How does PBL compare with other instructional approaches?
Definition of Project Based Learning and Inquiry
Inquiry" is defined as "a seeking for truth, information, or knowledge -- seeking information by
questioning." Individuals carry on the process of inquiry from the time they are born until they
die. This is true even though they might not reflect upon the process. Infants begin to make sense
of the world by inquiring. From birth, babies observe faces that come near, they grasp objects,
they put things in their mouths, and they turn toward voices. The process of inquiring begins
with gathering information and data through applying the human senses -- seeing, hearing,
touching, tasting, and smelling.
Project Based Learning is an innovative model for teaching and learning. It focuses on the
central concepts and principles of a discipline, involves students in problem-solving
investigations and other meaningful tasks, allows students to work autonomously to construct
their own knowledge, and culminates in realistic products.
Differences from Traditional Instruction, PBL and I-Search
Educational Traditional Project/Problem I-Search
Features Instruction Inquiry Based
Focus of Content Depth of Depth of understanding
Curriculum coverage understanding Teacher and student directed
Teacher directed Teacher and student Comprehension of concepts
Knowledge of directed and principles
facts Comprehension of Development of problem
Learning concepts and solving skills in groups
“building- principles Extension of Classroom
block” skills in Development of Learning
isolation problem solving
skills in groups
Scope and Follows Fixed Follows student Follows student interest
Sequence Curriculum Interest Large units composed of
Proceeds block Large units composed complex problems or issues
by block, unit by of complex problems Broad, interdisciplinary
unit or issues focus
Narrow, Broad, Builds on earlier learning
Teaching Lecturer and Resource provider Resource provider and
Role director of and participant in participant in learning
instruction learning activities activities
Expert Advisor/colleague Advisor/colleague/Leader
Focus of Products Process and products Process and products
Assessment Test Scores Tangible Tangible accomplishment
Comparison with accomplishment Criterion performances and
others Criterion gains over time
Reproduction of performances and Demonstration of
information gains over time understanding
Demonstration of Extension of reading,
understanding writing, and thinking
Materials of Texts, lectures, Direct or original Direct or original sources:
Instruction and sources: printed printed materials, interviews,
presentations materials, interviews, documents, and others
Teacher- documents, and Data material developed by
developed others students
exercise sheets Data material Analysis of data
and activities developed by
Use of Ancillary, Central, integral Directed by students
Technology peripherals Directed by students Useful for enhancing student
Administered by Useful for enhancing presentations or amplifying
teachers student presentations student capabilities
Useful for or amplifying student
Classroom Students Students working in Students working in groups
Context working alone groups Students collaborating with
Students Students one another (not always)
competing with collaborating with Students constructing,
one another one another contributing, and
Students Students synthesizing information
information from contributing, and
an instructor synthesizing
Student Role Carry out Carry out self- Carry out self-directed
instructions directed learning inquires
Memorizer and activities Writer and researcher of new
repeater of facts Discoverer, ideas
Students receive integrator, and Students define their own
and complete presenter of ideas tasks and work
brief tasks Students define their independently for large
Listen, behave, own tasks and work blocks of time
speak only when independently for Communicate, show affect,
spoken to large blocks of time produce, take responsibility
affect, produce, take
Short-Term Knowledge of Understanding and Understanding and
Goals facts, terms application of application of complex ideas
content complex ideas and and processes
Mastery of processes Mastery of integrated skills
isolated skills Mastery of integrated
Long-Range Breadth of Depth of knowledge Depth of knowledge
Goals knowledge Graduates who have Graduates who have the
Graduates who the dispositions and dispositions and skills to
have the skills to engage in engage in sustained,
knowledge to sustained, autonomous, life long
perform autonomous, life long learning
successfully on learning Increase level of writing skill
Changes in Instructional Practices
With increased use of Project/Problem based inquiry learning and I-Search most teachers experience:
More coaching and modeling
Less telling, more discovery
Creating purpose beyond just “a grade”
More student directed
More learning than provided by the textbook
More finding out (along with the students)
Less knowing for certain; less being the expert
More cross-disciplinary thinking
Less privacy and isolation
More use of multiple and primary sources
Less reliance on secondary sources
Increased student interest and involvement
Development of reading, writing and thinking skills
Less paper and pencil testing
More alternative and performance-based assessment
More multi-dimensional assessment
More varied materials and media
Getting Started, where do you want to begin?
