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Project Based Learning

What is Project Based Learning?

Project Based Learning (PBL) is an inquiry-based teaching strategy that allows students to learn knowledge and skills through an authentic disciplinary problem (Helle et al., 2006; Lee et al., 2013). 

PBL Characteristics:

  • Content embedded and applied
  • Central driving question
  • Student choice and autonomy
  • Self-direction
  • Active construction of knowledge
  • Collaboration
  • Connections outside of academia 
  • Ongoing assessment, feedback, and revision

What Makes Project Based Learning Different?

Many courses incorporate projects, but this is not necessarily the same as Project Based Learning. Think about why the students are doing the project. Is the project a way to show what they have learned (traditional projects), or are they actively constructing their own learning through the project (PBL)?

Traditional Projects vs. PBL 

Traditional Projects...

  • May be short- or long-term
  • Instructor pre-plans processes and outcomes
  • Instructors provide directions and students follow them
  • Usually one final grade which students can't revise, based only on the product
  • Handed in to instructor
  • Producing a product is a way to display knowledge


  • Lasts for an extended time
  • Students determine processes and outcomes
  • Instructors guide while students act in authentic disciplinary roles
  • Multiple grades allow for feedback and revision/growth on both process and product
  • Connected to outside world
  • Producing a product helps construct knowledge

Benefits of PBL

PBL has many  benefits, including:

  • Increased student interest and engagement
  • More sophisticated content knowledge (Barak & Dori, 2005), including:
    • Longer retention
    • Better transfer
    • Higher level understanding
  • Better preparation students for the workplace (Jollands et al., 2012; Wurdinger & Qureshi, 2014), including:
    • Connections
    • Emphasis on skills that employers value such as responsibility, problem-solving, self-direction, communication, creativity, project management, time management, confidence, and systems thinking

Steps to Design a PBL Course

To design a course within a PBL framework, consider these steps:

  1. Consider desired learning outcomes. Take into account both content and process goals. For example, do you want students to build communication and collaboration skills?
  2. Brainstorm possible problems/projects. Consider the types of projects that professionals in the field might undertake. If possible, reach out to community organizations and consider what projects might benefit them. Make sure the project is ill-defined: tit is a complex problem with no right or wrong answer.
  3. Think through the steps you or another professional would undertake to complete the project from start to finish.
  4. Consider what content and process knowledge students will need to be able to follow those steps to successfully complete the project.
    • Content knowledge: What lectures will you give? Will you utilize guest lecturers from the discipline? What readings will students need? What other resources can they utilize? Are they capable of seeking out resources or will you provide them?
    • Process knowledge: How will you facilitate effective group work, if applicable? How will you model, teach, and provide feedback on elements or phases of the project such as proposals, literature reviews, blueprints, presentations, etc.?
  5. Decide what assignments you will assign and how you will allocate points for each. Start with low-stakes assignments as students are building proficiency. Provide many opportunities for feedback and revision, including peer revision.
  6. Schedule when students will finish each phase of the project. Keep in mind that students are not professionals and they will take longer and need more support than you would. Schedule in lectures, readings, assignments, work time, etc. based on this timeline.
  7. Consult with pedagogy experts from the Teaching and Learning Transformation Center as necessary to get instructional design support.

View PBL Workshop Slides (designed for an engineering department)


Barak, M. & Dori, Y. J. (2005). Enhancing undergraduate students’ chemistry understanding through project-based learning in an IT environment. Science Education, 89(1), 117-139.

Helle, L., Tynjälä, P., & Olkinuora, E. (2006). Project-based learning in post-secondary education: Theory, practice, and rubber sling shots. Higher Education, 51(2), 287-314.

Jollands, M., Jolly, L., & Molyneaux, T. (2012). Project-based learning as a contributing factor to graduates’ work readiness. European Journal of Engineering Education, 37(2), 143-154.

Lee, J. S., Blackwell, S., Drake, J., & Moran, K. A. (2013). Taking a leap of faith: Redefining teaching and learning in higher education through project-based learning. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning, 8(2).

Wurdinger, S. & Qureshi, M. (2015). Enhancing college students’ life skills through project based learning. Innovative Higher Education, 40(3), 279-286.

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