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Project-Based Learning

Project Based Learning is an instructional model based in the constructivist approach to learning, in which students gain knowledge and skills by investigating and responding to a complex real-world question, problem, or challenge (The Buck Institute for Education). Project based learning is just one form of enquiry based learning which also includes problem based and experiential learning.

Source:  The Buck Institute for Education

Essential Elements Description
Significant content Students are taught important knowledge and skills
21st century competencies Critical thinking/problem solving, collaboration, and communication, and creativity/ innovation
In-depth inquiry Students are engaged in a rigorous, extended process of asking questions, using resources, and developing answers
Driving question Problems that students find intriguing and frames their exploration
Voice and choice Students make their choices about the products to be created, how they work, and how they use their time, while being guided by the teacher
Revision and reflection Processes for students to use feedback to consider changes that lead to high-quality products, and think about what and how they are learning
Need to know Students see the need to gain knowledge, understand concepts, and apply skills in order to answer the driving question and create project products
Public audience Students present their work to professionals, (beyond their classmates and teacher)
Feature Description
Make content accessible Allow students to engage in problems, examples, and contexts that connect new ideas to personally relevant prior knowledge (i.e. building on student ideas, use of personally relevant problems, and scaffolding inquiry)
Make thinking visible Connect ideas throughout (i.e. modelling scientific thinking, scaffolding students to make their thinking visible, and providing multiple representations)
Help students learn from others Encourage students to listen to others and learn through discussions (through social constructivism, collaborative learning, and communities of learners)
Promote autonomy and lifelong learning Encourage monitoring of projects by revisiting and generalizing the inquiry processes, and scaffolding critique, through metacognition and inquiry

Source: Capraro, R., Capraro, M., & Morgan, J. R. (2013). STEM Project-Based Learning An Integrated Science, Technology, Engineering, And Mathematics (STEM) Approach. Rotterdam ; Boston : SensePublishers.

Projects provide students with the opportunity to bring together knowledge-based skills such as key concepts, principles and theoretical models from a number of different subject areas and apply them to real life problems. They also help to reinforce existing knowledge and provide a context to the theory that a student is learning which can help to motivate them with all of their studies. Projects can operate within hugely diverse contexts and along a broad continuum of approaches.

The design process is a systematic and well-structured approach which builds problem-solving skills and logical thinking, so that students can formulate the best solution possible for a well-defined outcome. The steps of the design process is similar to that of engineering design, and can be represented as following an iterative process until the final design solution is identified.

Model of inquiry process
Source: Justice, C., Rice, J., Warry, W., Inglis, S., Miller, S., and Sammon, S. (2007). Inquiry in higher education: Reflections and directions on course design and teaching methods. Innovative Higher Education 31, 201-214.
Develop the driving question by describing the goal and scope of the planned design work
  • Students do background research which provides information necessary to formulate and critically analyze design ideas, as well as how to best assess and incorporate the perspective and needs of those stakeholders.
  • Preliminary ideas identified are subsequently refined to develop better solutions.
  • Results are then analyzed within the context of the project criteria and constraints in order to identify the viable alternatives.
An attempt at building a full-size working model, or prototype, should be undertaken 
  • However, the outcomes of the project need not always be a physical product. For example, the goal of a project may be to define a new process (i.e. processes need to be built and tested as well). 
PjBL teaching takes more time to plan and to implement. Faculty will need to rethink about how to scaffold student growth and success in their project work; to authentically assess student learning; to communicate effectively with external partners in the community; and to develop more opportunities for multi-disciplinary applications.
Finding and Incorporating Community Partners Instructors should take sufficient time to work through the feasibility and the desired nature of the partnership before PjBL lessons begin. Furthermore, there is also the difficulty with bringing outside experts into class to coincide with when students need information as well as the difficulty in developing problem scenarios for authentic work.
Engaging Students Students can exhibit significant frustration if the instructor does not provide deliberate scaffolding of their learning (i.e.scaffolds should be used to foster deeper understanding of the content). Instructors also need to move from the role of knowledge provider to a facilitator of learning. Students are also likely to struggle to accepting more responsibility for their learning (i.e. development of self-directed skills).
Assessing Student Work Instructors should develop appropriate assessment rubrics in conjunction with student (self and peer-feedback). Instructors should develop valid assessment approaches for a process-oriented education that are consistent with the needs of 21st-century learners and the assessment of 21st-century skills. The emphasis should be on being able to locate the necessary information to solve the problem rather than memorizing facts (i.e. assessing for higher-order thinking levels in Bloom’s taxonomy).
Source: Lee, J.S., Blackwell, S., Drake, J. & Moran, K.A. (2014). Taking a Leap of Faith: Redefining Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Through Project-Based Learning. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 8(2).
  Project-Based Learning Problem-Based Learning Case-Based Learning
Questions or problems provide context for learning 2 2 2
Complex, ill-structured, open-ended real-world problems provide context for learning 3 1 2
Major projects provide context for learning 1 4 3
Case studies provide context for learning 4 4 1
Students discover course content for themselves 2 2 3
Primarily self-directed learning 3 3 3
Active learning 2 2 2
Collaborative/ cooperative (team-based) learning 3 3 4

