Project-Based Learning Research Brief




Recently there has been a dramatic increase in the number of schools implementing project-based learning (Tintocalis, 2015). As schools move to Common Core State Standards (CCSS), educators are shifting their methodology to meet the new requirements, which not only include content changes, but also stress collaboration and problem solving.


In California alone, dozens of districts, including San Jose, Santa Ana, and Oakland (Linked Learning Initiative), have increased the amount of time students spend in projects as part of their efforts to align to the CCSS (Ellison and Freedberg, 2015).  In fact, the Buck Institute of Education (BIE), based in Novato, CA typically host a week-long conference that is attended by hundreds of educators from almost all 50 states and numerous international countries.[1]  The BIE has become a leading global champion of PBL, and their model and resources are examined in this Brief.   


Regardless of location, population, or focus, many schools are using PBL as a cornerstone of their curriculum in an effort to achieve the rigor of California’s newly adopted CCSS.   According to Ellison and Freedberg (2015), “The Common Core standards include explicit expectations that students learn how to work together, acquire skills to solve real-world problems, and persist in doing so—all core components of project-based learning” (p. 8).


Organization of Brief

The purpose of this Brief is to provide highlights from the research literature on the most important features of PBL.  It is important to acknowledge that PBL is an educational model associated with a vast research literature base.  It is not our intention to present an exhaustive review of the literature, but to present some highlights and provide references for the reader, if he or she is interested in learning more. 


We begin with a brief history of PBL, and provide some descriptions of the defining features of PBL.  Given the important role that the Buck Institute of Education has played in helping to disseminate their PBL model worldwide, we provide an overview of their Gold Standards for designing and implementing high quality PBL.  Following this discussion, we examine the constructivist and cognitive science learning theories that are the foundation for PBL.  Next, given the transformation of teacher and student roles in the PBL classrooms, we briefly examine these changing roles.  This discussion leads into a review of implementation challenges and promising solutions.  In this subsection we look at planning and designing PBL, supporting student collaboration and inquiry, scaffolding the learning process, using technology, and assessment.  This Brief concludes with a short review of PBL and student learning outcomes.  Specifically, we examine several important research findings related to the learning domains and competencies identified by the National Research Council’s (NRC) report on deeper learning (i.e., critical 21st century learning competencies needed for success in college and career).  The domains include: cognitive, intrapersonal and interpersonal knowledge and skills.

What is PBL?

The Long History

Problem-based approaches to learning have a long history.   In fact, some supporters consider the use of “project work” to have started in the 1500s within Europe’s architectural schools (Knoll, 1997).  In the U.S. project-based learning is typically associated with the early work of Dewey and Kilpatrick at the Laboratory Schools at the University of Chicago (Tintocalis, 2015; Knoll, 1997).  These early educational leaders argued for the importance of practical experience in learning, a part of the tradition of meaningful, experiential learning.  In more recent history, the notion of experiential learning is often associated with the Coalition of Essential Schools[2], which no longer exists as a national institution, however, the principles and structures continue today.  As stated on the CES website: Essential schools focus on helping all students use their minds well through standards-aligned interdisciplinary studies, community-based “real-world” learning and performance-based assessment.


Overview of PBL

It is important to acknowledge there is no “one size fits all” model when it comes to PBL (Thomas, 2000; BIE, 2015).  As a result, researchers have been challenged to conduct well-designed, high quality studies.  Some schools and teachers can design their own PBL lessons/modules from start-to-finish, and some can purchase already developed projects.  The projects can last 1-10 days, or a whole semester, and include many disciplines, or only one.  There are, however, some general features of PBL.  These are described below, and are the Gold Standards identified by the Buck Institute of Education.


In PBL, students learn by solving problems and reflecting on their experiences. PBL is well suited to helping students become active learners because it situates learning in real-world problems and makes students responsible for their learning. It has a dual emphasis on helping learners develop strategies and construct knowledge (Barrows, 2000; Torp and Sage, 2002). In PBL, students work in small collaborative groups and learn what they need to know in order to solve a problem. 


The teacher acts as a facilitator to guide student learning through the learning cycle. In this cycle, the students are presented with a problem scenario. They formulate and analyze the problem by identifying the relevant facts from the scenario. This fact-identification step helps students represent the problem. As students understand the problem better, they generate hypotheses about possible solutions.


At the completion of each project, students reflect on the abstract knowledge gained. The

teacher helps students learn the cognitive skills needed for problem solving and collaboration. Because students are self-directed, managing their learning goals and strategies to solve PBL’s “ill-structured problems” (i.e., those without a single correct solution), they also acquire the skills needed for lifelong learning.  There are at least two key features that go to the heart of all of learning through problem solving. First, all approaches emphasize that learners are actively constructing knowledge in collaborative groups. Second, the roles of the student and teacher are transformed. The roles of the student and teacher are discussed more thoroughly in a later section.


The Buck Institute for Education (BIE) and the PBL Gold Standards

The Buck Institute for Education (BIE) is known as a leader in PBL, and focuses on providing resources and sharing exemplary PBL practices for teachers worldwide. The organization has identified core components of exemplary PBL instruction, and used this knowledge to develop eight standards that should be incorporated into every PBL project (Larmer, Mergendoller, and Boss 2015).


While focused on solving an essential question or authentic problem, students involved in PBL work in teams to learn the necessary skills and knowledge to uncover solutions (BIE, 2015).

The real-world problem is developed so that students acquire standards-based knowledge, as defined by their state’s educational expectations, throughout their experiences as they research, reflect, receive feedback, revise, document, and present their solutions (BIE, 2015).


ILA teachers will use many of the free, and publicly available resources that the BIE posts on their website, as well as the fee-for-services BIE provides for teacher professional development.  For example, we will use the essential project design elements that BIE experts have identified[3]:  The BIE conception of Gold Standard PBL has three parts: 1) Student Learning Goals (in the center of the diagram below) 2) Essential Project Design Elements (shown in the red sections of the diagram), and 3) Project Based Teaching Practices.

Every gold-standard PBL project should do the following (Larmer, Mergendoller, and Boss 2015):


1.     Pose a challenging problem or question.

A well-designed PBL project must pose a problem or question that will motivate and sustain student learning.


2.     Contain key knowledge, understanding, and success skills.

Strong PBL projects should incorporate all key content knowledge that would be appropriate for the student’s grade and subject matter. Throughout the project, students should be engaged in success skills such as collaboration, critical thinking, and providing evidence for reasoning.


3.     Sustain student inquiry.

The driving question should allow opportunity for students to delve deeper into understanding and developing solutions. As students learn more, it leads to deeper research and understanding until the student can confidently arrive at a solution or mastery of a particular concept.


4.     Be authentic.

PBL projects should be relevant to the student and applicable to his or her life. They should be driven by the student’s own need for knowledge and lead to a stronger understanding of his or her world.


5.     Provide student voice and choice.

To stimulate motivation, BIE recommends that students be involved in what they study, why and how they study it, and how they demonstrate their knowledge. This can be done with varying degrees of student freedom, depending on the age and needs of the student.


Buck Institute for Education (BIE) Gold Standard PBL: Teaching Practices

In addition, ILA will use the BIE gold standard for teaching practices.[4]  As shown in the graphic image below, many traditional teaching practices remain a part of the PBL experience, but they are reframed in the context of a project.

Specifically, teachers design and plan, creating or adapting a project, implementing all of the parts from start to finish, while allowing students to have both voice and choice.  Teachers also align to standards being sure the projects reflect key knowledge and understanding in all included subject areas.  Teachers build the culture of promoting student independence and growth, using inquiry, team energy, and attention to a quality product.  Teachers need to manage and organize tasks and schedules, set check-in points and deadlines, find resources, and help students create products that often external audiences will view.  Clearly, different instructional strategies, including scaffolding of student learning, are used to support all students as they complete their projects.  Both formative and summative assessments are used to assess student learning, and to be ensure that students have gained the knowledge, understanding, and success skills associated with the project.   Finally, teachers engage and coach students and take initiative to help skill-building, redirecting efforts, providing encouragement and celebrating successes.

