“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” —Antoine de Saint-Exupery
As our economy evolves in response to the accelerating forces of globalization and technological innovation, the future holds unknown demands for skills and jobs. Higher education needs to adapt to this shifting world (e.g., Seeley Brown, 2011, Aoun, 2017, Davidson, 2017) by engaging students and igniting their passion for learning (e.g., Robinson, 2010). Today, students can easily have access to content and resources, but they may have difficulty finding quality “learning pathways” that lead to valued skills while they explore an authentic reason to learn, make meaning, or pursue their own curiosity.
Project Based Learning (PBL) has emerged as one of today’s most effective instructional practices. According to the Buck Institute for Education, “Project Based Learning is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge.” In PBL, instructors design learning from specific goals, framed around a meaningful and thought-provoking problem or question, which requires students to engage in a rigorous process of inquiry within a real-world context. During the course of the project, students have an opportunity to make decisions about the project, receive formative feedback to revise their work, reflect on learning, and present their work publicly.
PBL not only responds to the challenges of the new economy by helping students develop the key skill of learning how to learn, but it provides a learning pathway for making meaning and pursuing their curiosity. Additionally, active, collaborative project-based learning has emerged as one of the top benchmarks of effective educational practice, according to the 2016 National Student Survey of Engagement and AAC&U high-impact practices. Furthermore, “a meta-analysis conducted by Purdue University found that when implemented well, PBL can increase long-term retention of material and replicable skill, as well as improve teachers’ and students’ attitudes towards learning.” PBL also fits well with the profile of today’s student, who often has a limited attention span, becomes easily bored in the classroom, and resists memorization but is a great self-learner, embracing trial and error. PBL is the older sibling of the maker-centered learning movement advocated by Harvard (Clapp, 2016), which has been spreading throughout the United States in recent years.
During my entire teaching career, I have used projects in the classroom, though not necessarily project-based learning. PBL is much more than having a project in the course. With PBL, the project drives the learning in the course almost every week. I incorporate PBL into every course I teach today, though my courses differ significantly in terms of the amount of project work as a percentage of the course, and the percentage of collaboration required during the project. I have designed courses where the percentage of collaboration on the project varied from approximately 40 to 80 percent of the course, and where the project work represented between 50 and 85 percent of the time spent in the course. Furthermore, the implementation on and of PBL will differ depending on the context of the course, reflecting the curricular freedom faculty have in designing lower division core classes, upper- division classes in a major, or electives. For example, Honors College colloquia classes typically have high-level course outcomes and may give faculty more freedom in designing the learning adventures, as compared to classes in a major. More freedom can afford the faculty opportunities to pursue open inquiry-based learning, a special flavor of PBL often more strongly grounded in students’ passions and problem-solving. Courses with less course design freedom or those with strict and specific content mastery expectations still allow faculty to create “quality learning pathways,” following the more traditional PBL pedagogy, with some, but often fewer opportunities to engage students’ interests.
Faculty often shy away from collaborative projects in the classroom, as students tend to complain about them. The typical complaints involve the inequity of team members’ contributions to the project and difficulties in working together. In my experience, the keys to successful PBL implementations include a flipped classroom, scaffolding, and accountability. The flipped classroom, a practice in which students acquire content knowledge prior to attending class, allows the students to work on the project in class, applying concepts learned at home. Class time is thus used for deeper engagement with the material. During the flipped class, the role of the faculty changes from being a “sage on the stage” to a “guide on the side,” answering students’ questions, reviewing students’ work, posing probing questions, and providing formative feedback.
Scaffolding requires thoughtful design of classroom learning activities that support the successful completion of the project. For example, one would not just form teams in class and expect them to successfully work together without first providing guidance and practice opportunities for effective collaboration. One would not expect fantastic team presentations without first coaching students to become skillful presenters. Scaffolding may call for the incorporation of content that may go beyond the discipline of a specific course and/or outside resources available to the students. Scaffolding comes at a price of time and development, though it is well worth it, given the deep learning that takes place. Last, accountability is crucial. Demonstrating the relevance of teamwork and peer evaluations, incorporating signed division of work statements at the end of the project, and including occasional stand-up meetings at the beginning of a class period to talk about project progress can help equalize team member contributions and eliminate student hesitation to engage in PBL.
Designing a successful PBL course is like taking your students on a “Hero’s Journey.” Your class heroes go on an adventure, experience challenges, temptations, and dark moments, and—in a decisive crisis—they win a victory, going home changed, or even transformed. If you are interested in PBL, you can find more details of how to approach course design using project-based learning at this link or feel free to contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Aoun, J. (2017). Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. Boston, MA: MIT Press.
Clapp, E. (2016). Maker-Centered Learning: Empowering Young People to Shape Their Worlds. Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass.
Davidson, C. (2017). The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World In Flux. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Seeley Brown, J. (2011) A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change. Charleston, SC: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.