course.

Model 2: In the second model of project-based learning, also known as Project Component, the scope is larger, interdisciplinary and relates to real world issues. This model of PBL is student-centered, and designed to develop problem solving abilities and capacity for independent work.

Model 3: In the third model of project-based learning, also known as Project Orientation, students complete projects that form the entire basis of their university education. This model of PBL is very student-centered, whereby students decide on their own project topics and instructional teaching is provided only to supplement the requirements of the project topics. There is usually a three way partnership between the student, the client/project supervisor, and the instructor. This model of PBL is interdisciplinary and supported by the college and community.

Why Use PBL?

From what we know about the nature of learning, students construct knowledge and build on knowledge previously gained (Cross, 1998; Falkner, Sooriamurthi & Michalewicz, 2010.) They benefit from working together and they learn best from peer teaching (Annis, 1983; McKeachie, et al., 1986, Major & Palmer, 2001.) Students also learn best in the context of a compelling problem (Ewell, 1997; Helle, Tynjala & Olkinuora, 2006); they learn through experiences (Cross, 1999; Parhami, 2009). In short, students learn by making cognitive connections, social connections, and experiential connections (Cross, 1999, Major & Palmer, 2001.)

From a knowledge standpoint, although most studies show no significant difference between the knowledge that PBL students and non-PBL students acquire about the sciences (Albanese & Mitchell, 1993), PBL students have shown to be more likely to apply their knowledge spontaneously to solve new problems compared to non-PBL students (Bransford, Franks, Vye & Sherwood, 1989; Parhami, 2009; Falkner, Sooriamurthi, Michalewicz, 2010.) In addition, PBL students perceived that they developed stronger problem-solving and critical thinking skills, effective communication skills and a sense of personal responsibility compared to non-PBL students (Lieux, 1996; Major & Palmer, 2001.) PBL medical students at Harvard also reported their studies to be more engaging, difficult, and useful than non-PBL students (Albanese & Mitchell, 1993.) These changes in attitudes are marked by an impact on student retention (Major & Palmer, 2001.)

Research also shows that PBL students were more likely to use flexible and meaningful approaches to studying than non-PBL students, who were likely to use reproduction (Coles, 1985; Newble & Clark, 1986; Stinson & Milter, 1996.) When used effectively, project-based learning can provide students with: 1) a very concrete and holistic experience regarding a certain process, 2) the integration and application of subject material, 3) a method of guided discovery learning that promotes self-regulated and deep level thinking (Helle, Tynjala & Olkinuora, 2006.)

What Should I Do If I Am Interested in PBL?

If you are interested in learning more about project-based learning and incorporating the approach into your current course, here are some things to keep in mind as you redesign your course:

1)      Curriculum Design – In developing a more integrated curriculum using a project-based learning pedagogy, start by establishing desired student learning outcomes. Stinson and Miller (1996) suggest that we ask ourselves, “What is it that we want our students to know, and know how to do, as they leave our program?”

2)      Implementation – The role of faculty in project-based learning is a combination of learning manager and coach. This paradigm shift in faculty role, away from lecturing and covering of content, calls for new skills. The basic skills required to be a successful learning manager and coach include active listening, coaching, mentoring and facilitation. Making the transition from the traditional faculty role to project-based learning often requires time, training, experimenting, and support. It also requires a change of mindset from a concern for teaching (input orientation) to a commitment to learning (output orientation.)

3)      Assessment strategies – Since traditional assessment such as quizzes and exams may not measure the multidimensional activities encompassed in project-based learning, alternative assessment which is authentic to the learning environment should be considered. For example, outside evaluations by experts, content analysis of projects, peer evaluations, journals and personal reflections. Ideally, this results in a three way partnership between the student, the client/project supervisor, and the instructor (Guile & Griffiths, 2001.)

 contributed by Han Nee Wester, Instructional Design and Technology Specialist, CAIT.

To view a short video on PBL, click here.