Project-Based Learning, What Is It?

Project-based learning (PBL) is a model that organizes learning around projects. According to the definitions found in PBL handbooks for teachers, projects are complex tasks, based on challenging questions or problems, that involve students in design, problem-solving, decision making, or investigative activities; give students the opportunity to work relatively autonomously over extended periods of time; and culminate in realistic products or presentations [1]. Accordingly, the way to insure that young children become proficient at inquiry and problem solving is to simulate the conditions under which experts master subject matter and become proficient at conducting investigations (Blumenfeld et al, 1991). This has also led to recommendations for shifting the major portion of instruction in schools from teacher-directed, teacher-assigned “schoolwork” with its emphasis on comprehension, to student-initiated, goal-driven, independent, “intentional learning” models with an emphasis on knowledge building (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1987; Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1991). [2,3] According to research on “situated cognition,” learning is maximized if the context for learning resembles the real-life context in which the to-be-learned material will be used; learning is minimized if the context in which learning occurs is dissimilar to the context in which the learning will be used (Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1989). [4] Additionally, research on contextual factors has led to the recommendation that, to the extent that it is important for students to be able to apply what they learn to solve problems and make decisions, instruction be carried out in a problem-solving context. Learning that occurs in the context of problem solving is more likely to be retained and applied. Such learning is also seen as being more flexible than the inert knowledge that is acquired as a result of more traditional didactic teaching methods (Boaler, 1998b; Bransford, Sherwood, Hasselbring, Kinzer, & Williams, 1990). [5,6]

In my discussions of Project-Based Learning with other faculty members, the questions that always comes up are:

  1. What is Project-Based Learning?
  2. What is the difference between Projects & Project-Based Learning?
  3. I don’t have time to implement PBL (ok, this is a statement, but a very important one)

I think each one of these is important enough to warrant their own posts…stay tuned.


  1. Jones, B. F., Rasmussen, C. M., & Moffitt, M. C. (1997). Real-life problem solving.: A collaborative approach to interdisciplinary learning. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  2. Blumenfeld, P., Soloway, E., Marx, R., Krajcik, J., Guzdial, M., & Palincsar, A. (1991). Motivating project-based learning: Sustaining the doing, supporting the learning. Educational Psychologist, 26 (3&4), 369-398.
  3. Bereiter, C. & Scardamalia, M. (1987). Intentional learning as a goal of instruction. In L. Resnick (Ed.). Motivation, learning and instruction: Essays in honor of Robert Glaser (pp. 361-392). Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  4. Brown, J. S. , Collins, A. & Duguid, P. (1989) Situated cognition of learning. Educational Researcher, 18, 32-42.
  5. Boaler, J. (1998b). Open and closed mathematics: Student experiences and understandings. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 29, 41-62.
  6. Bransford, J. D. Sherwood, R. S., Hasselbring, T. S., Kinzer, C. K. & Williams, S. M (1990). Anchored instruction: Why we need it and how technology can help. In D. Nix & R. Spiro (Eds.). Cognition, education, and multimedia: Exploring ideas in high technology, (pp. 115-141). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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