Constructivist Pedagogy/Cognitive/Learning Science and PBL

Why is PBL embraced by so many?  In short, it is research based, and learning scientists have confirmed that active inquiry results in deeper understanding.  Discoveries in the learning sciences have led to new ways of understanding how children learn. 

There is widespread agreement that PBL as an instructional model reflects significant aspects of the constructivist theory (Jumaat, Tasir, Halim, Ashari, 2017; Philen, 2016; Thomas, 2000). Constructivism as a theory and pedagogy is focused on the active engagement of learning that is student-centered (Liu and Chen, 2010). With the use of problem-solving strategies the responsibility of learning is placed on the learner.  Knowledge is socially constructed and students demonstrate their knowledge through different ways such as problem solving, critical thinking, and questioning. A key function of constructivist approaches to making meaningful PBL outcomes has originated from several key psychologists, philosophers and educators (Liu and Chen, 2010). The founding fathers of the constructivist pedagogy (e.g., Piaget, 1955) emphasized language, thought, zone of proximal development, discovery learning, scaffolding and the social interactions of a child.

For example, Piaget (1955) argued that through cognitive development humans have the capacity to construct new knowledge from their experiences and each experience continues to build upon one another. Hence, knowledge is important when it comes to PBL implementation, because as knowledge builds it is constructed at different stages of development.  Quigley (2010) agrees that social constructivist approaches to curriculum like PBL lead to an instructional model that creates an environment where learning is relevant to the learner.

There are also a number of strands of cognitive research cited in support of classroom research and development activities in PBL. For instance, an important strand is the research on motivation. This research includes studies on students' goal orientation and on the effect of different classroom reward systems. All things being equal, students who possess a motivational orientation that focuses on learning and mastery of the subject matter are more apt to exhibit sustained engagement with schoolwork than students whose orientation is to merely perform satisfactorily or complete assigned work (Ames, 1992).

Classroom reward systems that favor task involvement and cooperative goals encourage a focus on learning and mastery (Ames, 1984). In turn, PBL project designs, because of their emphasis on student autonomy, collaborative learning, and assessments based on authentic performances are thought to maximize students' orientation toward learning and mastery. Additionally, PBL designers have built in additional features such as variety, challenge, student choice, and non-school-like problems in order to promote students' interest and perceived value (Blumenfeld et al., 1991).

With an understanding of what PBL is, what the primary or essential design features are for projects, and how PBL is situated as a pedagogy in the constructivist tradition, the Brief now turns to examining the transformed role of the teacher and student in the PBL experience.

The Teacher’s Role

In general, teachers have the role of facilitator and guide, providing scaffolding in PBL, among other strategies, to promote student success. Teacher guidance is important in the implementation of PBL. However, designing and implementing PBL is difficult unless teachers receive adequate training. Besides theoretical training, teachers also need practical training to be able to fully exploit the potential of this method (Wu and Meng, 2010). LeFevre (2014) maintains that teachers tend to avoid risks associated with changing their teaching practices. They prefer teacher-centered education because they strive to maintain control. Taking on the role of facilitator requires great effort because they often assume this role entails losing control over classroom activity. Adherence to the traditional textbooks is one example of risk avoidance. The associated fear of losing control is especially dominant concerning the use of technology tools, where students might possess a wider array of skills and knowledge and even outperform teachers.


These realities point to the fact that understanding teachers’ knowledge and beliefs is critical to the implementation of high quality PBL. As Ertmer (2005) reported after studying how teachers adopt technological innovations, a teachers’ knowledge relies on factual propositions and understandings, and the teachers’ beliefs are ideologies and suppositions.  Teachers can know that a particular instructional innovation is related to student learning outcomes, but successful implementation relies on their beliefs.  Adoption of a new instructional strategy is, often, but not always, facilitated by a belief in the efficacy of the approach.