Note: 1 – by definition, 2- always, 3-usually, 4-possibly

Source: Prince, M. J., & Felder, R. M. (2006). Inductive Teaching and Learning Methods: Definitions, Comparisons, and Research Bases. Journal Of Engineering Education, 95(2), 123-138.

  • Atkinson, J. (2001). Developing teams through project-based learning. Aldershot, Hampshire ; Burlington, Vt. : Gower, c2001. (Available in SMU library – Call no. HD66.A85 2001)

    Abstract: Getting individuals to work together as a team is one of the hardest tasks for any manager. Jean Atkinson provides a solution – the inception and implementation of a specific project. The mechanics of working together on a project, however large or small, lends itself to developing team members and enabling them to learn new skills, as well as building stronger relationships. The book takes the reader step by step through the life cycle of a project, and how each stage can be used as a means of learning and developing for individuals as well as the team as a whole.

  • Crosthwaite, C., Cameron, I., Lant, P., & Litster, J. (2006). Balancing curriculum processes and content in a project centred curriculum: In pursuit of graduate attributes. Education for Chemical Engineers, 1(1), 39-48.

    Abstract: Chemical engineering education is challenged around the world by demands and rapid changes encompassing a wide range of technical and social drivers. Graduates must be prepared for practice in increasingly diverse workplace environments in which generic or transferable attributes such as communication and teamwork together with technical excellence are mandated by prospective employers and society at large. If academe is to successfully deliver on these graduate attributes, effective curriculum design needs to include appropriate educational processes as well as course content. Conventional teacher centred approaches, stand-alone courses and retro-fitted remedial modules have not delivered the desired outcomes. Development of the broader spectrum of attributes is more likely when students are engaged with realistic and relevant experiences that demand the integration and practice of these attributes in contexts that the students find meaningful. This paper describes and evaluates The University of Queensland’s Project Centred Curriculum in Chemical Engineering (PCC), a programme-wide approach to meeting these requirements. PCC strategically integrates project-based learning with more traditional instruction. Data collected shows improved levels of student attainment of generic skills with institutional and nationally benchmarked indicators showing significant increases in student perceptions of teaching quality, and overall satisfaction with the undergraduate experience. Endorsements from Australian academic, professional and industry bodies also support the approach as more effectively aligning engineering education with professional practice requirements.

  • Goldman, S., Carroll, M. P., Kabayadondo, Z., Cavagnaro, L.B., Royalty, A.W., Roth, B., Swee, H.K., Kim, J. (2012). Assessing d.learning: Capturing the Journey of Becoming a Design Thinker. Design Thinking Research, 13-33.

    Abstract: The research explored the relationship of learning design thinking and assessing that progress. It addressed the questions: How can we understand what is learned in design thinking classes, and how assessments might contribute to that process in authentic ways? The study followed a reciprocal research and design methodology where basic research and the design of assessment solutions were ongoing, reciprocal, and related to each other in organic ways. We learned that the learning of design thinking dispositions and mindsets is an emergent journey—with various levels of sophistication, transformation, application, and integration. We introduce the concept of mindshifts to represent the developing and nascent epistemological viewpoints and instincts that are strengthened while becoming a design thinker. We review designs for tools that were based on the concept of mindshifts that include reflective and performance assessments and an assessment dashboard.

  • 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.

    Abstract: The purpose of the study was to explore what project-based learning is, what are the pedagogical or psychological motives supporting it, how it has been implemented and what impact it has had on learning in post-secondary education. The study is based on a qualitative review of published articles. The work revealed that the majority of articles on project-based learning are course descriptions focusing on the implementation of individual courses, whereas serious research on the topic is virtually non-existent. In addition, the term project-based learning subsumes different activities with varying purposes. Therefore, practitioners and curriculum developers are encouraged to reflect upon the purpose and possibilities of project-based learning along with students and to set realistic, clear goals. Practitioners and researchers are urged to document courses even more carefully. Several issues for further research are identified.

