Project-based learning tasks students with the responsibility of working in small groups to solve a real-life or classroom-based problem with little or no initial guidance or suggestion from the teacher. The purpose of project-based learning is to engage students in the active process of creating knowledge, rather than simply treating them as passive receivers of knowledge. While these types of projects are often successful, some issues can arise.
One of the key features that sets project-based learning apart from traditional lecture-based classroom activities is the cooperative nature of the project itself. Because small groups of students are required to complete a certain task or project together, it requires them to interact and work with one another. This is simultaneously a potential benefit as well as a possible detriment of project-based learning. As the ability to work with others is certainly an implicit goal of education, scenarios in which students are given an opportunity to work with others in a low-stakes, educational setting allow them to develop and hone their teamwork skills. On the other hand, because groups of students working together are likely to have disagreements, the cooperative element of project-based learning can lead to some heated disagreements and interactions that might not otherwise take place in a traditional classroom setting.
Project-based learning borrows heavily from the educational philosophy known as constructivism. As the name implies, the focus of constructivism is to encourage students to construct or build sets of knowledge and skills for themselves. When given a project task that must be completed with little to no instruction on how to complete that task, students must work together to develop a plan and method for completion. In the best-case scenarios, students successfully develop such a plan and execute it to perfection. In these scenarios, students are said to retain much more of the knowledge and skills than they would had they simply been told how to complete the project at the beginning. In the worst-case scenarios, however, students are stymied by the challenge, become frustrated and abandon the project altogether. Their frustration can often cause them to become cold toward the teacher and project-based learning as a whole. Consequently, the constructive nature of project-based learning is both a pro and a con.
Due to its highly constructive basis, most project-based learning situations encourage distinct solutions to specific problems. As different groups of students are likely to develop different plans or methods for addressing a task or project, the assessment of these plans becomes a highly subjective enterprise for the teacher. Rather than simply applying a blanket grading scale or rubric, teachers must meet with groups to discuss their projects and progress, assessing each group according to a set of assessment criteria unique to each group. While this is certainly beneficial in that it ensures that each group is assessed fairly and in line with standards directly applicable to their work, it means an enormous amount of guesswork for the teacher. Consequently, the requirement of subjective assessment for project-based learning is a benefit because of the fairness of grading but also a detriment because of the lengthy and time-consuming grading process.
Many educators -- particularly those who maintain constructivist principles -- believe project-based learning engages students in ways far superior to those of traditional, lecture-style classroom activities. This is because, when students are required to evaluate a problem and generate a possible solution to that problem, they invest more time and energy into their work than they would if problems and solutions were simply explained to them in a lecture-based activity. On the other hand, because project-based learning is often foreign to many students -- particularly younger students who rarely, if ever, experience project-based learning activities in the earlier years of their educational careers -- many students find themselves completely disengaged from the material because of the manner with which the material is being presented. Consequently, educators must encourage students to become thoroughly engaged and responsive to both the material and the procedures of project-based learning; otherwise, those students may fall prey to the very real negative possibility of being disengaged and unresponsive to both.
- Intel Teach Program: Designing Effective Projects -- Characteristics of Projects -- Benefits of Project-Based Learning (PDF)
- "Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age"; Suzie Boss, Jane Krauss and Leslie Conery; 2008
- "Problem-Based Learning: An Inquiry Approach"; John Barell; 2006
- Nick White/Digital Vision/Getty Images