In support of Ertmer’s findings, Grant and Hill (2006) noted that some teachers found implementation of student-centered approaches like PBL to be “risky” because, the teacher’s role is modified, and they may need to confront changes in the traditional learning environment (e.g., noise level, student collaboration, and students physically moving around the classroom) (p. 1). 


The teachers’ beliefs about their students’ potential also influences the use of PBL.  The relationship between teachers’ expectations and beliefs about students, teacher practice, and student learning outcomes is a well known debate in the research literature (e.g., Jussim and Harber, 2005).  Teachers who have low expectations of their students or feel overwhelmed by their students’ academic and social needs (low teacher-efficacy) may be reluctant to implement rigorous PBL because it requires students to develop and apply high-level thinking and social skills.  However, when teachers have high expectations of their students, respect for their students’ individual needs, and commitment to the PBL model and their students’ success, these attitudes typically result in successful implementation (Tal, Krajcik, and Blumenfeld, 2006).


Clearly, teachers need professional development, and on-going supports, as well as dedicated time to collaborate with their colleagues to successfully design and implement quality PBL.  The challenges to designing and implementing are addressed in a later section of this Brief.


The Student’s Role

In general, from the student’s perspective there are five goals he or she is trying to achieve when engaging in PBL. 


1) construct an extensive and flexible knowledge base;

2) develop effective problem-solving skills;

3) develop self-directed, lifelong learning skills;

4) become effective collaborators; and

5) become intrinsically motivated to learn.


Ideally, the “teacher as facilitator” is the person who is there to help the student achieve these goals.  PBL embeds learning in contexts that require the use of such skills as developing flexible knowledge and effective problem-solving.  Students learn how to set learning goals, and to identify what they need to learn.  They become adept at planning their learning and select appropriate learning strategies.  They are collaborators, and function well on a team.  Most importantly, implementing PBL helps students become intrinsically motivated, which occurs when students work on a task motivated by their own interests, challenges, or sense of satisfaction (Krajcik, Czerniak, Berger, 2002; Krajcik, and Shin, 2014).


In a recent research study on the use of PBL in High Tech High (HTH, San Diego, CA)[5], MacMartin (2017) investigated how students felt their PBL experiences prepared them for their first year of college.  The HTH model for PBL includes all of the BIE “Gold Standard” project design features identified earlier.  As a result, MacMartin (2017) was able to study how students felt these features supported a successful first year in college.  MacMartin (2017) reported that, overall, students appreciated all of the PBL instruction they experienced at HTC, and felt prepared for their first year in college – with the exception of mathematics.  Of the 12 students she was able to conduct in-depth interviews with, analyze questionnaire responses from, and conduct document analysis about, almost all 12 reported positive attitudes towards the training that PBL provided.  For instance, on reflection one student reported “Yeah getting frequent feedback and revisions helps you understand what you’re doing as a learner as well as a student, and also knowing how to really challenge yourself” (MacMartin, 2017, p. 100).


However, when the previous HTH students were asked about “struggles” in college, 11 out of 12 reported that their PBL experiences did not prepare them adequately for “the nature of required math courses in college” (MacMartin, 2017, p. 88).


Like the “transformed role” of the teacher, the student also has a different role in the classroom when PBL is implemented with fidelity (to, say, the BIE design features).  The effectiveness of PBL on student outcomes, both academic and social, are examined more thoroughly in a later section of this Brief.  What are the challenges for achieving implementation fidelity, we turn to that question next.


Implementation Challenges & Promising Solutions

Several researchers (Dole, Bloom, and Kowalske, 2016; Ertmer and Simons, 2006; Mergendoller and Thomas, 2000; Blumenfeld et al., 1991) have studied the unique challenges teachers face when implementing student-centered approaches like PBL.  These challenges are related to planning and designing PBL, supporting student collaboration and inquiry, scaffolding the learning process, using technology, and assessment.  Each one of these topics is briefly examined in this subsection, these are not exhaustive reviews, but highlights on important topics identified in the research literature.