Planning a project takes time and thought. Implementing a project is difficult,
especially the first few times. For that reason, experienced teachers suggest
starting small. You can always add to the project, but once the project is rolling
along, it is difficult to reel back in.
Pilot Project Ambitious Project
Duration 5-10 Days Most of the semester
Breadth One Topic Multiple disciplines multiple standards
Technology Limited Extensive
Outreach Classroom-based Community-based
Partnership One Teacher Multiple teachers and community
How Much Autonomy Is Best For Your Students
Student Autonomy is one of the hallmarks of project/problem based learning. Still
most teachers introduce student autonomy in stages, depending on students’ age
and experience. Before planning a project, think about how much you want your
students to be involved in its design and how much autonomy they will have in
carrying out projects activities.
Project Design and Control
Limited Student Input Maximum Student Input
Teacher Selects Topic Teacher solicits student Student select topic
Teacher defines learning Teacher and student Student define learning outcomes
outcomes negotiate learning outcomes
Limited Student Autonomy Maximum Student Autonomy
Teacher defines products Teacher solicits student Student define products and activities
and activities input
Teacher controls timeline Teacher and students Students determine timeline and pace of
and pace of project negotiate timeline and pace project
Benefits Described by Teachers
The following statements are paraphrased from those -voiced by elementary and middle-school teachers in the
Ross Valley School District in California.
1. Student enthusiasm - students can't be dragged away from working on the project.
2. Student autonomy - they seem to shine whenever they are given real responsibility and
3. Realistic self assessment is very meaningful to students - especially when their performance is
evaluated in terms of results or the reactions of the public.
4. There are miracles - students who are withdrawn or sullen begin to participate, slowly at first, then
with great enthusiasm.
5. It's a leveler for special needs kids - they begin to participate, and other students begin to rely on
6. Adolescents' off-task behavior sometimes drops to next to nothing.
7. Students' interest and self confidence carries over to other activities.
8. The element of risk taking pays dividends in heightened student feelings of self-worth.
9. It results in increased respect and understanding of others' viewpoints.
10. Students become more connected to the community and more aware that they can
make a difference.
General Benefits described by Students, Teachers, and Researchers
Benefits Described by Students
The following statements are paraphrased from those voiced by elementary and middle-school students in the Ross
Valley School District in California.
1. We got to choose what to work on.
2. We learned that we can make a difference.
3. There was a clear goal that was a challenge to work
4. There was an audience for the product and we knew we had to meet the deadline and present it to the
5. We weren't afraid to try things we didn't know because the teacher said we could do things over until
we got it right.
6. Everyone felt needed and had a part. Nobody got left out
7. We didn't need to use our texts, and we were actively doing things and learning some thing.
8. We were using skills we knew we would need in our jobs, like using time wisely, exercising responsibility,
and not letting the group down.
9. We learned that when the real world is the source of evaluation, you had better have your act together.
Barriers Described by Teachers
The following statements are paraphrased from those voiced by elementary and middle school teachers
in the Ross Valley School District in California.
It takes a lot of preparation time
We don't have the resources.
We lack administrative support and support from other teachers,
There's a mandate to cover the curriculum
The District focuses on learning the basics and on boosting standardized test scores.
Project goals do not match goals associated with standardized achievement tests
It is difficult to communicate to parents just what students are doing and learning
It's cumbersome to use Project Based Learning in large classrooms or with younger
Boys are less willing than girls to talk freely in groups.
