Project Based Learning: The Possibilities and Pitfalls of a Promising Learning Style

By Anne Jolly


Let’s say that you’ve heard the hype about Project Based Learning (PBL), perhaps tried some PBL ideas you’ve read about, but you haven’t actually put the entire PBL experience into action in your classroom. Now you’ve decided to jump right in – after all, how hard can it be?

Adopting a new way of teaching is seldom easy. Don’t enter the PBL portal without being aware of the reasons for using PBL, what problems you might encounter, and where you can find help.

What are some PBL possibilities?

One of the first questions you probably asked yourself when you began considering PBL is, Why would I do this? Research shows that authentic PBL activities can actively engage your students’ attention, improve their retention, and help them to build habits of lifelong learning. PBL projects involve kids in working together, finding resources, planning solutions, and managing projects themselves with minimal guidance from you. They’ll be learning to think critically and analytically rather than simply memorizing.

PBL can promote deep learning and teach students valuable lessons in interpersonal skills and communication that they can carry into the workforce. Perhaps more importantly, it can give students opportunities to apply learning and skills in real-world scenarios, and even connect them directly with their community.

So far, PBL sounds like an educational panacea – right? But teacher beware! You need to carefully lay some groundwork before jumping into this process.

What about pitfalls?

Despite the potential benefits PBL can bring to your students, implementing PBL can pose challenges. Students can be resistant change and some may actually prefer familiar learning methods associated with traditional teaching. They will need preparation for successful PBL participation including:

  • Coaching in group dynamics and effective teamwork. Simply putting some kids together in a group doesn’t ensure they will work successfully as a team. You can find ideas for helping them with teaming behaviors and skills online, including this student teaming tips document.
  • Practice in working with authentic problems that they can relate to and are interested in solving. Your students need to be driven by a sense of purpose and the desire to actively solve a problem.
  • Experience in using open-ended approaches and considering multiple possible solutions rather than thinking in terms of right and wrong answers. An open-ended learning environment is key to helping kids develop the cognitive skills to analyze, generate ideas, explore, manipulate, test, and revise their thinking.
  • Awareness of how their project relates to one or more of their grade-level objectives. They need to understand that their classroom learning has real-world implications.

You’ll also face other challenges. PBL usually requires longer amounts of classroom time and more teacher preparation, so plan accordingly. If you generally lecture and lead whole-class discussions, then PBL learning will probably seem “messy,” so brace yourself for some initial angst. Your classroom setup may need revamping to provide more flexible space and room to spread out. In addition, your kids will need a variety of methods and resources to research and explore possible solutions for their problem.

How can I avoid pitfalls?

Start by bolstering your own knowledge and skills as a PBL leader. Prepare to adjust your teaching habits so that students have control of their own learning and you function as a facilitator and guide. Learn all you can about Design Thinking – including the Engineering Design Process if you are working with STEM projects. Become a master of asking questions that generate open-ended thinking.

You’ll need some ideas for real world problems, although you want your students to have input in selecting problems as well. Education World has some tips for authentic problems you might look at – along with a list of related resources.

Be sure you provide a risk-free classroom environment for your students where failing is accepted – even welcomed. Analyzing the reasons they failed to find a successful solution will actually provide your students with valuable information and drive more in-depth learning.

Throughout the project, repeatedly point your students back to their learning outcomes or course objectives to remind them how their learning relates to real world situations.

Realize that PBL may make you uncomfortable in the beginning – especially if you are not familiar with the problems and/or technologies your students will be dealing with. That’s okay.  PBL allows you to be a learner alongside your students.

Who will help me?

If this is a new teaching method for you, then you may need help in getting up to speed on PBL. One obvious, research-based starting point is Defined STEM which guides teachers and helps them implement PBL with ease by providing an online library of standards-aligned projects, planning guides, rubrics & more.

Even if your system doesn’t provide much in the way of PBL professional development, plenty of PBL resources are available to you. Think about Twitter chats (#PBL, #PBLchat, etc.), Instagram, message boards, and various online communities dedicated to PBL. Or, just type PBL into a search engine and stand back. You’ll have so many “hits” that your biggest problem will be sifting through them for the information you’re looking for.

You might take a look at these 10 PBL starter sites in addition to the ones already mentioned in this article:

  1. PBLWorks
  2. 6 Reasons PBL Is the Pedagogy of Choice for Future-Thinking Educators
  3. 5 Advantages & Disadvantages of Problem-Based Learning
  4. Problem-Based Learning: Benefits and Risks
  5. Project-Based Assignments Solve Real-World Issues
  6. Connecting Project Based Learning to Standards
  7. How to Get Started with PBL
  8. Improving Schools Through Design Thinking
  9. The Design Thinking Process (video)
  10. STEM-Based PBL Projects at a Glance

If you’re new to PBL, a lot of folks are looking forward to helping you! PBL resources like Defined STEM have knowledgeable educators waiting to assist you in your search for ways to better prepare your students.



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