Data on Project Based Learning

New Research Makes a Powerful Case for PBL

At the start of his junior year of high school, Gil Leal was astonished by how different the AP Environmental Science course seemed compared to his prior advanced placement courses. Instead of spending the majority of their time sitting through lectures, taking notes, and studying abstract books, his students spent the majority of their time visiting a strawberry farm in the surrounding valley.

It wasn’t merely for the purpose of taking a tour. Leal and his classmates were tasked with brainstorming solutions to the numerous problems that modern farms face, including water scarcity, pest infestations, and soil erosion. Leal was taken aback by the fact that students were required to build their own solutions, taking into account what they had studied on topics such as soil composition, ecosystem dynamics, and irrigation system design.

Leal, who is now a first-generation college student and majoring in environmental science at UCLA, recalls the visit as a watershed point in his decision to pursue science in college. He had never been to a farm before, and he was accustomed to studying through the usual sit-and-listen method.

For Leal, earlier classes consisted of “lecture, readings, and an exam,” but in AP Environmental Science, he “worked on projects with other students, debated our ideas, explored diverse perspectives, and I learned so much more this way.”

Brandie Borges teaches Leal’s AP class, which is part of a new generation of classes that are transforming traditional teacher-led instruction into a more student-centered, project-based approach. These classes require students to work collaboratively as they tackle complex, real-world problems that emphasise uncertainty, iterative thinking, and innovation. Students who participate in collaborative, problem-solving, and creative projects, according to proponents, gain a greater sense of purpose, are more likely to think critically, and are better prepared for modern careers that value abilities such as teamwork, problem-solving, and creativity.

Critics argue that the approach lays an excessive amount of responsibility on rookie learners and fails to take into consideration the research demonstrating the efficiency of direct instruction by teachers. PBL, according to its detractors, diminishes topic understanding and subject fluency by placing a low priority on information transfer from experts to beginning students.

While project-based learning and direct instruction are not mutually exclusive, there has been a paucity of research that could resolve the broader debate over the usefulness of PBL in the classroom. Few research, conducted over the previous several decades, have proven a causal association between organised project-based learning and student results, either in the positive or negative direction.

Research conducted by researchers from the University of Southern California and Michigan State University, as well as funded by Lucas Education Research, a sister division of Edutopia, provides compelling evidence that project-based learning is an effective strategy for all students, outperforming traditional curricula not only for high achievers, but also across grade levels, racial and socioeconomic groups.


More than 6,000 students from 114 schools across the country participated in the two studies, with more than half of the students coming from low-income families.

Researchers examined a wide range of project-based activities in the sciences and humanities as part of the AP study, which included Gil Leal’s class as well as over 3,600 students in both AP Environmental Science and AP U.S. Government and Politics courses from five districts serving a diverse student body.

Students in Amber Graeber’s Advanced Placement Government class, for example, participated in a simulation of an electoral caucus. meantime, students in Erin Fisher’s class studied previous Supreme Court cases and then took on real-world roles, debating the issues in mock court, acting as reporters, and crafting campaign commercials and stump speeches to help them make their point. meanwhile,

Researchers discovered that nearly half of students in project-based courses passed their AP exams, outperforming students in traditional classrooms by an impressive 8 percentage points, according to the researchers. Students from low-income families made gains that were comparable to those made by their wealthier peers, demonstrating that a well-structured PBL method can be more egalitarian than a teacher-centered approach. Furthermore, the increases in teaching efficacy were both considerable and long-lasting: when the same curriculum was taught for a second year, PBL students outperformed their peers in traditional classrooms by a factor of 10 percentage points.

The findings of the study shook up long-held beliefs about how to best teach children from a variety of various backgrounds. Students from impoverished backgrounds, according to some educators and policymakers, “are not ready for student-centered instruction in which they are directing their own learning,” according to lead researcher Anna Saavedra of the University of Southern California (USC). As a result, there’s this notion, and the findings of this study have seriously called into question that view.”

According to the researchers, 30 percent of students from low-income families take AP exams nationally, but that number increased to 38 percent for students in project-based learning classrooms. This means that more low-income students are taking AP exams using project-based learning, and more of them are passing them as well.

The fact that a student-centered strategy is effective in a setting that is so focused on high-stakes testing may seem odd at first, but the evidence suggests otherwise.

According to Saavedra, “students thought that the work was more authentic,” suggesting that this could be one possible explanation for the improvements. In terms of real-life contacts, there were more of them.” They were learning about their ecological footprint in the Advanced Placement Environmental Science course, and they were asking themselves: “How do my actions effect the health of my neighbourhood and the health of our broader world?”


However, project-based learning is not limited to high school students. According to Billie Freeland, a third-grade teacher, project-based learning (PBL) not only increases students’ enthusiasm in science, but it also allows them to create more connections with the world around them, leading to a more in-depth grasp of — and respect for — science.

Students in the third grade focus on the “Toy Unit,” according to Freeland. but do not let the name deceive you…….” Third graders study the fundamentals of gravity, friction, force, and direction by creating toys out of everyday items such as water bottles, straws, and recycled milk cartons. They also learn about the scientific method. At the conclusion of the class, students design their own toys that make use of magnetic or electrical force,” she explained to researchers, noting that the projects are compatible with Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Freeland’s class was one of many that took part in a large-scale study assessing the effectiveness of project-based learning (PBL) in primary science. Researchers from Michigan State University and the University of Michigan conducted the study, which included 2,371 third-grade students from 46 schools who were randomly allocated to either a business-as-usual control group or a treatment group. The results were published in the journal Pediatrics. A diverse group of schools was chosen for the study: 62 percent of the student populations at the participating schools qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, and 58 percent of the students were students of colour.

A test of science learning showed that elementary kids in PBL classrooms outscored their peers by an average of 8 percentage points, just as they had done with the high school students in the AP research. The following pattern was consistent across all socioeconomic classes and all levels of reading ability: Every boat floated to the surface of the water in the project-based learning group; both struggling readers and highly competent readers surpassed their peers in traditional classrooms.

As Barbara Schneider, a professor of education at Michigan State University and a co-author of the study, put it, “The most beautiful thing about all of this is that we have project-based learning in science, and we have a progression of it from elementary through high school.” “Our findings are constant across all levels of elementary and secondary education, which is quite astounding. And in both cases, we expect to see significant improvements in scientific achievement.”

Project-based learning outperformed traditional curricula in two gold-standard, randomised, controlled trials involving thousands of students from diverse school systems across the United States, with academic performance across grade levels and socioeconomic subgroups, as well as reading ability, significantly outperforming traditional curricula.