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What the research says about project-based learning

By Drew Perkins, Director of TeachThought PD

Education is a dynamic field, constantly evolving with new insights and innovative approaches but sometimes those practices are not rooted in research and evidence.

Incorporating evidence-based teaching methods allows teachers to provide more effective learning experiences to their students, resulting in better outcomes. In addition to the limited time challenge many teachers face, it can also be difficult to evaluate research findings that may be so narrow in their conclusions that they are not applicable to the complexity of actual teaching.

As an advocate and PD provider for project-based learning, I am occasionally asked for research and evidence that PBL is effective. We share links to important supporting research embedded on our PBL Workshop Tools & Resources page but this only tells part of the story. Often evidence and research point to things that work but not necessarily what works best and what will be required of students in preparation for the modern world, rather than a narrow set of outcomes.

Is Project-Based Learning Effective? As is the case with many issues in education and elsewhere, there are competing ‘camps’. There are those who strongly advocate direct instruction, often calling attention to the ineffectiveness (or worse) of project-based learning, and they cite important and valid research findings. I’ve been fortunate to connect with many of them, both informally and formally, on podcasts where we’ve discussed PBL or Direct/Explicit Instruction, what works?

It can be tempting to look at some research and jump to a simple conclusion, such as “It makes sense to me” or “This is what I’ve been doing, see it works!” But it’s hard to look at a wide range of research, including that which challenges preconceived notions, and synthesize next steps. For example, one can easily find evidence that direct instruction works and choose to focus on it.

Others may discover PBL research and conclude that they should shift their entire school or district to project-based learning. None of this will necessarily follow best practices and I think a criticism is valid that PBL implementations can and are often done poorly.

This is where a synthesis of academic research can really help and here are three avenues.

Is Project-Based Learning Research-Based?

1. PBL is effective in delivering specific learning outcomes

In John Hattie’s latest book, Visible Learning: The Sequel, he notes:

Students taught using problem-based learning had less knowledge but better recall of their knowledge. This is probably because, in problem-based learning, knowledge is more often elaborated … The application of knowledge, not the development of knowledge, is the heart of the success of problem-based learning.

Most teachers want to go beyond basic ‘knowing it’ to deepen conceptual understanding. PBL is a great tool for doing this and in our workshops we often frame Bloom’s Taxonomy by flipping it for deep learning. Design and implementation are key.

Creating a project that sounds exciting and engaging to students is not enough. It should aim for the design and teaching that Hattie and I discuss in this podcast, AP. 335 John Hattie | Visible Learning: The Sequel. As a side note, there are many different ways to define “PBL”, and we certainly have ours, but I’ll follow Hattie’s use of problem-based learning closely enough to be useful here. I am taking

2. PBL should include direct instruction

Many proponents of more ‘progressive’ teaching and learning recoil from the idea of ​​direct or explicit instruction. No doubt, it can be boring and frustrating but it doesn’t have to be and although it may not be the most exciting part of the PBL experience, scaffolding and ‘teaching’ some things is necessary.

Research on project-based learning shows that direct instruction is especially effective at surface-level knowledge and that students must have it in order to be successful at deeper levels of PBL. This does not mean that we need to ‘front-load’ the required knowledge before engaging in PBL. Instead, we help design for teachers ‘pulling up’ that surface knowledge as part of the project-based learning process,

Perhaps the most cited research on direct instruction is Rosenstein’s Ten Principles of Instruction. This and related research is discussed in Chapter 12, Burning the Strawman, How Teaching Happens, by Paul Kirschner and Carl Hendricks and Jim Heil. Paul Kirshner and I also address this and others in our podcast episode 315 Teaching and Learning Happens.

3. PBL implementation needs support with business development

It will certainly not be much of a surprise that without effective professional development support, any relatively major change in teacher practice will not be effective. The students in this study of PBL with second graders showed improvements like a 63% gain in social studies compared to a control group that didn’t learn through PBL, but without the PD support they certainly did. Will not be successful to help them.

The study focused its support on course materials and coaching conversations and noted:

A related implication of this research is that policy makers and administrators should consider how to provide appropriate PD support around PBLs.

Perhaps some of those teachers are able to build on that initial learning and enhance their practice for more sophisticated and effective PBL implementation, but even they would benefit from continuing professional education to help them refine their practice. Conversely, expecting to implement project-based learning (or any major change in practice) without significant professional education for teachers is a recipe for disaster.

Combination of strategies for best results

The complexity of teaching goes beyond just teaching strategies, but if we want to help students transform their surface, deep, and transfer learning, we will need to use a variety of strategies. In this May 2023 review, let’s talk evidence – the case for a combination of inquiry-based and direct instruction, which will certainly inspire further discussion. Notes Combination of strategies, employed effectively, on only one or a few is more effective than focusing.

Our project-based learning workshops help teachers combine strategies such as inquiry and scaffolded teaching with intentional cognitive complexity and prior academic achievement of expected learning outcomes.

Above and beyond the characteristics of the content, teachers and curriculum designers must align their instructional and assessment methods with the types of learning outcomes they expect from students. Early instructional design theory (see, for an overview, Regeluth, 1983) readily acknowledged the importance of aligning learning strategies with learning outcomes.

These principles recommend using the explanatory strategies inherent in direct instruction if the goal of the lesson is conceptual knowledge or memorization of a particular process. On the other hand, inquiry-based strategies were seen as more appropriate for fostering a deeper understanding and transfer of subject matter, which was often lacking in students following traditional instruction (e.g., Ortiz, Herron , and Schaefer, 2005). Frey et al. (2017) showed that these recommendations hold up today.

Regluth (1983), Ortiz, Herron, & Schaefer (2005), Frey (2017)

In a world characterized by constant change, teachers play a vital role in equipping students with the skills and knowledge they need to thrive. By actively engaging with research, teachers can enhance their teaching methodologies, meet the diverse needs of students and stay at the forefront of educational innovation.

Adopting evidence-based teaching methods not only improves student outcomes, but also fosters a culture of lifelong learning, which prepares students for a future full of possibilities. As we move forward, let us encourage and support teachers in their research endeavours, recognizing its essential role in improving education.

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