Getting Started with Project-Based Learning
Project-based learning (PBL) actively involves students in their learning and prepares them for the world beyond the classroom. It is a dynamic approach to teaching in which instructors play an important role in structuring the learning experience, guiding students as they work to find solutions to complex interdisciplinary problems in collaboration with diverse peers, and developing skills and acquiring knowledge throughout the process.
This resource offers an introductory overview of PBL, including the key features and questions for reflection as instructors develop their project-based teaching practices.
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What is PBL?
Project-Based Learning (PBL) is “a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge” (PBLWorks). PBL is often thought of as a valuable framework for capstone courses, in which students demonstrate the knowledge and skills they developed through their coursework; however, PBL can also be effective in courses throughout students’ academic careers, including as early as the first year (Wobbe and Stoddard, 2019).
PBL is distinct from assigning a project in a course: Assigned projects tend to be short-term, occurring after an instructor has covered the content of a unit of study, are focused on the product that students deliver (often individually), and are a summative assessment. In contrast, for PBL, the project serves as the “vehicle for teaching the important knowledge and skills students need to learn”; the project frames curriculum and instruction (What is Project-Based Learning). PBL is driven by student inquiry, and involves collaboration with peers and in-class guidance from the instructor. There is emphasis placed on the project process, not just a final deliverable; this emphasis helps provide students with a formative assessment experience, where the learning and feedback happen throughout the project. For more, see the Framework for High Quality Project Based Learning, which includes six elements of effective PBL as identified by High Quality PBL (HQPBL), an organization of international educational experts.
PBL connects theory to practice and engages students in direct action: With PBL, students are asked to think deeply and critically about a complex problem, question, or issue that does not have a single answer. Over the course of the project, students engage with and learn more about important content, concepts, and skills. As students work through these real-world problems that are meaningful and relevant to their lives and futures, and develop possible solutions, PBL helps them take more ownership and responsibility of their own learning. Students develop transferable skills such as critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, project management, communication, and problem-solving. They build their confidence in their abilities and “the personal agency needed to tackle life’s and the world’s challenges” (HQPBL Framework, 2). Research has also shown that PBL can result in “greater student learning gains,” particularly for students from underrepresented groups (PBL in Higher Education).
PBL is learner-centered and guided by instructors: PBL requires rethinking more traditional classroom approaches as students become more active and participatory learners. In PBL, students drive the inquiry and discovery while instructors serve as guides or mentors. By designing, planning, and implementing a PBL curriculum, instructors engage students and coach them through the PBL process. Instructors help students identify their needs and access resources to address potential gaps. Instructors also play an important role in helping students develop collaboration and project management skills, which are critical to students’ success in PBL.
Developing Your Project-Based Teaching Practices
You, the instructor, play a critical role in ensuring effective PBL. This section is structured around the Gold Standard Project Based Teaching Practices from PBLWorks, and includes questions for you to reflect on as you develop your approach.
Design for authenticity and agency: With consideration of your course context, the course learning objectives, and the needs of your students, what project could you have students work on throughout the course? What room will there be for student voice, choice, and input in the project? Who is the audience for the final deliverable? How will you communicate this to your students?
Build the culture for collaboration: For many students, a PBL approach could be new and their past experiences working in groups may be fraught. The expectation of PBL is that each individual student will contribute to all aspects of the project and will respect and learn from each other’s contributions. How might you work with your students to establish expectations and build class community? How will you support student collaborations?
Scaffold student learning: Instructors scaffold project elements and subtasks to help students build upon the work they’re doing. How will you guide students toward the culminating project? How might students take on greater responsibility over the course of the project?
Manage teams and project activities: While students are expected to take ownership of their projects and their work, and learn to use the processes, tools, and strategies of project management, instructors help students as they work collaboratively and define and set project deadlines and subtasks. How will you help your students develop collaboration and project management skills?
Provide feedback: Instructors provide students with feedback on their progress throughout the course of a project. What opportunities will there be for ongoing formative feedback (e.g., written feedback, check-in meetings, facilitating peer- or self-assessment activities)? How might students and external stakeholders be part of this feedback process?
Create opportunities for reflection: Students engage in ongoing reflection on their learning and progress throughout the project. How might students be encouraged to think about what they are doing, assess the quality of their work, and identify ways to improve?
Showcase student work: An important feature of PBL is students having an opportunity to showcase their work. How might you create opportunities for the showcase of student work? Are there campus-wide initiatives you might encourage students to participate in? What kinds of in-class activities or opportunities might you offer for students?
Collect feedback: Just as it’s important for instructors to provide students with feedback throughout the process, it’s equally important to collect feedback from students. How might you invite feedback from students throughout the process? What opportunities will you create for responding to and implementing feedback in the moment? How might you consider this feedback in future course iterations?
The CTL is here to help!
Whether you are trying to determine if PBL makes sense for your course, looking for feedback on your PBL practices, or beginning the process of implementation, the CTL is here to help! Email CTLFaculty@columbia.edu to schedule a 1-1 consultation.
References and Resources
PBL in Action Resources
Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s (WPI) Center for Project Based Learning, launched in 2016, published a series of research briefs around PBL in specific contexts. These briefs offer an introduction, overview of related research, and specific case studies of PBL within the particular discipline or context. The case studies offered in each brief can serve as springboards for instructors to think about their own courses, and will require adaptation to be most effective.
Albert, T.C. (2019, May 22). Successful project-based learning. Harvard Business Publishing Education.
Albert, T.C. & Rennella M. (2021, November 11). Readying students for their careers through project-based learning. Harvard Business Publishing Education.
Boss, S. & Larmer, J. (2018). Project based teaching: How to create rigorous and engaging learning experiences. ASCD.
Center for Project-Based Learning. (2016). Center for project-based learning homepage. Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
Heick, T. (n.d.). What are the greatest myths about project-based learning?. TeachThought.
PBLWorks. (n.d.). Gold standard PBL: Project based teaching practices. PBLWorks.
PBLWorks (n.d.). What is project based learning?. PBLWorks.
TeachThought Staff. (n.d.). What is the difference between projects and PBL?. TeachThought.
Wobbe, K. K., & Stoddard, E. A. (2018). Project-Based Learning in the First Year : Beyond All Expectations. Stylus Publishing.
WPI Institute on Project-Based Learning. (n.d.). PBL in higher education. Worcester Polytechnic Institute.