Boosting Student Engagement and Motivation: PBL Connections in a Recent Survey and John Hattie's New Book

You may have seen some recent headlines about a survey of teenagers in the U.S. The most common takeaway was that "the chance to redo assignments" was the number one pick for what would motivate teens to work harder in school. But if you look at the rest of the top ten picks, eight of them (!!) connect to project-based learning.

The survey was conducted by the EdWeek Research Center between December 2022 and February 2023. It included nationally representative samples of 1,011 students, ages 13-19, and 1,058 teachers, principals, and district leaders. Apart from the first item on the students' list, there was remarkable agreement among students and educators about the rest of the top 10; eight of the adults' top 10 picks were the same as the students'.


Students were asked, "What, if anything, could your teachers do to help you feel more motivated to do your best at school? Select all that apply."

Here's what they selected, with their clear connections to project-based learning:

  • #2, "Let me do assignments on topics that interest me if they are relevant to what we are learning" is textbook PBL–it's all about driving questions and problems that students find interesting, important, or relevant to their lives, communities, and cultures.
  • #4, "Offer more hands-on experiences including field trips, lab experiments, maker spaces, and internships" is similarly associated very closely with PBL.
  • #5, "Provide more feedback so I know what to improve…" is one of the keys to an effective PBL classroom, as I explained in this recent blog post.
  • #6, "Show me how I can use what I learn in my future career" connects to PBL's emphasis on real-world, applied learning. Careers are a defining feature of Defined Learning's brand of PBL. Every DL performance task/project is based on a career role, and students are placed in a situation and create products that are authentic to that role.
  • #7, "Use teaching methods other than or in addition to lecturing…" is obviously connected to PBL (although, as I've always said, there's a place for "mini-lectures" in many projects).
  • #8, "Offer a choice of different ways I can demonstrate I have learned something" reflects that familiar hallmark of PBL, "student voice and choice." (And every Defined Learning performance task includes 2-3 product options, from written reports to physical models to multimedia.)
  • #9, "Take more time to get to know me as a person" relates to an important aspect of project-based teaching: coaching and facilitating and the importance of relationships.
  • #10, "Stop requiring assignments that feel like busywork" is basically the definition of PBL, since everything students do in a project should be for the clear purpose of completing a meaningful and important task. 

What was the #3 student pick, you ask? It was "Incorporate more humor, fun, and games into class." While I can't directly connect that to PBL, many projects certainly have an element of fun. (The use of humor and games, I suppose, depends on the teacher. I don't subscribe to the "be an entertainer" advice for teachers. Being caring and engaging will do!)

By the way, lower on the students' list but still at 9% was, sadly, "I can't think of anything that teachers could do to make me feel more motivated." Some of the students who chose this response, of course, have varied and personal reasons for being turned off by school. But I can't help thinking that many of them might not have a vision for how teaching and learning could be different. All they know are lectures, worksheets, textbooks, and boring memorize-for-tests approaches to education–they've never seen PBL.


John Hattie's New "Visible Learning" Book

In March 2023 John Hattie, the famous researcher and author of the widely-read 2008 book Visible Learning will be releasing a follow-up: Visible Learning: The Sequel - A Synthesis of Over 2,100 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement.

According to an article about the book in the Educator Australia newsletter (Hattie is at the University of Melbourne), the "number one factor that impacts student learning is engaging teaching." Professor Hattie says schools must look at "changing the culture of education so that teachers are excited about teaching, and students are excited and engaged in learning." This is certainly the case in the classrooms I've seen where effective PBL is happening.

Hattie also notes the importance of having "high expectations for all students and to see differences as opportunities to learn in different ways, and to teach students to welcome the challenge to aim high." He also points to the need to pay attention to social and emotional well-being after the Covid pandemic: "We do that by creating classrooms full of trust, where mistakes are seen as opportunities to learn…"

These comments connect to the project-based teaching practice "Build the Culture," which emphasizes the inclusion of all students, close relationships between students and teachers, high expectations mixed with support, and doing high-quality work. We often talk of "failing forward" in a PBL classroom, where it's OK to make mistakes as we try out ideas and create drafts of products, get feedback, and make them better.

Nice to know we're on the same page!



About the Author:

John Larmer is a project-based learning expert. In his 20 years at the Buck Institute for Education/PBLWorks, he co-developed the model for Gold Standard PBL, authored several books and many blog posts, and contributed to curriculum and professional development. He is now the Senior PBL Advisor at Defined and has written a forthcoming book on civic education for K-8 teachers.


Subscribe to the #1 PBL Blog!

Receive new articles in the world of Project Based Learning, STEM/STEAM, and College & Career Readiness. 

Subscribe to our blog