The Project Based Learning Method


The Project Based Learning Method

By Hannah Kettel


What is Project Based Learning?


The Buck Institute for education says “Project Based Learning (PBL) is a teaching method used for students to explore, gain knowledge, and solve a complex question, problem or challenge for an extended period of time." The Buck Institute for Education is an authority on PBL and has created a list of key concepts to be included in PBL projects such as significant content, in-depth inquiry, a driving question, etc. PBL not only incorporates all of these concepts but it encourages students to become real-world problem solvers and provides many opportunities to experience a meaningful learning environment.
Nell Duke (2016) defined PBL as a project where, "students work over an extended time period for the purpose beyond satisfying a school requirement—to build something, to create something, to respond to a question they have, to solve a real problem, or address a real need.”
For more information on the basics of PBL visit Project Based Learning in ECE Classrooms on the Performance Pyramid


What are the benefits of PBL?


1. 21st Century Skills 

Students who learn using the Project Based Learning method develop a variety of 21st century skills needed for future employment, thus making them more valuable and marketable workers when they pursue their career. Larmer and mergendoller (2010), and other researchers say PBL allows students to learn skills such as: 
critical and flexible thinking
social and democratic behavior
problem-solving skills
decision making
In addition to job skills, these are important skills to learn in order for students to become engaged democratic citizens who are productive in our society, which is the primary purpose of K-12 education. 

2. Student Choice and Higher Student Engagement

According to Wellan (2018), students are more engaged learning through PBL than they are with traditional forms of instruction. Instead of doing endless worksheets and following what teachers are saying step-by-step, students are answering big idea questions and solving problems, with many opportunities for self-directed learning in areas they’d like to explore. Bartscher, Gould and Nutter (1995) stated that the reason for the low motivation of the students in schools is that their psychological needs are not met and for the solution, they proposed that they need to work collaboratively as a motivation tool; PBL is one method to solve this problem. Higher engagement also leads to positive responses to learning. Siswono, Hartono, and Kohar (2018) found in their test classrooms, 78% of students responded to PBL lessons positively, while on 55% of students instructed using traditional methods responded positively.

3. Increased Student Knowledge

Students in classes where PBL is used, student knowledge increases. In one study by Siswono, Hartono, and Kohar (2018), 48.6% of students in the control classroom who learned using traditional methods mastered content, while 100% of students in the experimental classroom which used PBL mastered content.

4. Learning by Doing

PBL provides students opportunities to learn by doing. Essentially, through PBL students learn in real-world contexts and solve problems relevant to them, their community, and the world. Learning is also made authentic through the use of models, presentations, stories, and problem-solving. Aydin, Demir Atalay, & Goksu (2018), suggest that "the educational environment should be enriched through education methods that increase students' ability to link what they have learned with real life, their problem-solving and critical thinking skills."

Designing a Project Based Learning Lesson or Unit


Following, is a sequence of steps to follow to design a day’s lesson, or an extended project using the PBL method. Each step is followed by a short description of what happens at each step, and a few example activities to consider using when planning a lesson or unit.

1. Spark Interest

Find something related to the topic students will learn about that sparks a discussion among students. The goal is for students to recount their personal experiences, express opinions, and begin to pose questions that will cause them to begin thinking about the topic of the project. 
Examples of what to do at this step are:
Watch a video
Read a story or news article
Look at an image or piece of art
Invite a guest speaker
Go on a field trip
Utilize a conversation students are already having

2. Develop a driving question

This is the topic the entire project will center around, so it is important that it is open ended and complex enough for students to undergo sustained inquiry. Larmer and Mergendoller (2010) state "a good driving question captures the heart of the project in clear, compelling language, which gives students a sense of purpose and challenge." When planning a project and determining the driving question, it can be helpful to ask “What should students be able to answer when the project is done?” The driving question could stem from a problem that needs to be solved, or from a piece of knowledge students want to better understand. PBL is often most effective when students create the questions and teachers scaffold to ensure that they meet the standards of a good driving question quoted earlier.
Example activities for this step are
KWL charts
A list of students proposed questions
Writing down all possible questions and grouping them

3. Research and Innovation

In the words of Larmer and Mergendoller (2010) “the teacher does not simply ask students to reproduce teacher- or textbook- provided information in a pretty format.” At this step, it’s time for students to find their own answers to the driving question. The Buck Institute says that a process of sustained inquiry- where students "engage in arigorous, extended process of asking questions, finding resources, and applying information," is an essential design element for PBL. It is only through the research process that students will develop new questions, delve deep into their topic to find answers. The students will begin to synthesize information and develop their final project through lessons intended to help them organize their knowledge. There are many learning opportunities at this step involving teaching students how to research and how to solve the different problems they encounter along the way. This is where a bulk of the academic standards will be addressed.
Some examples of research activities:
Science experiment
Reading books
Going on a field trip
Online research on student-friendly websites
Watching a documentary or educational video
Recording observations
Interviewing classmates and community members
Examples of innovation activities
Writing and sending a letter to a public figure
Develop a model
Make a movie
Write a story or paper
Designing a logo/symbol

