Project-based learning refers to any programmatic or instructional approach that utilizes multifaceted projects as a central organizing strategy for educating students. When engaged in project-based learning, students will typically be assigned a project or series of projects that require them to use diverse skills—such as researching, writing, interviewing, collaborating, or public speaking—to produce various work products, such as research papers, scientific studies, public-policy proposals, multimedia presentations, video documentaries, art installations, or musical and theatrical performances, for example. Unlike many tests, homework assignments, and other more traditional forms of academic coursework, the execution and completion of a project may take several weeks or months, or it may even unfold over the course of a semester or year.
- PBL in competency based learning, by Caroline Messenger, Naugatuck Public Schools
Closely related to the concept of authentic learning, project-based-learning experiences are often designed to address real-world problems and issues, which requires students to investigate and analyze their complexities, interconnections, and ambiguities (i.e., there may be no “right” or “wrong” answers in a project-based-learning assignment). For this reason, project-based learning may be called inquiry-based learning or learning by doing, since the learning process is integral to the knowledge and skills students acquire. Students also typically learn about topics or produce work that integrates multiple academic subjects and skill areas. For example, students may be assigned to complete a project on a local natural ecosystem and produce work that investigates its history, species diversity, and social, economic, and environmental implications for the community. In this case, even if the project is assigned in a science course, students may be required to read and write extensively (English); research local history using texts, news stories, archival photos, and public records (history and social studies); conduct and record first-hand scientific observations, including the analysis and tabulation of data (science and math); and develop a public-policy proposal for the conservation of the ecosystem (civics and government) that will be presented to the city council utilizing multimedia technologies and software applications (technology). In project-based learning, students are usually given a general question to answer, a concrete problem to solve, or an in-depth issue to explore. Teachers may then encourage students to choose specific topics that interest or inspire them, such as projects related to their personal interests or career aspirations. For example, a typical project may begin with an open-ended question (often called an “essential question” by educators): How is the principle of buoyancy important in the design and construction of a boat? What type of public-service announcement will be most effective in encouraging our community to conserve water? How can our school serve healthier school lunches? In these cases, students may be given the opportunity to address the question by proposing a project that reflects their interests. For example, a student interested in farming may explore the creation of a school garden that produces food and doubles as a learning opportunity for students, while another student may choose to research health concerns related to specific food items served in the cafeteria, and then create posters or a video to raise awareness among students and staff in the school. In public schools, the projects, including the work products created by students and the assessments they complete, will be based on the same state learning standards that apply to other methods of instruction—i.e., the projects will be specifically designed to ensure that students meet expected learning standards. While students work on a project, teachers typically assess student learning progress—including the achievement of specific learning standards—using a variety of methods, such as portfolios, demonstrations of learning, or rubrics, for example. While the learning process may be more student-directed than some traditional learning experiences, such as lectures or quizzes, teachers still provide ongoing instruction, guidance, and academic support to students. In many cases, adult mentors, advisers, or experts from the local community—such as scientists, elected officials, or business leaders—may be involved in the design of project-based experiences, mentor students throughout the process, or participate on panels that review and evaluate the final projects in collaboration with teachers.