Planning and Designing PBL

A number of researchers have studied the process of PBL design challenges as a process between curriculum developers and teachers (Shwartz et al, 2008; Parker et al., 2011, 2013; Fortus et al., 2015; Veletsianos, Beth, Lin, and Russell, 2016).  Several of these studies have focused on project-based science curricula, and the researchers have found that “Although project-based units can create a useful context for learning science, they do not necessarily build coherence” (Shwartz et al., 2008, p. 216).  A coherent curriculum is one where the content knowledge and skills the student develops builds on one another, thus the student can move from the “novice” level toward the “expert” (Fortus et al., 2015).  Using coherent curriculum is important for academic achievement, hence, teachers need to have a deep understanding of the curriculum content and the concept of coherence.  Teachers also need an understanding of their students’ strengths and weaknesses.


Supporting Student Collaboration & Inquiry

Knowing the strengths and weakness of the students has direct consequences for classroom management, as students work in groups and are self-directed.  In addition, with this knowledge a teacher can determine whether students need additional literacy supports, if students struggle with the curriculum content.  Or, teachers may need to include teacher-centered methods to present some basic knowledge and demonstrate particular skills (Veletsianos et al., 2016).  Overall, teachers need to understand the comfort level students have with PBL because students can experience frustration when working with others in a learner-centered classroom, versus a traditional classroom.  In addition to collaboration, the teacher is the facilitator and responsible for helping students acquire knowledge and develop skills.  How do teachers find the time and resources to support in-depth student investigations?  Through school culture, policies, and practices.  In short, when school leadership thoroughly supports PBL teachers and students benefit.


Scaffolding the Learning Process

In supporting students to achieve the goal of acquiring deeper learning processes and critical thinking skills, in agreement with BIE, several researchers report the use of learning scaffolds to facilitate the inquiry process and maintain student engagement (Ertmer and Simons, 2006; Jonassen, 2011).  In fact, Darling-Hammond (2008), and later BIE, include scaffolding as a PBL design principle.  This scaffolding can include coaching students, modeling cognitive processes, and structuring complex tasks, and as the researchers have noted, these supports must fade over time, but to what extent, that is the question (Hmelo-Silver, Duncan, and Chinn 2007). 


Using Technology

In 21st century classrooms technology is a common tool for PBL because with its use a student can “maximize independent learning” (Krajcik and Shin 2014, p. 289).  Not surprisingly, students need consistent access to computers, teachers often need to incorporate extra classroom time to spend on technology, and they may need guidance on technology integration (Krajcik and Shin, 2014; Blumenfeld, et al., 2000).  Addressing these challenges will require investments in resources, including teacher professional development.  As Velestsianos et al. (2016) found, even experienced computer science teachers needed assistance in learning social networking sites and wikis, which were a part of a new computer science curriculum.



A critical component of PBL is assessment.  An interesting topic in the research literature because of a disconnect between the type of learning emphasized in a PBL classroom, and the learning assessed on standardized tests, often used for teacher accountability (Darling-Hammond, 2008).  For instance, Hertzog (2007) noted that the PBL approach is designed to create some outcomes that a traditional summative assessment (like state standardized tests) do not adequately measure.  A common solution is to use performance-based assessments to assess “higher-order skills” (Conley and Darling-Hammond, 2013).  In fact, assessments for PBL should include tools for assessing learning, as well as the assessment of learning.


In agreement with BIE, a student product must answer the driving question of the project.  Krajcik and Shin (2014) identified products that students must create that address the driving question of the unit and provide a representation/artifact of student learning.  Clearly, in science these products can include physical models or computer programs.  Students need to have opportunities to reflect, and to receive teacher feedback throughout the project.  Both teachers and students need to reflect on what is being learned, how it is being learned, and why they’re learning it (Darling-Hammond, 2008; Larmer et al., 2015). 


Finally, the student product needs to be presented to an “authentic public audience” (Darling-Hammond, 2008).  The public audience is highly motivating to students because when their artifacts are made public students are presented with opportunities, for example, to receive feedback from multiple sources.  The public audience also represents the “real world” that the product is designed to reflect and inform.  Students can feel their problem and product addressed authentic concerns to the larger local community and beyond.