Girls are less willing than boys to take charge of building products.
Students, especially younger students, can get lost in the doing of the project and forget
the project's purpose.
It is difficult to have long-duration projects with very young students
It is difficult to define goals for a project
Valid assessment is complex and difficult.
It is difficult to match assessment strategies and learning goals.
Unless learning goals are clear, it is impossible to hold students and teachers accountable
Risks Described by Teachers
The following statements are paraphrased from those voiced by elementary and middle-school teachers
in the Ross Valley School District in California.
You fear making mistakes or feeling stupid,
You often feel uneasy because you're not knowledgeable about the content,
The open-ended, no-right-answers aspect of project work can be threatening.
You are vulnerable to the criticisms of parents and the community.
When you work on projects alone, you feel isolated from other teachers.
Administrators can fault you for not covering the curriculum.
There are risks associated with giving up control-students may not participate, students
can get out of control, students will struggle and fail, students will have difficulty with
higher order thinking or open-ended problems.
There is a risk that students might not learn much, or receive much of value, from Project
Problems Observed by Researchers
Researchers identified seven problem areas in a study of Project Based Learning
1. Time: Investigations and discussions often take longer than anticipated. Also, in-depth exploration of ideas
takes longer than the more familiar broad and superficial survey of concepts.
2. Meeting curriculum guidelines: Teachers need to select driving questions carefully so that the students
learn the content stipulated in curriculum frameworks.
3. Classroom management: Students need the freedom to talk together about their investigations, but teachers
must maintain order so that students can work productively.
4. Control: Teachers often feel a need to direct lessons to insure that students get the right information.
5. Support of student learning: Teachers frequently give students too much independence without
adequately modeling thinking, structuring the situation, or providing feedback.
6. Technology use: Teachers who have not used technology as a cognitive tool have difficulty incorporating
technology into the classroom.
7. Assessment: Teachers have difficulty designing assessments that tap student understanding. The artifacts
they ask students to produce do not always require students to synthesize information or generate new
conceptual representations. Moreover, evaluating the artifacts is difficult.
Cover the basics first. It is usually better to make sure that students learn the basic content and fundamental
skills in more traditional ways before embarking on solving a problem. Students' ignorance of fundamental
concepts or their misconceptions may interfere with their ability to understand or benefit from information
accessed during Project Based Learning activities.
Don't let the activity drive the instructional content. Let the instructional content drive the activity. It can be
compelling to have an interesting activity idea and then try to "shoehorn" in content from the curriculum.
However, it is far better to start with the content, i.e., powerful, central ideas or complex concepts, then plan
activities around this content in such a way that the challenge associated with the project is in discovering and
using subject-matter principles.
Don't justify a project solely on the grounds that students are exercising their minds. There is sometimes
a tendency to endorse the use of Project Based Learning because project work and the thinking that goes into
the work appear to be intrinsically "higher order." Students will not learn new skills from Project Based
Learning unless they are challenged to do so by the conditions of the project. The tasks, behaviors, or requirements of
the project should prompt students to develop new skills or construct new knowledge.
Don't be overconfident in the role that Project Based Learning can play. Project Based Learning has
many benefits, but one of them is not its efficiency in teaching students the basic skills of decoding, writing,
and computation. Although teachers might be tempted to eliminate or curtail math instruction because they
have built math into their projects, this is generally not advisable. Most Project Based Learning activities
emphasize the application of already learned skills, rather than the introduction and practice of new skills.
Don't rely on technology merely because it's available or fun. Tools such as computer programs, using
the Internet, or running a VCR camera can provide motivating and interesting activities, but may have
minimal educational value. Technological tools can supplement Project Based Learning, but they should
rarely be the central focus of the project.
Beware of bells and whistles. Often, the project is provocative and/or the technological tool to be used is
compelling, but the driving question behind the project does not have meaningful ties to the curriculum or to
the performance standards that students must achieve. Alternatively, a central activity with a certain amount of
provocative attraction (e.g., videotaping) deflects the focus of the project (and sometimes, an enormous amount
of time) from the main ideas.
