Project-Based Learning

To develop deep conceptual understanding of abstract concepts, particularly in the sciences, students need to do more than just read textbooks or listen in lecture halls. They need to find ways to actively develop their understanding, observe and reflect on how these concepts introduced in class actually operate in the real world. In classes that utilize a Project-Based Learning approach, students try to solve challenging everyday problems by learning about and applying key class concepts. In a well-designed problem, students are meaningfully engaged in an authentic social problem that can only be solved if they deeply understand what is to be learned in the class. While projects can range in scope and complexity -- with some lasting only a few days and others taking a full semester -- all project-based learning challenges students to be self-directed and take ownership of their learning.

How do we design projects that can engage students in authentic and meaningful applications of class concepts? How do we scaffold students’ design processes so that they are intrinsically motivated to learn more about fundamental class concepts? How do we enable students to track and assess their own learning throughout project development? How do we ensure that students value the process of applying class concepts to the real world over how effectively their project works? In these videos, featured instructor Eric Mazur discusses his approach and strategies for using project-based learning with undergraduates at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

See also: Move

What does the research say?

  • According to LaForce, Noble, and Blackwell, project-based learning has the potential to promote student interest in science careers by fostering intrinsic student motivation (2017)
  • According to Michalsen and colleagues, tasks performed by effective teams are result in a significant product or service.  This suggests project-based learning that centers real world problems is a key consideration when designing projects (1993)

Nilson, L. B. (2016). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors. John Wiley & Sons.

  • Chapters 18 and 20 provide helpful overviews of inquiry-based learning and problem-based learning, both of which remain central for incorporating investigative projects into the classroom

Bass, R. (2019). Project-based Learning in the First Year: Beyond All Expectations. Stylus Publishing, LLC.

  • Drawing from several contributors, this book provides compelling rationales and strategies for effective project-based learning in the undergraduate classroom