What is Project-Based Learning?

Project-Based Learning (PBL) is an innovative, systematic teaching method that promotes student engagement through deep investigations of complex questions. Put simply: It’s learning by doing.

At its best, the PBL focuses on imparting specific knowledge and skills while inspiring students to question actively, think critically, and draw connections between their studies and the real world.

The PBL Model

PBL can vary from one school to another, and even from one project to another. Its defining characteristics, however, remain constant. The PBL model:

  • Is organized around an open-ended driving question or challenge
  • Integrates essential abstract academic content and skills into the project development
  • Requires inquiry to learn or create something new
  • Requires critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, and communication (a group often called "21st-century skills")
  • Allows student voice and choice
  • Incorporates feedback and revision
  • Results in a presentation of the problem definition, process, and final project

Benefits of PBL

School can, at times, seem boring to many learners; PBL counters this reaction by actively engaging students and encouraging their creativity. It revitalizes the classroom culture, enabling educators to rediscover the joy of learning alongside their students.

The experience of questioning, making mistakes, and pursuing inquiries in an organized, guided process makes PBL different from traditional teaching methods. As ArchForKids Co-Founder Karen Orloff explains, “From the first day of the project, the kids become more receptive to challenges. They are more open to looking at mistakes as positive things as opposed to negative ones.”

PBL also provides opportunities for students who are not high academic achievers to become team leaders. This shift in typical classroom dynamics is important for kids who have fallen into set social roles — the prankster, the brain, the pet — and gives the entire classroom community a chance to learn from one another in new and unanticipated ways.

PBL is an effective teaching method, arguably more so than traditional practices. An analysis conducted by Purdue University found that PBL can increase long-term retention of learning material and improve teachers' and students' attitudes toward learning. One explanation that researchers suggest is that both educators and learners are more actively engaged with the subject material.

Challenges of PBL

To prevent PBL from becoming disorganized or a less-than-rigorous activity, its implementation must include detailed guidelines and measures of efficacy. Educators need to design project plans that outline key content areas; they also need to create schedules that are structured but allow for flexibility. Teachers need defined benchmarks and methodologies that will serve to evaluate in-progress goals as well as the final results.

The wide array and variety of PBL choices can be challenging for many teachers. Projects vary in content and skill level, structure, duration, topic, and educator involvement. In some schools, project-based learning drives the entire curriculum, while in others, educators may choose to implement just a couple of hands-on projects each year — or none at all. PBL can involve the entire class, or it can be undertaken individually or by small groups.

Another common issue that teachers using PBL face is social loafing — i.e., when some team members don’t pull their weight, or when the standards of the group are lowered to maintain a friendly atmosphere. Because educators often only evaluate the finished product, they may overlook the social dynamics of the group. To avoid this pitfall, teachers must actively monitor the distribution and execution of work among team members.

Educator Anne Shaw recommends an organizational strategy known as “expert groups,” wherein each team member is assigned or chooses an expert role and is responsible for researching her particular topic. For example, a PBL project on environmental issues could be divided into four different expert groups — air, land, water, and human impact. By holding each student accountable for researching a specific topic, teachers can intervene early with those who are not contributing fully.

ArchForKids uses a similar strategy to alter imbalanced group dynamics. As our projects are grounded in architecture, we often assign each child real-life roles so everyone has a job. As Karen Orloff explains, “Each student has a title with her own responsibilities. There is an architect, a designer, an engineer, a contractor, a surveyor.” This structure mirrors that of an architectural team and ties academic content to real-world roles.

Project-based learning activities should always culminate in a final product. There should be a sense of finality in the overall unit of study — students need to be motivated to complete their work and to answer essential questions. A public audience — their classmates, guest experts, or family members — offers an opportunity for teams to present their work, describe the challenges they faced, explain the decisions they made, and answer questions posed to them. Such experiences provide students with further instances of real-world applications of their work and prepare them for the demands of higher education and today’s workplace.

That said, the final project should not overshadow the essential questions and learning that occur throughout the process. Unless educators create engaging, ongoing activities that assess student achievement along the way, they risk students becoming more involved in creating the final poster or model than in understanding the concepts that underpin it.

PBL Through the Grades

All learners benefit from the creative thinking that PBL involves, whether they are elementary schoolers in an after-school program or biologists in grad school. PBL can draw on subject areas as diverse as architecture, literature, environmental science, or history; it can be multidisciplinary or single-subject.

Here are a few sample projects:

For elementary schoolers:

A class of first-graders is studying how New York City has evolved. The project asks students to investigate modes of transportation over the past four centuries. Students create a timeline showing the various transportation methods throughout a series of eras, and they make a 3-D model of a particular mode of transportation.

For middle schoolers:

A group of eighth-graders is studying earth science. They are given a project to design a sustainable dream house for a particular climate and setting. They must incorporate what they have learned about climate, topography, and geology as they design their sustainable houses, as well as apply math concepts as they calculate the dimensions of their scaled models.

For high schoolers:

In ArchForKids’ Chair Masters Design Studio, an afterschool program for high schoolers, students learn the fundamentals of structure, the properties of various building materials, the difference between strength and stability, and the effects of force on the components of their project. They use the Design Process — identifying a challenge, theorizing solutions, designing and testing a product, iterating on its successes or failures, and presenting a final work — to design and build life-sized cardboard chairs that hold the weight of an adult.

The Long-Term Effects

At the college and graduate levels, critical thinking is paramount. This is an essential outcome of PBL — students should go beyond rote memorization and pose questions, propose and test solutions, and argue persuasively for their choices.

PBL marries the practical application of abstract academic concepts to critical 21st-century workplace values. Students assume collaborative responsibilities as they work in teams to address identified needs. They learn empathy, passion, compassion, and resiliency. They create products together, and in so doing they benefit themselves, their teacher, their classroom, and their larger community.

Follow this link for further reading from ArchForKids about "STEAM" education and the importance of critical thinking.


21st Century Skills. (2014, September 15). Retrieved March 4, 2015, from The Glossary of Education Reform.

Lee, H., & Lim, C. (2012). Peer Evaluation in Blended Team Project-Based Learning: What Do Students Find Important? Journal: Educational Technology & Society, 15(4), 214–224.

Sawyer, R. (Ed.). (2005). The Cambridge Handbook of The Learning Sciences. The Cambridge University Press.

Shaw, A. (n.d.). 21st Century Schools. Retrieved February 10, 2015, from 21st Century Schools.

Strobel, J., & Van Barneveld, A. (2009). When is PBL More Effective? A Meta-synthesis of Meta-analyses Comparing PBL to Conventional Classrooms. The Interdisciplinary Journal of PROBLEM-BASED Learning, 3(1). Retrieved February 1, 2015, from Purdue.