Assuming that students and teachers are using performance-based assessments, among others, what does the research literature tell us about student outcomes?  This topic is the focus of the final subsection.


Student Outcomes and PBL

In the first, comprehensive literature review of PBL, Thomas (2000) argued for more rigorous methods to aid in understand the benefits of PBL.  Many researchers have taken this challenge, and endeavored to include measures that go beyond student academic achievement.  One of the most widely cited studies is that of Pellegrino and Hilton (2012) because they embraced the study of three student learning domains and competencies identified by the National Research Council’s (NRC) report on deeper learning (i.e., critical 21st century learning competencies needed for success in college and career).  The domains include: cognitive, intrapersonal and interpersonal knowledge and skills, and are presented below in Table 1. 


As with all the sections in this Brief, the material below presents highlights from the research literature, this is not an exhaustive review of PBL and student outcomes.


Table 1:  National Research Council Learning Domains and Examples of Competencies


Examples (Knowledge and Skills)


Competencies related to thinking skills: reasoning, problem solving, memory; content knowledge and creativity.

·      Academic content skills

·      Critical thinking

·      Technology literacy

·      Active listening

·      Problem solving

·      Creativity


Competencies used to set and achieve learning goals.

·      Self-regulation

·      Metacognition

·      Grit, Perseverance

·      Flexibility


Competencies used to express, interpret and react to information.

·      Communication

·      Collaboration

·      Conflict resolution

·      Leadership

Source: Pellegrino and Hilton (2012)


Cognitive Competencies

As Thomas (2000) and others (Holm, 2011) have reported, a significant number of research studies have been conducted on PLB in science classrooms.  For instance, The Center for Learning Technology in Urban Schools (LeTUS), a collaboration with Detroit and Chicago Public Schools, University of Michigan, and Northwestern University, developed PBL for middle school science classroom teachers.  Marx et al. (2004) collected data on pre- and post-unit test scores (N=8,000), and found statistically significant gains on measures of scientific content knowledge and process skills.  Geier et al. (2008) also found that students who participated in LeTUS units significantly outperformed non-LeTUS students on state standardized tests.


Several studies have examined PBL in social studies and English classes, which often include student projects based on real-world problems.  For instance, Parker et al., (2011, 2013) studied the use of a teacher developed PBL project for Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. Government and Politics.  The researchers studied students in the PBL-AP classes, in comparison, to students in non-PBL-AP classes and reported that PBL-AP students achieved higher scores on the AP exams, and higher scores on a teacher-developed assessment.


Intra- and Inter-personal Competencies

As the National Research Council and others, BIE (2015, 2013), Pellegrino and Hilton (2012), have shown, PBL models are intended to support students’ development of intra- and inter-personal competencies, such as communication and collaboration skills, metacognitive skills, grit/perseverance, and self-regulation skills (e.g., managing of emotions).  Not surprisingly, the scholarly research community has not been able to keep up with the creation of valid and reliable assessments of these competencies, but there are some exceptions.  Several studies of these domains have focused on students’ attitudes toward what and how they learn (Holmes and Hwang, 2016).  For example, these researchers reported that students who attended a PBL-focused high school scored higher, than their non-PBL peers, on measures of attitudes toward learning.  The PBL-focused high school students scored higher than their comparison group on all motivational constructs.  In support, Creghan and Adair-Creghan (2015) studied random samples of economically disadvantaged students from two high schools serving the same community of PBL-focused high schools in the New Technology Network.  Attendance at the PBL-focused school was higher than their comparison group in all three years of the study.  The researchers also noted that the size of the schools may have contributed to the results, where the traditional school enrolled 1,200 students, and the PBL school enrolled 330 students.





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[5] High Tech High is a school that has gained particular acclaim on its accomplishments both in PBL instruction and student achievement. High Tech High (HTH) San Diego began as a single charter high school in 2000. Now it is an organization that encompasses an integrated network of 13 schools. On the website is the statement that “98% of graduates have gone on to college, 75% to four-year institutions” (High Tech High: A Snapshot).