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Project Based Learning Information from the Buck Institute.

Thomas, John.  Project based learning.  Buck  Institute for Education.  Novato. ©1998.


Pros and Cons of Project Based Learning

It is essential to consider the pros and cons of both Project Based Learning and Traditional (or lecture) models when developing curriculum units.  Each has benefits as well as shortcomings.  Neither approach is the panacea for all learning environments.  The wisest approach is to integrate a workable number of productive Project Base Learning activities with more traditional teaching strategies.

Traditional lecture/discussion techniques help students cover more material in a shorter period of time.  This allows them to address more of the curriculum standards and “cover a relatively large amount of information (facts, concepts, events, issues) in just a few weeks.” (Thomas, 2)  The inclusion of traditional tests and worksheets provides direct and measurable feedback to teachers, students and parents.  All of this can be viewed as a positive aspect of this methodology. 

At the same time, students may not be internalizing the materials and may not be grasping full concepts.  With less time for cognitive processing of information it can often be simple memorization for the test with little or no lasting effect on student comprehension. Without an opportunity to apply learning, students often fail to capture and make it their own or to make cognitive leaps to apply the knowledge beyond the immediate situation.

Thus the inclusion of Project Based Learning activities can “encourage active inquiry” (Thompson 3) and stimulate students to process and incorporate life-long learning skills. It also helps build social skills and result in increased motivation. Yet if used as the only educational modality it could consume so much time on a limited number of concepts that big chunks of important material would be sacrificed.  Although the inclusion of curriculum standards can be well addressed by this technique, it can be too focused on specific skill sets and neglect others. It can also be difficult to objectively measure the efficacy of Project Based Learning, as it is a more subjective process

Describing Project Based Learning

The defining characteristics of Project Based Learning (more easily referred to as PBL) are that students focus on investigating and engaging in problem-solving activities focused around central concepts and principles of a particular discipline.  Meaningful tasks are designed to encourage and support student autonomy and real-world outcomes.  It is a more engaging, thought-provoking and interdisciplinary approach to learning which encourages students to participate in a community of inquiry and struggle with an ambiguous, complex and unpredictable learning environment.

Students participating in PBL tasks will participate in tasks which are multi-faceted, challenging, complex and extended over longer periods of time than more traditional approaches to learning.  Students are encouraged to do their own problem-solving and critical inquiry.  They are put in charge of their own time and task management as individuals and as group members. They are responsible for evaluating their work throughout the project and are accountable for determining ways of demonstrating their own competence.  Project Based Learning stimulates students to participate in developing and stretching their own real-world competencies. This is an authentic assessment technique which is compelling and engaging.

Reasons to Incorporate  Project Based Learning 

Content is compelling and personally relevant.  It allows time for more focused and in depth investigation and processing of information. Thus the content becomes more meaningful and applicable to real world situations.  This provides a more wholistic approach as opposed to the fragmented approach of traditional learning. 

The strategies are more engaging.  Students are put in charge of their own learning experience.  This makes it “easier for them to transfer and retain information” (Thomas 7).  It also allows for a greater diversity in learning modalities. 

The content is more engaging and empowering.  It encourages collaborative, self-directed learning.  The learning is more internalized and transferable to other areas of their lives.  It provides a situation where students are called upon to explain or defend their position. This is a shared experience closer to the work environment they will face outside of the school setting.

Students are encouraged and empowered to use and expand their technological skills.  They must use their research skills, write their findings and use graphic arts tools to display their work.  The seamless integration of technological skills is most effective through this learning environment.  It encourages mastery.

The outcomes are more productive and personal.  PBL activities help imbed lifelong learning skills into the students’ skill sets. It promotes “higher-order cognitive skills and problem-solving strategies” (Thomas 10).  Through a metacognitive approach students develop initiative, persistence and autonomy.  Students learn to plan, carry out, monitor and evaluate their own work. 

Students are able to see tangible and productive products for their efforts.  Going beyond the paper and pencil worksheets and tests, students are able to produce a final product that demonstrates their efforts and growth. 

Differences from Traditional Instruction

An interesting aspect of PBL is the way it can change the relationship between teachers and students.  It moves the teacher from lecturer and director of instruction to a resource provider and participant in the overall learning activities.  The teacher does not have to always be the expert, but can be an advisor and even colleague in the quest for knowledge and understanding.

It moves the focus of the curriculum away from content coverage and building-block skills in isolated chunks.  It encourages a deeper understanding of the concepts and principles and development of complex problem-solving skills.  It moves beyond facts to an understanding of concepts and principles.

The scope and sequence of the learning process is less fixed and is based more on student interest and learning styles.  It moves students into broad interdisciplinary inquiry.  The narrow, discipline-based focus which proceeds in carefully controlled blocks of learning evolves into larger units of complex problems and issues.  This approach is much more stimulating and engaging.

The assessment process is based on performance and gains over time rather than in direct comparisons with other students.  Students are required to demonstrate their own learning rather than reproduce data.  It moves beyond tests to tangible accomplishments.  The teaching strategies focus more on the process than the actual outcome. 

Students are asked to work collaboratively and individually as they carry out self-directed learning activities rather than rote instructions.  They are asked to communicate, show affect, produce and take responsibility rather than listen, behave and speak only when spoken to.  They become independent learners and producers.

They learn time and task management skills. Through encouragement and guidance from their teacher students are put in charge of their own learning experience. This allows them to engage in “sustained, autonomous, lifelong learning” (Thomas 13) with deeper mastery of complex ideas and processes. 

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