Increasing Student Engagement with Project-Based Learning

Oct 4, 2018

Project-based learning (PBL) has been taking up a lot of space in educational conversations…and for good reason. Using projects as a means to meet curriculum standards is an evidence-based way to increase students engagement, make connections across disciplines, and get students excited about learning in a way that they’ll remember.

If you’re just getting started with PBL, it’s important to remember that it is an approach, not a curriculum. That means that any discipline at any level can be adapted to fit into a PBL framework.

What is Project-Based Learning?

At its core, PBL relies on real-world problems and giving students the space to work through them. Some key principles of PBL include the following:

  • Student’s work on the project over a period of time.
  • Students demonstrate their learning throughout the project, not just as a summative report at the end.
  • Projects require students to develop their own plans and solutions (as appropriate to their age and abilities) as part of the process.
  • Projects often connect across different subjects and combine multiple standards.
  • Projects often call upon a real-life audience so that students have legitimate considerations about how to best communicate their ideas.

What Does Project-Based Learning Look Like?

There are as many kinds of PBL activities as there are teachers to make them and students to participate in them, but there are definitely some great examples that could help spark your imagination.

  • Design the Perfect Classroom – This group of third and fourth graders looked at the question of how to design the perfect middle school classroom through many lenses. Their project took them through the problems of funding and politics, building materials, and architecture. In the end, they had to present their final projects at an expo.
  • Zombies! – This high school project combined many different STEM concerns with a great zombie apocalypse back story to get students engaged, working together, and backing up their survival plan with research and data.
  • Survive on Mars – These fifth graders had to research and then create a colony using what they learned in order to survive on Mars. The project also required reflective thinking about the quality and safety of the final colony, prompting students to look beyond simple achievement and into the hard work of planning well and improving on what they’ve done.

Why Use Project-Based Learning?

PBL is a great way to make learning relevant, hands-on, and engaging. If you want to give your students lessons that will last beyond a single class period, PBL is a great way to give them something to think about in a deeper, more substantial way. Giving them agency over solving a real-life problem helps them understand the purpose behind their educational pursuits, and it gives them a natural, meaningful drive to learn what they need to learn to accomplish the goals they’ve set for themselves.

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