Project-Based Learning / Challenge Based Learning

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Research, Theory, and Practice

Research --|-- Attributes --|-- Types of PBL --|-- Getting Started --|-- Resources Page


Starting Points

Background and Influences on PBL

  • Problem-based learning approach in Canadian medical education
  • Outward Bound wilderness expeditions
  • University-based research in cognition and cognitive science
    • Radical reorganization of knowledge
      • Piaget's accommodation
      • Schema theorists' restructuring

Project-Based Learning in the News

Pennsylvania Department of Education's Classrooms for the Future Initiative

21st Century Learning, NETS, and PBL

What is Project-Based Learning?

  • "A systematic teaching method that engages students in learning knowledge and skills through an extended inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed products and tasks." Project Based Learning Handbook, 2nd Edition, BIE, 2003

Overview Video Clips -- from Edutopia (9 minutes) -- from Edutopia (4:35 minutes)
Flickr: Reinventing Project-Based Learning Group Pool of Photos --

Intro --|-- Attributes --|-- Types of PBL --|-- Getting Started --|-- Resources Page --|-- Go to Top of page...


Research in higher education applications

(from Gijbels, Dochy, Van den Bossche, & Segers as reported in Marzano)
  • Strong effects on understanding of principles
  • Moderate effects on applying knowledge to new situations
  • Weak, but positive, effects on ability to produce examples (lower level, factual knowledge)

Research in K-12 applications

(reported in Marzano)
  • Initial positive results on generating and testing hypostheses
  • Strong effects involving activities designed to produce cognitive dissonance to challenge and stimulate student thinking
  • Moderate effects from discussions regarding a central question


Intro --|-- Research --|-- Types of PBL --|-- Getting Started --|-- Resources Page --|-- Go to Top of page...


Attributes of Exemplary PBL

  • Centrality to the Curriculum (Core Concepts and Skills)
    • Engages students in core concepts and principles of one or more disciplines (BIE)
  • Driving Questions
    • Essential, driving questions leading students to generate and test hypotheses (BIE, Marzano)
  • Constructive Investigations
    • Multiple, authentic products or presentations with frequent feedback and opportunities to revise and extending learning (BIE, Moursund)
    • Specify complex tasks and products that solve problems, explain dilemmas, or present conclusions including defense of reasoning (BIE, Marzano)
    • Involves transformation and constructionof new knowledge and/or skills (Marzano)
      • accommodation (Piaget)
      • restructuring (Schema theorists)
  • Autonomy
    • Student responsibility for some degree of autonomous learning and productivity over time (Moursund, BIE)
    • Taps students' curiosity and natural desire to learn; puts them in the center of the learning process (BIE)
    • Some form of collaboration or team work toward a common goal (BIE, Moursund, Marzano)
  • Realism
    • Requires use of essential tools and skills of discipline(s) and technology (BIE, Moursund)
    • Performance-based assessments demanding rigor and a range of knowledge and skills (BIE, Marzano)
    • Solutions to problems have the potential for implementation

PBL from Student perspective

  • Learner Centered, Intrinsically Motivating
  • Collaboration and Cooperative Learning
  • Incremental and Continual Improvement
  • Active Engagement
  • Product, Presentation, and/or Performance
  • Challenging; Focus on Higher-Order Skills

PBL from Teacher perspective

  • Authentic Content and Purpose
  • Authentic Assessment
  • Teacher as Facilitator; Teacher as Learner
  • Explicit Educational Goals
  • Rooted in Constructivism, but Multiple Methods Used
  • Facilitates Transfer of Learning

Intro --|-- Research --|-- Attributes --|-- Getting Started --|-- Resources Page --|-- Go to Top of page...

Types of Projects

Experimental Inquiry

  • Observe a phenomenon
  • Make an informed hypothesis (why or how it happened)
  • Design experiment
  • Test prediction


  • Need to overcome obstacles or restraints posed by problem
  • Evaluate potential solutions
  • Determine course of action to solve problem


  • What are the alternatives?
  • Define criteria
  • Apply weight to various criteria
  • Determine best choice or selection


  • Historical
    • What really happened?
    • What could have happened? (consistent with historical record)
  • Projective
    • What if?
    • What might have happened? What could happen?
  • Definitional
    • What is the nature of ?
    • What defines ?

Systems Analysis

  • Consider the parts of a system
  • Predict impact if one or more parts were altered or removed
  • Research and defend conclusions


  • Identify a need
  • Develop potential solutions
  • Design
  • Test or evaluate probable success

Distinction between Project-Based Learning and Activity-Based Projects

21st Century Skills and PBL

Intro --|-- Research --|-- Attributes --|-- Types of PBL --|-- Resources Page --|-- Go to Top of page...

Getting Started

Designing Your Project

Start Small, Keep the Stakes Manageable, and Build on Success

Action Steps

  • Teach students about effective support for reasoning
    • Goal: Avoid faulty reasoning and conclusions
    • Valid conclusions involve
      • support (grounds) with appropriate evidence
      • explanation (backing) of evidence and relevancy
      • identification of exceptions or variance (qualifiers)
  • Have students generate and test hypotheses through experimental inquiry
    • Observe physical or psychological phenomena
    • Make hypotheses
    • Design experiment or method of data collection to test
    • Collect data
    • Analyze and discuss results
    • Reflect on changes in thinking from original hypothesis
  • Have students generate and test hypotheses through problem-solving
    • Constraints to achieving a goal
    • Determine action/response (hypothesize results)
    • Test action/responses (actual or simulation)
    • Analyze results for effectiveness
    • Discuss results and reflect on predicted strategy
  • Have students generate and test hypotheses through decision-making
    • Situation requiring decision from set of alternatives
    • Hypothesize best selection/decisions
    • Determine or research appropriate criteria
    • Apply criteria
    • Reflect, analyze, discuss and support conclusions
  • Have students generate and test hypotheses through investigations
    • Three types (could occur in past, present, or future)
      • Historical - What really happened? why?
      • Projective - What if?
      • Definitional - What is the essence of _?
    • Start with the questions; the hypothesis represents proposed answer
    • Test via research
    • Discussion and support are critical
  • Have students generate and test hypotheses through student-determined problems/tasks
    • Requires prior scaffolding through teacher-designed PBL
    • Greater student engagement and effort expected
  • Use cooperative learning groups
    • PBL lends itself to small group work
    • Research and data collection are more efficient and productive in teams
    • Mirrors real world work patterns
    • Still requires individual work and responsibility

Generic Project Templates

Intro --|-- Research --|-- Attributes --|-- Types of PBL --|-- Getting Started --|-- Resources Page --|-- Go to Top of page...