Designing effective projects means balancing the novel challenge (the compelling project idea) with
educational richness so that in seeking answers to the challenge, students must gain understanding of
significant subject matter concepts.
Don't dumb down the task. To create a project where every student can perform every task will require
limiting project demands to those that can be met by the least able student. Such dumbing down of the task can
limit the challenge of the project, restrict the range of learning that might emerge, and shortcut the possibility
that less able students might learn from their more able peers. It is probably advisable to let students set their
own limits and challenges.
Beware of trivial activities. Activities play a key role in Project Based Learning. Thus, activities should be
selected that require students to integrate information and use complex thought. For example, given a driving
question related to the challenge of producing energy saving electric vehicles, students who decide to produce
drawings of futuristic automobiles may not be benefiting from the, project as much as students who develop a
comparison chart on the workability of different kinds of electric vehicles.
Beware of the time it takes to get up to speed with technology. The decision to use a database program to
investigate a science topic, for example, may cost weeks of training time as teachers and students struggle to
make-sense of the manual and learn the program.
Be wary of dividing student labor. When there are central ideas that everyone should understand, or critical
skills that everyone should obtain, division of labor can lead to differential learning and differential
commitment to the task. Division of labor can also lead to disappointment when the primary or more
interesting tasks are snatched up by a few.
Don't underestimate the importance of metacognitive (task- and self-management) skills. As Blumenfeld
and her colleagues noted, "As the number of ideas to consider or the number of procedures that need to be
followed increases, students may need to stay organized, track their progress, and maintain a focus on the
problem rather than get confused by its elements" (1991).
Don't sacrifice breadth of content for depth of learning. Good Project Based Learning activities should
include an in-depth examination of critical issues and principles while also requiring students to learn
substantial material in the service of applying these central issues and principles.
Beware of hands on projects that leave minds off. According to Duit, "Student experiments are given an
especially high status in science instruction because students may be active and carry out their own
investigation: But it is necessary to be cautious concerning the idea of students being active. The activity has to
be in the head of the students acquiring scientific knowledge. Student experiments often are not effective. This
is demonstrated by studies in which the students who carried out experiments were observed and interviewed. It
became apparent that students usually seem not to have a clear understanding of why they are carrying out the
experiment and what they are investigating" (1995).
Don't use a fuzzy rubric. The result of using many rubrics is ultimately similar to assigning letter grades. As
an example, let's say you score a student research report, using the rubric dimension, "Understanding the
concepts." This dimension is divided into five levels: (1) little, (2) partial, (3) basic, (4) clear, and (5) in depth.
Thus, you might assign a 5 for student work that demonstrates in-depth understanding of the concepts covered.
Unless you are able to define specifically how a 5 is different from a 4 on-the dimension of understanding
concepts, the assignment of scores does not differ at all from the traditional assignment of grades to written
Misplaced emphasis - Adding an additional dimension to the rubric-for example, neatness of work, allows
for multi-dimensional scoring, which seems to make inherent sense. Yet, if the purpose of a project was to
teach subject matter concepts, the addition of dimensions relating to organization, labeling, graphics, etc.,
can dilute the importance of the "understanding the concepts" dimension. Better to break down the central
content dimension into discrete, easily communicated, sub-dimensions.
Don't avoid evaluating the more intangible parts of the project. In evaluating students on their work, it is
easy to emphasize the final products or presentations. Yet, the real learning is often in the doing or in the
process leading up to the product. Some ingenuity is required to evaluate the intangibles of Project Based
Don't overemphasize the completion of workable products. It is easy to put too much emphasis on whether
the final design works. Students presenting a product that fails to work may still have learned the central
principles, especially if they can describe why their product does not work and what is needed to correct it.
These students have accomplished the real objectives of the Project Based Learning activity.