4. Feedback and Revision

Students need to develop the understanding that people’s first attempt isn’t always their best (Larmer & Mergendoller, 2010), and that others can offer unique insights to improve their ideas. As one of their essential design elements, the Buck Institute includes critique and revision where students "give, recieve, and use feedback to to improve their process and their products," as one of the essential design elements of PBL. This process emphasizes to students that high-quality work is valued that they can produce something to be proud of.
Example activities for this step
Examining drafts/plans using a rubric, checklist, and/or examples of past work
Teaching students how to critique
Get feedback from mentors and experts
Peer editing
Glowing and Growing activities
A.R.M.S and C.U.P.S. 

5. Presentation of Final Product

The final project can replicate the works of professionals, or have students create real products usable for professionals outside of the school according to Larmer & Mergendoller (2010). No matter what the final product is, every PBL project should cultivate in a final presentation of information learned. At minimum, it should be in front of their fellow classmates. However, a publicly presented product to parents/guardians, school administrators, members of the community, and experts in the field of study can take the project to a new level. Time should be spent letting the students explain, display, present, and/or justify their work, and everyone attending the presentation should be encouraged to ask students questions. This final presentation makes work more meaningful to students, and encourages them to produce quality work and pursue deep learning.
Examples activities for this step:
Town hall meeting
Presentation night
School assembly
Public demonstration

Essential Elements of Effective PBL


In order to design effective projects using the PBL method, it’s important to understand some essential elements that characterize effective Project Based Learning, and separate PBL projects from traditional school projects. These elements are:
Authentic, real-world challenges and adult connections- The Buck Institute for Education says that authenticity as an essential design element for PBL. The institute says that PBL projects must contain real world tasks, tools, make an impact, or sspeak to student concerns. Students must believe that they are improving the world and learning about something real or relevant to them.
Student voice and choice/Self-directed learning- The most effect PBL projects allow students the opportunity to choose their topic, gather information, and display their knowledge whenever appropriate. Often times, students will require scaffolding and individual attention when pursuing these different activities.
Integration of curriculum and standards- For many students PBL is a fun way to learn, and an alternative to lectures. While it’s easy to get lost in “fun” activities, and these often make students more invested in their projects, it’s important to remember the best projects are rooted in academics and address multiple learning standards.
Application of learning- Because of the importance for PBL projects to be rooted in real world problems, learning must also be shown in ways that students apply their knowledge to the problem.
Collaborative interactions with peers- Projects can be completed alone, however PBL projects require the input and ideas of many. Feedback, revision, collaboration, and the prior experiences of all students shape PBL projects.


Ideas From Other Educators


How Can We Survive on Mars?

Pete Barns describes the project his 5th grade students to every year, that develops STEM and literacy skills by planning a mission to Mars.

7 Examples of Project Based Learning

The article has a list of various project ideas and descriptions that work using the PBL method. Some can be completed in a single lesson, and others can be adapted to suit various academic subjects

My Favorite Projects of 2017 by John Larmer

This link provides ideas submitted by teachers for all grades. Larmer sifted through all the projects and ideas submitted to him through the Buck Institute for Education Blog, and hand picked his 15 favorite, as well as provided links to allow teachers to read more about the projects that intrigue them.


For More Information Check out These Links


The Buck Institute for Education

Provides up to date research, and resources regarding PBL, plus links to services, events, and blog posts run by the institute.

Project Based Learning: Benefits, Examples and Resources By Robert Schuetz

This link provides information on the basics of PBL. The Author includes information about the method, the benefits, and challenges of using the PBL method, plus there are exampls and lessons plans available through the link.

Are you using Projects or Project Based Learning? By Susan Riley

This link goes through the differences between doing a project, and doing PBL, by using an infographic for planning which can be downloaded for planning purposes.

How to Plan Project-Based Learning By April Smith

This link provided teach-insight on how to plan a PBL unit. There are also recources to help teachers plan their PBL unit.



Aydin, S., Demir Atalay, T., & Goksu, V. (2018, July). Project-Based Learning Practices with Secondary School Students. International Online Journal of Educational Sciences., 10(3), 230-242. Retrieved from

Bartscher, K., & OTHERS. (1995, December 20). Increasing Student Motivation through Project-Based Learning. Retrieved from

Duke, N. K. (2016, Fall). Project-Based Instruction: A Great Match for Informational Texts. American Educator, 40(3), 4-11. Retrieved from
Education, B. I. (2018). What is PBL. Retrieved from Buck Institute for education:
Larmer, J., & Mergendoller, J. R. (2010, September). 7 Essentials of Project Based learning. Giving Students Meaningful Work , 68(1), 32-37. Retrieved from
Markham, T. (2003). Project based learning handbook: A guide to standards-focused project based learning for middle and high school teachers. Novato, CA: Buck Institute for Education.