Project Based Learning Research, Part 1

I firmly believe in project based learning (PBL). Given that you are reading this article, I assume you might share this belief too. I have tons of anecdotal and personal validation to the effectiveness of project based learning from my own classroom. I also see the amazing results from other teachers in my Personal Learning Network. While I value this practical insight above all else, I feel it is important to read and understand project based learning research.

While the ‘ivory tower’ can find ways to skew numbers like the rest of us, understanding research benefits the practice of teachers. We can be better if we have a deep understanding for why we use one pedagogy over another. Rather than rushing to the next shiny new fad in teaching, we can proceed with confidence in our methods and choices.

For this reason I was inspired to start this series on project based learning research. Part One will focus on general findings and themes.


Title: “When is PBL More Effective? A Meta-sythesis on Meta-anlayses Comparing PBL to Conventional Classrooms”

Authors: Johannes Strobel and Angela van Barneveld (2009)

Methodology: As the title states, the authors performed a meta-synthesis of meta-analyses. Yep. In layman’s term, a meta-synthesis seeks to describe and understand key findings from a number of different analyses (Insert meta joke here).

Key Findings: The researchers conclude, “…Project based learning is significantly more effective than traditional instruction to train competent and skilled practitioners and to promote long-term retention of knowledge and skills acquired during the learning experience or training”(Strobel and van Barneveld 55).

My Takeaways: The findings show some other interesting data. Although mixed, traditional instruction tended to produce better outcomes on simple, short-term recognition assessments. This may reinforce some educator fears that PBL is not suited for traditional standardized assessments. As we move to the Common Core and deeper analytical thinking, PBL may prove effective for promoting critical thinking and deeper learning. It is also worth mentioning that much of the research in this study comes from medical students.


Title: “A Longitudinal Investigation of Project–based Instruction and Student Achievement in High School Social Studies”

Authors: Emily J. Summers and Gail Dickinson (2012)

Methodology: As the title suggests, longitudinal. Student achievement was measured before, during, and after introducing project based learning in high school Social Studies. Data was measured against a control group of similar population to make a comparison.

Key Findings: The researchers conclude, “PBL provided a rigorous alternative to traditional instruction and increased students’ academic achievement and forward progress toward College and Career Readiness standards” (Summers and Dickerson, 98).

My Takeaways: Not only was academic achievement higher for students in the PBL class, they also had higher rates of promotion. As achievement was also measured against CCR standards, there are positive indications that PBL promotes the future success of students. Finally, when looking at subpopulations, PBL worked better for traditionally marginalized subgroups.

Image is from the Summers and Dickerson study referenced above.

Title: The Effect of Project Based Learning on Learning Outcomes in the 5th Grade Social Studies Course in Primary Education”

Author: Mehmet Gültekin(20o5)

Methodology: Pre-Test, Post-Test Control Group (Quantitative) and Experimental Group Interview (Qualitative)

Key Findings: According to the findings, “The project based learning approach affected the academic success of students in the Social Sciences course in primary education.” (Gültekin, 552). The research also finds improvement in motivation, research skills, and higher-order thinking skills.

My Takeaways: Beside the improvement in academic success and ‘skills’, qualitative data showed that the learning process was more enjoyable to students. In my opinion, affective variables such as motivation, relevance, comfort, and enjoyment are a critical, and often overlooked, part of a learner’s success.


Title: “A Review of Research on Project-Based Learning”

Author: John Thomas (20o0)

Methodology: Research Review: An inclusive review of the last 10 years of PBL research and scholarship.

Key Findings: According to Thomas, “More important, there is some evidence that project based learning, in comparison to other instructional methods, has value for enhancing the quality of students’ learning in subject matter areas…” (37). Thomas also writes, “PBL seems to be equivalent or slightly better than other models of instruction for producing gains in general academic achievement and for developing lower-level cognitive skills in traditional subject matter areas.” (37).

My Takeaways: If you are looking for a place to really dig into PBL research start here. Thomas breaks down PBL research into eight topics and presents a summary of research on each. So pretty simply, if you want to find research about PBL, Thomas’ review will be very beneficial. In addition to the findings I listed above, Thomas mentions some other tantalizing conclusions. These include the challenge for teachers in starting PBL, a need for student support when developing inquiry skills, and the enhanced effectiveness of PBL if the whole school embraces the method.


  • A link to the referenced research can be found in the title of each summary.
  • If you want to recommend any research for me to cover in the future, add a comment or send me a Tweet.
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