Education Trends

Project-Based Learning: 'Promising but Not Proven,' Researchers Say

Project-Based Learning: 'Promising but Not Proven,' Researchers Say 

Does a focus on exploring real-world problems and challenges help students learn more effectively? That's the question posed in a working paper from research non-profit MRDC, which undertook a literature review on the topic of project-based learning (PBL). The last time this was done was 2000, when the Autodesk Foundation commissioned John Thomas to do a review of studies on PBL approaches in K-12 settings as well as of research on its implementation and effectiveness. At that time Thomas reported that a number of studies found a positive relationship between PBL and the "quantity and quality of student learning." He also uncovered some common challenges that teachers have in implementing PBL.

The new study, done 17 years later, found that the evidence for PBL's effectiveness in boosting learning outcomes is skimpy, or, as the researchers put it, "promising but not proven." What's hard, the authors said, was finding "valid, reliable, and readily usable measures of the kinds of deeper learning and interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies that PBL aims to promote." For example, many of the studies reviewed used designs that left open "the possibility" that factors other than PBL led to the outcomes. Where has PBL possibly proven most effective? Science and social studies classes, where more studies have been done. For math and literacy classes, the evidence is iffier because the number of studies is smaller. In fact, the report noted, math teachers have found it hard to integrate PBL into their instruction.

PBL has picked up steam in the past decade, according to the researchers, as a way to appeal to students' motivations, problem-solving skills and conceptual knowledge. It has received an extra push from the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards, which also emphasize the deeper learning skills PBL is intended to spark.

While PBL design principles place the project front and center as the main "vehicle of instruction" with students at the wheel, there's little agreement among experts about how PBL should fit in with other instructional methods, how long a PBL unit should last, the roles of student choice and collaborative learning or how learning should be assessed. As a result, it's tough for those studying the impact of PBL to know whether it's "being implemented with fidelity."

Likewise, the researchers found, implementations of PBL come with their own challenges. Teachers must evolve their roles from masters of the classroom to facilitators of learning. They must get used to ambiguity, noise and movement and adopt new classroom management skills. They also need to "believe that their students are fully capable of learning through this approach," the report stated. Those changes require not just professional development, but continuing support for PBL to be set up and run properly.

The report offers a number of recommendations for making sure PBL efforts are research-worthy:

  • First, lock down the design principles. They need to be measurable, address both content and assessment and be informed by practice. Researchers should also study adaptation of the design principles, taken to fit the local school setting.
  • Second, pay more attention to implementation — how the rollout of PBL is "affected by the broader school context," how different approaches to professional development affect PBL, how teacher belief influences use of PBL and how the use of technology addresses teacher challenges in the classroom. The report suggested that researchers pay more attention to "teacher-initiated PBL" as well, because that's the most common way students get exposure to it.
  • Third, a "top priority" for PBL research should be to structure PBL design principles that can be used in different settings, such as different grade levels, student populations and subject areas.

"Although practitioners and education reform advocates are interested in taking PBL to scale, the research evidence has not kept up with the increasing interest in PBL from the field," the researchers concluded. "More rigorous evidence is needed to confirm whether PBL is a better approach to prepare students for college and career than traditional teacher-directed methods."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.