The Definitive Guide to Project-Based Learning: Definition, Debates, Ideas and Examples

For some teachers, it’s classroom bliss.

Students work together to investigate an authentic and nuanced problem. They build curriculum-aligned skills in the process. They’re rewarded with enhanced communication and problem-solving abilities.

But organizing and running suitable project-based learning (PBL) activities isn’t always easy, as the pedagogy is surrounded by debate and takes form in a range of exercises.

To help you find and facilitate ones appropriate for your students, this guide covers:

As you read through, you should be able to determine if the pedagogy is worthwhile and – if so – come away with a handful of effective ideas to easily implement.

What is project-based learning?

Three elementary students crowd around a silver Mac laptop, completing a project together.

Through project-based learning, students work individually or in groups to address an engaging, intricate curriculum-related question or challenge.

This question or challenge must:

  • Be open-ended
  • Encourage students to apply skills and knowledge they’ve developed in your classes
  • Allow students to take their own approaches to develop an answer and deliver a product

For example, in social studies, you could task students with conceptualizing and mapping out a smartphone app that addresses a problem within your country. To add a math element, they can budget the necessary resources to develop it.

As you can see, project-based learning doesn’t conform to rote approaches or teacher-led instruction.

Driven by critical thinking, it’s often interdisciplinary and encourages students to take a rewarding-yet-challenging road to skill-building and knowledge acquisition.

What does project-based learning typically look like?

A row of elementary students sit at a desk, using pen and paper to write.

The process is straightforward.

You present the issue, methods of investigation and any supplementary materials. It’s up to your students to deliver a defined product. Next, encourage students to reflect on their work and make revisions, ultimately delivering a presentation to their peers.

Despite this clear-cut process, there’s a lot of space for diverse tasks and differentiation in general.

As a type of active learning and inquiry-based learning, the nature of a given project-based learning activity depends on yourself and your students. As John Dewey famously wrote:

The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding.

Following this philosophy, it’s probable – and ideal – that any project-based learning exercise you run looks different from those run by your colleagues.

What matters is prioritizing your students’ needs and learning styles above the curriculum.

What are the benefits and criticisms of project-based learning?

A teacher sits between three students, holding a globe while helping one of the students complete an exercise in his book.

Debate permeates discussions about project-based learning.

It’s up to you to understand the pros and cons, applying them to your classroom situation to make a decision about a given activity.

Here are many of the key research-backed benefits of project-based learning:

  • Increased engagement – Project-based learning empowers students to play an active role in learning, as the complex tasks they take on demand novel approaches and are relevant to real-world contexts. This creates a classroom environment in which students overwhelmingly report feeling engaged, according to a meta analysis of 82 studies.
  • Better knowledge retention – Compared with traditional instruction, extensive research indicates that students who complete project-based learning exercises and assessments often show superior knowledge retention in a range of subjects from math to second-language learning. This can translate to higher performance on tests, according to a 2011 study.
  • Improved critical thinking abilities – The process of completing and delivering a project-generated product inherently builds problem-solving abilities, according to research from as recent as 2010. This is because students must heavily exercise those abilities, applying them in tangible contexts. For these reasons, the research indicates that students in project-based learning environments can better use problem-solving skills out of school than those in traditional learning settings.
  • More opportunities to explore EdTech – Project-based learning, by nature, enables students to use EdTech and explore Internet resources. For example, independent research is likely rooted in online searches. EdTech, on the other hand, can lend itself to creating and delivering artifacts.

Here are most of the major criticisms of project-based learning:

  • Subjectivity in assessments – When grading a project-based learning product, many critics will say you’re closing the door on objectivity. This is because, as opposed to using standardized forms of measurement, you’ll rely on subjectively assessing a range of products. For these reasons, there’s an argument you shouldn’t use project-based learning for a large part of students’ marks.
  • Hyper-focus on product creation – It’s possible for the day-to-day focus of project-based learning to transition from developing and applying essential skills to merely working on a product. When this happens, you can debate that students won’t reap benefits such as improved problem solving and knowledge retention.
  • Questionable application in mathematics – Largely skill-based for elementary learners, dedicating time to project-based learning may not be the best use of time. Consider this: Would students better understand multiplication by applying it in a project-based learning context, or by running through drills and word problems?

Armed with this knowledge, it’s ultimately your decision to bring project-based learning into your classroom.

You can get a better idea of what this looks like by reading about the ideas and examples below.

10 project-based learning ideas for your classroom

1. Play area

Give students an opportunity to apply their geometry skills by designing a new playground for the school.

Using a range of free web applications, or simply grid paper and a pencil, task them with mapping out the playground while meeting certain conditions. These conditions should be based on including a certain number of 2D or 3D shapes in the components of the playground, such as slides and monkey bars. For example, at least two isosceles triangles, three equilateral triangles, four squares and so on. Once complete, each student must calculate the area and perimeter of his or her playground, as well as each component.

2. Your very own math story

Three young elementary students crowd around a laptop, completing a project together.

Fuse math with visual and language arts by asking students to write their own math books.

Taking the form of an original short story, require students to cover a certain number of curriculum skills. They should explain and exemplify each skill within the context of the story, inherently allowing them to improve understanding. In exemplifying how to use a given skill, students should teach themselves its importance for a real-world scenario. You should notice improved retention as a result.

3. Favorite recipes

Take a mathematical approach to nutrition by having your class analyze their favorite foods and dishes for presentations about select recipes.

Each student should choose a main course, two sides and a dessert. They must then create and deliver presentations about how to make the dishes. But instead of standard cooking advice, the focus is nutritional values – calories, carbohydrates, daily vitamin intake and so on – based on the ingredients. You may need to provide a go-to resource for students to find this information, but the onus for creating a healthy meal is on them. Bon appetit!

4. What happened to the dinosaurs?

An elementary student uses his hands to craft a dinosaur out of putty.

Satiate your students’ curiosity and probable love of dinosaurs by having them research and argue what caused their extinction, crafting a visual display to illustrate findings.

As the dinosaurs’ extinction remains a debate that can draw students into a rabbit hole, consider providing questions to guide their research. How did the planet change from the Triassic to Cretaceous period? How prevalent were carnivores compared with omnivores and herbivores? Such guiding questions should allow students to reach informed opinions, writing reports to defend those opinions and allowing them to craft creative visualizations.

5. Ancient civilization of needs

Combine history, anthropology and psychology through this project, requiring learners to envision newly-discovered ancient civilizations.

The basic premise is to borrow elements from other ancient societies, creating a unique one. But there’s a catch – the society must satisfy each tier in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If students are not familiar with the theory, present it along with guiding questions. For example, “Which tier of the pyramid is most important for society to function?” These questions should encourage students to develop a collection of products, including: a written explanation of the society and how it meets Maslow’s needs; an analysis of the elements borrowed from other ancient civilizations; a visual depiction of the society and more.

6. Where it comes from

Four female middle school students work together to create a functional, mini windmill.

Launch this independent or paired study activity to explore how ancient machines are still present in modern-day science and engineering

The exercise starts by each student or pair choosing a simple machine – a pulley, lever, wedge and so on – or another ancient tool. They must research the history of their tools, determining how and where scientists and engineers still use them today. Students can then envision how the same tools will work as part of inventions 100 years into the future. They can produce videos, presentations or mock interviews with inventors to showcase their research and ideas.

7. The Oscar goes to …

Have students script a part of a significant historical event to exercise their drama, history, and creative writing skills.

Whether a battle, court proceeding or formation of a powerful organization, have students choose from a list of events. Each learner’s goal is to thoroughly research an event, forming a cohesive string of scenes they’d watch in a movie or television show. This will allow them to write scripts, highlighting each figure’s motives and background. They must also pay particular attention to historical accuracy in terms of dialogue and settings. After you’ve approved each student’s script, they can form small groups and choose their favorite, acting it out in front of the class.

8. Fashionista

Three private school students, wearing blue blazers and dress shirts, work together on a project at school.

Encourage students to take the roles of fashion designers and marketers with a scenario that combines business with visual and language arts.

This scenario entails a client – played by you – asking fashion agencies – played by small student groups – to manage the creation and launch of a specific clothing item, such as a dress or jacket. Although your idea is crystal clear, you’re having a hard time communicating it. So, the agencies must start the project by developing a questionnaire to draw answers from you. As you respond to each agency, they can begin the next steps. These can include designing mock-ups, writing advertisements and calculating an appropriate sale price. After this work is done, each agency will pitch their version of the item to you. You determine who best captured the client’s ideas.

9. A career with math

Give students a chance to look towards the future, investigating a career path that heavily relies on math.

You can present a list of relevant careers or have students suggest their own. Either way, choosing a career will launch the investigation process. Each student must research the career, writing a brief report about how professionals use math in daily duties. From there, students should be able to choose a skill used in their selected procession, linking it to a skill in the curriculum. The final task is to write a textbook chapter that explains the skill while offering specific exemplifies of how and when it is used in the given career.  

10. The economics of pizza

Two female high school students complete math equations together on a whiteboard.

Analyze, from a mathematical perspective, many students’ favorite meal: pizza.

This project-based learning assessment starts by choosing a pizza chain, researching its prices and applying linear algebra concepts to find the base cost of a pizza. These same concepts will allow students to determine how much each additional topping costs.

But the task isn’t done there. Students should research – individually or in small groups – how much it costs to source each topping. They can then determine which type of pizza yields the greatest and smallest profit margins. Doing so acts as an introduction to basic economic concepts, encouraging students to critically think about business.

Noteable project-based learning examples

Three young elementary students gather around their teacher outside, who's showing and talking about a kind of rock.

Your inspiration doesn’t have to be limited to isolated activities, as there are notable examples of

ongoing project-based learning initiatives.

You’ll likely be able to freely borrow ideas from these institutions:

  • THINK Global School – Calling itself the “world’s first traveling high school,” THINK Global School has its students live in four countries per year while developing curriculum knowledge entirely through project-based learning.  For example, students can use “data modeling techniques from [their] math class to synthesize information about sea urchins [they] collected while scuba diving.” The projects are rooted in the cultures and environments surrounding the students. Although your class won’t be traveling to four countries, you can still take a problem-based learning approach through exploration in – and analysis of – your surrounding community.
  • Muscatine High School – An oft-referenced example of commitment to project-based learning, Muscatine High School in Iowa worked with a third-party organization to implement project-based learning opportunities across classes and subjects. The projects are diverse, ranging from developing personal financial plans to exploring local history through interviews with community members.
  • EdVisions – A non-profit organization, EdVisions’ mission “is to help and sustain great schools … using the most student-centered teaching and learning.” This largely involves partnering with schools to implement project-based learning opportunities. The organization does so by working with a given school to identify students’ learning needs and preferences, tailoring projects to them. This serves as an important reminder: Project-based learning starts and ends with students in mind.

Referencing these examples should not only help you ideate project-based learning activities, but justify their importance in your classroom.


Final thoughts

After reading this guide, you should have a better understanding of project-based learning as a pedagogy, as well as how to launch certain projects.

To further solidify your knowledge and generate more ideas, consider researching the above-mentioned examples.

Just remember that the teaching strategy must be student-centered. What works for some teachers may not work for you, and what works for you may not work for others.

But you’ll never know until you try.

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Marcus Guido

Marcus is Prodigy's growth and content marketer.

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