Think about the last time you were excited to learn something new. Not just excited, but really excited—like the can’t stop wondering about it, want to Google it, need to tell someone about it, eager to put it into practice kind of excited. Been a while? Or, maybe never? Project-based learning aims to bring this kind of excitement to students every day.
Project-based learning transforms students into educational archeologists, digging deeply into expanded interests across an array of subjects to discover new things. It exercises students’ minds through a workout that stretches their intellectual muscles in ways traditional learning activities cannot. Research studies correlate PBL with improved test scores, reduced absenteeism, and decreased disciplinary problems. Teachers report that PBL often motivates students who find school boring or meaningless while providing new challenges to advanced learners. Most importantly, PBL makes what students know and what they want to know matter.
In addition to covering the “three R’s,” PBL uses four additional R’s to make learning meaningful:
PBL is demanding. Students are forced to confront challenges and struggle with the central concepts of a discipline. Finding answers takes hard work. They must engage in research, work collaboratively, and present and/or publish their project for an outside audience. Students have to master subject matter while developing 21st-century skills. A project cannot be completed by simply listening to a lecture or memorizing a textbook. PBL engages students in higher-order thinking. They are forced to analyze their findings, evaluate meaning, and create new content.
Students live in the real world, and therefore, should learn in the real world. Project-based learning connects to life outside the classroom helping students see meaning in the work. Students master academic content while building vital workplace skills and lifelong habits of learning. Students are presented with a real problem to solve and must work together to find an answer. Their culminating project commonly is assessed authentically by an outside audience of experts able to give meaningful feedback.
PBL uses concrete examples constructed by students and forces them to apply learned concepts. Research shows students retain the information much longer than they would with rote memorization of facts for a test. By abandoning textbook-centered learning, students develop their own “need to knows” that gravitate their research toward topics of interest, which they then learn about more deeply. Students are far more likely to remember those facts that piqued their interest and be able to apply that learning to future problems.
PBL provides students and teachers time to reflect on what they’ve learned. These reflections prompt students to make connections between what they are learning and the real world. Students not only consider the new knowledge they have acquired, but also the new skills they have developed and how they can utilize those skills in the future.