Get started with project-based learning

Project-based learning emphasizes long-term, multidisciplinary assignments and activities that are student centered and focus on real-world problems and issues. The teacher serves more as a facilitator and assigns students tasks that need to be solved by conducting independent or group research.

As a result, a project-based learning curriculum does the following:

  • Addresses real-life issues     A key to successful project-based learning is to assign projects that connect to real-life scenarios or topics relevant to the student. As a result, students tend to be more engaged and motivated as they approach and solve tasks that they can relate to.
  • Stresses problem-solving skills     Students are presented with a question or problem and are then asked to analyze, synthesize, comprehend, and evaluate it. Some of the skills picked up through project-based learning include collaboration, leadership, and problem-solving.
  • Has the teacher serve as facilitator     Rather than being the Sage on the Stage with all the right answers, the teacher is the Guide on the Side helping students come up with their own right answers. Instead of dictating, the teacher guides students to develop their own questions and research strategies to facilitate learning.
  • Lets students self-assess progress     As they work to solve the question or problem, students assess themselves based on a rubric established by the teacher that outlines the expectations and criteria for the final product. As a result, students are rarely surprised at the grades that are assigned to them.

For example, take the time-honored student assignment of writing a state report. Traditionally, the teacher assigns each student a state, hands out a list of topics that need to be covered in the report, and provides an example of what the paper should look like — a paper that earned an A in a previous year. With an assignment like this, plagiarism can be an issue because students often just copy information from an encyclopedia or from Web sites. And students are graded on how well they followed directions!

However, a teacher who uses project-based learning might approach this task from a different angle. The teacher might ask students to research and find what they believe to be the most livable state in the United States. The students will need to defend their choices with real-world examples and statistics in a written assignment or perhaps an oral presentation. This type of assignment encourages students to use problem-solving skills and collaboration to successfully complete the project. Also, plagiarism is rarely an issue because of the open nature of project-based learning assignments.

Why use project-based learning in the classroom?

Project-based learning encourages students to think analytically and incorporate current technologies in their assignments. It also encourages students to use inquiry to understand the world around them and construct meaning from their own experiences. Project-based learning assignments also do the following:

  • Motivate students     The opportunities and freedom in project-based learning let students explore issues in more depth, satisfying their innate curiosity in a way that traditional learning does not. When students are interested in what they're doing, they are often capable of performing at higher levels.
  • Encourage advanced thinking skills     Traditional methods of teaching do not always address advanced thinking skills. As in the example of the traditional state report assignment, students often just rehash information that they have read or come across online. With project-based learning, students explore issues, solve problems, and collaborate with their peers. Many of the skills that students sharpen through project-based learning are exactly those that today's employers want.
  • Promote collaboration     Students learn how to collaborate with their classmates, with students in other classrooms, or with students halfway around the world. They can also contact area experts by using e-mail, the Internet, and video conferencing. Teamwork and cooperation are keys to success in today's information-rich, highly technical work force.
  • Teach the latest technologies     Project-based learning activities provide the framework for students to tap into their creativity while technology provides them with a means to develop solutions. Computers, the Internet, and programs like Microsoft Office Word 2003 or Microsoft Office PowerPoint 2003 can help students conduct research and produce their final products.

Types of project-based learning frameworks

Project-based learning has taken a variety of forms in the classroom, and most teachers adopt the format that matches their teaching style. Two popular forms are WebQuests and research investigations.

  1. WebQuests     On WebQuests, students use the Internet to search for some or all of the information to complete their assignment. WebQuest projects typically present a challenge or problem for students to solve, encourage teamwork, and help students develop higher-level thinking skills.
  2. Research investigations     Research investigations emphasize real-world problem-solving by using higher-order thinking skills critical to student learning. During research investigations, students are actively involved in making choices and creating solutions based on information they collected, This can be information that students gathered on a WebQuest.

Well-planned WebQuests and research investigations challenge students to think creatively, collaborate with other students to solve real-world problems, and produce a final product that is more than a simple factual report.

Getting started with project-based learning

Consider the following suggestions before preparing your first project-based learning exercise:

Explore examples     Conduct a Web search on WebQuests or research investigations to see examples of classroom-tested projects. Many school districts have links to sample WebQuests on their Web sites and teaching aides to help evaluate the structure of and learning involved in a WebQuest.

Identify your curricular focus, and construct your question or problem     Consider the curriculum that you're required to teach and the ways in which you've taught your subject matter in the past. Does any of it lend itself to project-based learning? Can you find a project online created by another teacher that you can adapt to fit your needs?

Select a framework to use when designing your project     Explore the two frameworks discussed in this article, WebQuests and research investigations. Will either work for your project?

Identify technology tools     Think about the technologies and software available to the students at your school. Will students have access to the Internet? Make sure that your students have adequate tools available to them to successfully complete the project. What is the learning curve on the computer programs you will be using?

If implemented correctly, project–based learning can be a good model for teachers to use with their students. This innovated teaching method encourages students to use information, ideas, skills, and multiple intelligences to solve real-world questions and problems. As a result, students are usually more engaged and motivated as they explore their own interests and make important decisions on their own.

Applies to:
Outlook 2003, PowerPoint 2003, Word 2003