Project-based Learning: What Is It and What are the Benefits?


If you pay attention to trends in the education world, you might have heard about project-based learning. What is this learning approach? Should your student be using it? What are the benefits? There are so many questions that need answers. We compiled a guide to everything you need to know about project-based learning.

What is project-based learning, exactly?

Project-based learning—also referred to as PBL—is a broad term that can be funneled into many more specific ideas, but it’s generally defined as “a teaching method in which students learn by actively engaging in real-world and personally meaningful projects,” explains PBL Works. PBL is sometimes interchangeably used with other terms such as discovery learning or experiential learning.

When this type of learning is implemented in the classroom, students may be engaged in the same project for weeks or even an entire semester. This is because the problem-solving in PBL doesn’t exactly involve 2 + 2; instead, students work to answer complex, real-world problems. The conclusion of their project may look like a live presentation to peers or community members, partnering with a local business, or sharing a product prototype.

Where did project-based learning come from?

We have educators at the Canadian school McMaster University to thank for the first official development of project-based learning in the 1960s, according to PBS. PBL gained popularity in medical schools until, a couple of decades after McMaster’s trailblazing introduction, the educational approach had been adopted in the grade school curriculum.

However, early theories suggest that project-based learning was already brewing in the world of educational philosophy as early as the 1900s when John Dewey, an educator and philosopher, introduced the “learning by doing” strategy, PBS explains. We can find traces of PBL in the ever-popular Montessori method, the founder of which believed that students can pilot their own learning and teach themselves in the right environment.

How does project-based learning benefit students?

Project-based learning has a number of pros: it encourages student engagement from all types of learners, establishes a gateway for elevated critical thinking, and roots curiosity and creativity in young minds.

More space is created for different types of learners

By now we certainly understand that all students learn differently. Each individual pupil will glean different amounts of value—or no value at all—from education tools such as posters, experiments, videos and multimedia, models, etc. Through project-based learning, students have more freedom to build their ideal learning strategy with the tools that support them best.

While there are some varying thought processes on how many types of learning exist and what they are, a few types include: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, reading/writing, logical/analytical, social/linguistic, solitary, or nature. No one style will fit all students and the styles aren’t mutually exclusive—a student can have one or multiple learning styles.

Critical thinking is engaged for pragmatic problem solving

After saying goodbye to grade school students quickly learn that textbooks sometimes—and even often—don’t contain the solution to real-world problems. Using PBL not only starts the engine of experience-based learning, but it also shows students what a future in fields focused on problem-solving and entrepreneurialism looks like.

Projects are all around us in the adult world—your weekly sales presentation, your deck needing a new coat of paint, or that beginner’s knitting kit you got for Christmas. The more exposure students get to project-based learning, the more prepared they will be for successful applications of their knowledge after high school.

Creative and inquisitive strengths are established

When learning under a project-based curriculum, students need to do more outside-of-the-box thinking than they might need to with a traditional learning approach. They are often facing open-ended questions with PBL, and strategies for seeking black-and-white answers may not help students here.

These challenges are meant to spark a sense of inquiry. Students are encouraged to ask questions not only of their teachers but of themselves, business owners, entrepreneurs, and any other sources that may have valuable insight into the problems their projects are based on. And just as they are honing in on the answer to the first question, another might crop up—developing an intrinsic curiosity that will drive them through real-world problems and empowering confidence in student choice for choosing the best solutions for complex issues.

What are the alternatives to project-based learning?

Project-based learning is a trending topic in education, likely leaving parents and students with lots of questions about this type of learning and how it could improve the educational experience.

Other learning philosophies rotate in and out of this hot-topic spotlight all of the time: social-emotional learning, which describes the learning that develops interpersonal skills, emotional maturity, and self-awareness; or mastery-based learning, also known as self-paced education, the type of strategy that ensures a student has complete mastery of a subject before moving on to the next. There’s also experiential learning, the definition of which is very similar to project-based learning.

The truth is your student would most likely thrive from components of all learning philosophies. There are many, many great strategies for setting young people up for success as adults and future professionals—and mastery-based learning is definitely one of them.