Tuesday, April 28, 2015

What is Project-Based Learning?

Project-based learning means that students create projects as part of their learning experience (Bender, 2012; Vega, 2012). As mentioned in chapter one, this type of learning fits well within constructivist and constructionist ways of thinking and is an important learning method for the Information Age. This post is an excerpt from my book, Educational Technology for Teachers.

In project-based learning, students develop a project from start to finish, making decisions on how to proceed, incorporating subject matter into the project and producing a product that represents their knowledge. This type of learning has resulted in better student attitudes toward learning and increased knowledge retention among students, along with other positive learning outcomes (Bender, 2012; Vega, 2012). Project-based learning is also linked to high 21st century skill development among students (Vega, 2012).

Educational technology and project-based learning go well together. Information technologies can help students seek out answers to project questions, and visual presentation applications can help students efficiently create products in differing formats. Project-based learning is a great way to integrate technological tools and resources into learning.

So what is it that defines project-based learning? The most important defining characteristics of project-based learning include authenticity, longer project time lengths and quality finished products that students complete.


Authenticity in project-based learning means that the projects students complete have value or relevance outside of the classroom and that the activities that students perform in order to finish a project are similar to the activities that a person may do outside of school (Herrington & Kervin, 2007). Finding an authentic project is not easy. Many teachers mistakenly suppose that learning activities like math word problems are authentic because they incorporate real-world elements. An example word problem might ask students to use their knowledge of speed and distance to determine when two trains will pass each other as they travel from neighboring cities. This type of problem is not authentic because it doesn't simulate activities that a person might actually do in real life. There is little reason to perform such a calculation in the world outside of school. In contrast, an authentic activity might involve students in using building code documents to calculate the number of exits needed in a large building as part of a building design process. This is the type of activity that might actually be completed by an architect.

Longer Project Time Lengths

Longer project time lengths means that more than just one class period is needed for students to work on projects. Projects may span several days or weeks in time length and may require many different steps or activities. Students could also use knowledge from more than just a single subject area to complete a project. It takes more than just one or two class periods to navigate the many choices, steps, subjects and activities in a project (Bender, 2012; Herrington & Kervin, 2007).

Quality Finished Products

Another important aspect of project-based learning is that students create quality finished products. These products are an excellent way to show students' knowledge of the subject areas featured in the project. Some examples of quality finished products that could be completed include:
  • A poster about how to avoid plaque and gingivitis by brushing teeth properly
  • A video that shows how to prepare and cook cholula bread
  • A recorded lesson telling how to calculate a monthly budget for food after bills have been deducted
  • A proposal document explaining the pros and cons of various purchase options for a particular business
Notice that no two of the above product examples are in the same format, but all of them include a quality finished product that students create to show their knowledge. More project-based learning ideas and the steps for a project based learning experience are included in my book, Educational Technology for Teachers. 

  • Bender, W. N. (2012). Project-based learning: differentiating instruction for the 21st century. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
  • Herrington, J., & Kervin, L. (2007). Authentic learning supported by technology: Ten suggestions and cases of integration in classrooms. Educational Media International, 44(3), 219–236. doi:10.1080/09523980701491666
  • Vega, V. (2012). Project-based learning research review. Edutopia. Retrieved January 8, 2014, from http://www.edutopia.org/pbl-research-learning-outcomes

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