  • Kellett, C. M. (2012). A Project-Based Learning Approach to Programmable Logic Design and Computer Architecture. IEEE Transactions On Education, 55(3), 378-383.

    Abstract: This paper describes a course in programmable logic design and computer architecture as it is taught at the University of Newcastle, Australia. The course is designed around a major design project and has two supplemental assessment tasks that are also described. The context of the Computer Engineering degree program within which the course is taught is presented, and some student outcomes are discussed.

  • Moalosi, R., Molokwane, S., Mothibedi , G. (2012). Using a Design-orientated Project to Attain Graduate Attributes. Design and Technology Education, 17 (1), 30-43.

    Abstract: Nowadays universities are required not only to impart knowledge of specific disciplines but also generic graduate attributes such as communication, problem-solving, teamwork, creative thinking, research and inquiry skills. For students to attain these generic skills, educators are encouraged to use learner-centred approaches in teaching. Project-based learning is one such an approach which promotes self-directed and lifelong learning capabilities, equips students with transferrable knowledge and skills that are essential to the work environment, intertwines theory and practice, gives students the opportunity to gain a deep understanding of concepts and potentially allows them to solve the society’s problems. A case study was conducted at the University of Botswana with Design students to assess the attainment of the graduate attributes after designing packages for a small entrepreneur producing frozen vegetables. The results indicate that the following graduate skills were either rated very good or excellent: self-directed, lifelong learning, critical and creative thinking, problem-solving, organisational and teamwork, communication, entrepreneurship, information and communication technology knowledge and skills. This shows that project-based learning can impart the skills and knowledge that the labour market needs. The results also provide an opportunity for educators to critically reflect on the type of projects given to students in relation to the attainment of graduate attributes.

  • Sense, A.J. (2013). A Project Sponsor’s Impact on Practice-Based Learning Within Projects. International Journal Of Project Management, 31(2), 264-271.

    Abstract: Drawing on a longitudinal action research case study analysis of project-based learning, this paper seeks to advance a deeper understanding of a project sponsor’s impact on practice-based learning activity within a project. It represents a first case examination of the interface between a sponsor and practice-based learning phenomenon within projects. The reported findings argue for the project sponsor role to be acknowledged as dynamic and interactive and a dramatic influence on project practice-based learning. It also implies that a sponsor confronts some significant dilemmas in successfully stewarding such learning. Moreover, through such endeavour, the sponsor may also become an agent for organizational learning. The findings generated also encourage further investigations into the nexus between the sponsor and other social phenomenon within projects.

  • Withell, A. & Haigh, N. (2013) Developing Design Thinking Expertise in Higher Education. 2nd International Conference for Design Education Researchers, 1-14.

    Abstract: Design Thinking describes a human-­‐centred methodology for innovation, which has evolved from the study of the unique ways in which designers ‘think’, and ‘practice’. There is growing evidence of the increased uptake of Design Thinking in design, business and other disciplines, and there is an emerging body of research. There is a need to develop sound University curricula that are founded in relevant theory and research findings, however, there appears to be a relatively small amount of rigorous research on the learning and teaching of Design Thinking. This paper presents the initial stages of a PhD research project that explores how Design Thinking can be best developed, delivered and evaluated in higher education to both product design and business students. The evaluation focuses on the students’ learning and teaching experiences, and the impact of the curriculum on the development of their Design Thinking expertise. The research uses Action Research, Design, and embedded Case Studies. A number of key theories inform the curriculum including Design Thinking, Constructivism, Experiential Learning, Bloom’s Learning Domains and Constructive Alignment. The paper presents initial research findings from the first iteration of the curriculum.



  • Capraro, R., Capraro, M., & Morgan, J. R. (2013). STEM Project-Based Learning An Integrated Science, Technology, Engineering, And Mathematics (STEM) Approach. Rotterdam ; Boston : SensePublishers.
  • Project-Based Learning. The Higher Education Academy. Retrieved 24 March 2014, from
  • Project-Based Learning. The University of Queensland (Australia). Retrieved 20 March 2014, from
  • Tamim, S. R., & Grant, M. M. (2013). Definitions and Uses: Case Study of Teachers Implementing Project-based Learning. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 7(2), 71-101.
  • What is Project-Based Learning. The Buck Institute for Education. Retrieved 19 March 2014, from

Last updated on 02 May 2017 .