Spring is the perfect time of year to get outside and get active with your kids. How about a school project or two? Studies have proven that when implemented well, project-based learning (PBL) can increase retention of content and improve students’ attitudes towards learning, among other benefits. What’s even better is that Epic Charter School allows you the independence and flexibility to implement project-based learning in your own, customized way.

What is Project-Based Learning?

Project-based learning hails from a tradition of pedagogy which asserts that students learn best by experiencing and solving real-world problems. According to researchers (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008; Thomas, 2000), project-based learning essentially involves the following:

  • students learning knowledge to tackle realistic problems as they would be solved in the real world
  • increased student control over his or her learning
  • teachers serving as coaches and facilitators of inquiry and reflection
  • students (usually, but not always) working in pairs or groups

Teachers & Parents can create real-world problem-solving situations by designing questions and tasks that correspond to two different frameworks of inquiry-based teaching: Problem-based learning, which tackles a problem but doesn’t necessarily include a student project, and project-based learning, which involves a complex task and some form of student presentation, and/or creating an actual product or artifact.

Learning Outcomes

Studies comparing learning outcomes for students taught via project-based learning vs.traditional instruction show that when implemented well, PBL increases long-term retention of content, helps students perform as well as or better than traditional learners in high-stakes tests, improves problem-solving and collaboration skills, and improves students’ attitudes towards learning.  Also, design principles most commonly used in PBL align well with the goals of preparing students for deeper learning, higher-level thinking skills, and intra/interpersonal skills.

Carefully Calibrated Project Design

  1. Define the Content. What do you want students to learn by the end of the assignment? Expectations should correspond with students’ current research and reasoning skills.
  2. Identify the Context. Brainstorm a list of real-life activities in which learners could apply the intended content. Be aware of any time or location constraints in these situations.
  3. List Possible Problems. Create a list of problems or projects that could occur in each context from Step Two. Select the problem or project that best presents the content objectives and that will be appealing and relevant to learners.
  4. Describe Potential Solutions. Fully describe the most viable solution to the problem or project, as well as possible alternative solutions. Identify the known and unknown variables. Note the most realistic path of reasoning and the knowledge (concepts, principles, procedures, and facts) that would result from the most viable solution. Next, identify alternative paths of reasoning and knowledge that would evolve from alternative solutions to the problem. Based on these possible solutions, what researching and reasoning skills will learners need for solving the problem or creating the project? What is the best framework for building students’ knowledge? (That is, how do concepts required for solving the problem relate to each other?)
  5. Calibrate Your Project. Using the solutions from Step Four, check to make sure that the knowledge and skills generated by the most viable solution match the intended knowledge and skills from Step One. For instance, you might create a chart comparing the intended knowledge and skills with those necessary to solve the problem. To better match intended content with students’ level, add or remove problem conditions. To make a problem easier, focus learners’ attention on the target knowledge. To make a problem harder, focus learners’ attention on peripheral knowledge. To make the problem more realistic, add time, budget, or location constraints that might occur in an authentic professional situation.
  6. Describe the Task. To create a description of the task, remove information from the most viable problem solution from Step Four. If researching or reasoning a critical piece of information is beyond students’ problem-solving skills, this information should be presented to the learners rather than have them struggle to learn it.
  7. Reflect on the Learning. Reflect students’ learning by including multiple opportunities to check their progress in the initial assignment and adjust instruction accordingly (for example, let them know they need to keep a journal and report to their supervisor on a weekly basis). The final assessment should also be clearly described in the assignment (for example, a final report, presentation, or follow-up question or problem) and should allow learners to reflect upon their overall learning and problem-solving process.

The following are links to various websites for PBL ideas: