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Project-Based Learning (PBL) Benefits, Examples & 10 Ideas for Classroom Implementation

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For some teachers, project-based learning (PBL) is classroom bliss.

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

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

Find and facilitate the most appropriate project-based learning examples for your students.

These sections will help you determine if the pedagogy is worthwhile. If so, you’ll come away with a handful of effective ideas to implement easily.

What is project-based learning?

Three elementary students work in a project-based learning task.

Project-based learning (PBL) or project-based instruction is a student-centered teaching method that encourages learning through engaging, real-world, curriculum-related questions or challenges.

This, of course, goes deeper than doing any old project. The goal is to get students to engage with a question or challenge that requires concentration and nuanced problem-solving skills.

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

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 through a nuanced learning process.

Why is project-based learning important?

Two male students smile at the camera during project-based learning activities.

Project-based learning boosts classroom engagement and has a direct impact on how well students are prepared to enter the workforce once they graduate. 

A growing focus on 21st century skills and critical thinking means project-based learning is gaining steam in education. In addition, PBL can help educators:

  • Teach students personal responsibility and critical time management skills
  • Design assignments that hit higher-order stages in Bloom’s taxonomy like analysis, synthesis and evaluation
  • Provide multiple ways of assessing students at different stages of the project, whether through a portfolio, annotated bibliography, outline, draft product or finished project

When students leave school, they’ll need to understand that work isn’t as straightforward as lectures and homework. It’s more aligned with a project-based approach, where employees are expected to prioritize, manage their time and deliver work on a deadline. Project-based learning helps teach students:

  • Creative problem-solving skills
  • The importance of collaboration
  • How to find the right tools for the job
  • How to build independent learning and project management skills
  • How to use relevant technology to find resources, communicate and produce a final product

Project-based learning is important because it helps students approach meaningful learning opportunities with curiosity, while also giving them real-world skills they’ll use for the rest of their lives. 

Key characteristics of project-based learning

Project-based learning isn’t just group work or a randomly assigned project. Let’s take a look at some of the key characteristics to help you build your own project-based learning assignment:

1. Project-based learning presents an open-ended, appropriately complex question.

Students should have to do deep research, draw on existing knowledge and come up with a solution in the form of a final project — whether that’s a presentation, proposal, essay or other product. 

Students should have a choice in what they explore, and the questions they answer should be genuinely challenging with real-world applications.

2. Project-based learning relates to knowledge acquired through classroom lessons.

Not only should project-based learning build on your classroom lessons, but it should give students the opportunity to put them to use in a real-world setting. Project-based learning encourages students to dive deeper into the subject matter and builds on content knowledge.

Ultimately, this content knowledge should have real-world applications that students can focus on during the project.

3. Project-based learning requires students to find their own solutions to a given problem or question.

Just because the inspiration for project-based learning assignments comes from your lectures, doesn’t mean it should stay there. Effective PBL comes from requiring students to find their own solutions to a given problem — not just plugging in a formula to find the answer. 

In practice, this looks like a real-world project with extended inquiry. It should be a multi-stage process with, if necessary, multiple deliverables at different stages to keep students on track.

4. Project-based learning gives students a choice in how they learn. 

Students learn best when they’re studying something that captures their imagination and interest. Regardless of the end product, students should have as much autonomy as possible in what they make and how. They should learn how to communicate ideas in a group and on their own, and really bring their passion for the project to the forefront.

5. Project-based learning follows a clear, well-defined set of assessment criteria.

The best way to keep project-based learning on track and effective is to let students know what’s expected of them.

At the beginning of the project, give students a rubric and handouts outlining:

  • How the project will be graded
  • All the products they’ll be required to hand in
  • How they should work independently or in a group

Some teachers may even choose to collaborate with students in the development of the rubric and project criteria so they may feel a deeper understanding of the project expectations.

When students know what’s expected of them, they’re more likely to succeed.

A simple example of project-based learning

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The PBL process is straightforward.

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

In social studies, for example, 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.

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, examples of project-based learning depend on yourself and your students. As John Dewey famously wrote in My Pedagogic Creed:

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.

10 Project-based learning ideas your class will love

As you can see, it’s not always easy to come up with a “project” that meets these requirements. Ideating a driving question into meaningful learning experiences that have real-world applications is no small task. 

But that’s what we’re here to help with. Below are 10 of our ideas to inspire your project-based learning exercises.

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

Elementary students gather around a laptop during class.

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.

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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?

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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 hierarchy of needs; an analysis of the elements borrowed from other ancient civilizations; a visual depiction of the society and more.

6. Where it comes from

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

The exercise starts with 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

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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 examples of how and when it is used in the given career.  

10. The economics of pizza

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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.

Notable examples of project-based learning

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Your inspiration doesn’t have to be limited to isolated activities like the ones above! There are many notable examples of project-based learning initiatives.

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

1. 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.

The projects are rooted in the cultures and environments surrounding the students.

2. 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.

3. EdVisions

A non-profit organization, EdVisions’ mission is “to help create 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.

However, educators are still asking some important questions...

With such complex demands in today’s educational system, educators worldwide are asking if elementary students can effectively complete research projects?

Will they still meet required learning objectives with the teacher serving as a guide instead of teaching the curriculum in a direct, traditional manner?

The project-based learning ideas above can be incredibly useful in the right setting and with the right students. However, there are some perceived benefits and disadvantages worth outlining.

Benefits and disadvantages of project-based learning

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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.

Key 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 and technology tools. For example, independent research is likely rooted in online searches. EdTech, on the other hand, can lend itself to creating and delivering artifacts.

Disadvantages 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 that 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.

A quality project will both engage students’ interests and align with what’s being taught, so keep that in mind for the most successful outcome. 

Final thoughts on building PBL exercises

After going through this, you should have a better understanding of project-based learning as a pedagogy, as well as how to create a project design and launch it.

Just remember that the teaching method 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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