Project Based Learning, Some Research (Part 3)

Skills are getting a ton of facetime in the education world. With the advent of Common Core and a greater emphasis on 21st Century Skills, there seems to be a push for learning that goes beyond facts and dates. I think this is a good thing. After all, we teach kids, not just content.

What do I mean by skills? There’s a blog post and a half in that question. But to summarize, I will quote David Perkins from his book Futurewise, “One name for it is twenty-first century skills, another is key competencies, and there are others. The general notion is that in our complicated world, for the kinds of lives today’s learners are likely to live, it’s important to develop skills and attitudes that address some very broad challenges, like self-understanding, empathy, ethics, and collaboration- and, of course, good thinking” (199).

What are some other skills we might develop in our students? Resilience, creativity, communication, perspective taking, research, healthy risk-taking, service, and entrepreneurship quickly come to mind. Arguably, the most important skill is learning to learn. This idea of metacognition is essential to building lifelong, capable learners. It is also a skill that constantly is refined. I am still learning to learn.

Why not join the bandwagon? For my latest post in my Project Based Learning Research series I focus on skills.

If you want to recommend any research for me to cover in the future, add a note or send me a Tweet. You can also add a submission to the PBL publication on Medium.com here.

Title:Problem-Based Learning: What and How Do Students Learn?

Authors: Cindy E. Hmelo-Silver (2004)

Methodology: The article is basically a literature review. Hmelo-Silver looks at research associated with five purported goals of PBL:

  1. construct an extensive and flexible knowledge base
  2. develop effective problem-solving skills
  3. develop self-directed, lifelong learning skills
  4. become effective collaborators
  5. become intrinsically motivated to learn.

Key Findings: Hmelo-Silever concludes,“There is some strong evidence about the nature of knowledge construction and the development of problem-solving skills in certain settings, but there are some cautionary notes to consider. The claims of PBL advocates are not all supported by an extensive research base, and much of the research has been restricted to higher education, predominantly in medical schools”(260).

My Take-Aways: The article speaks to many of the difficulties in quantifying the amorphous idea of ‘PBL’. There is support that PBL develops problem-solving skills and lifelong learning skills. Students with PBL experience are more likely to transfer hypothesis-related thinking to other situations. Students with PBL experience enjoy the learning and report high levels of confidence. Still, students may be uncertain at first, and novices may lack metacognitive skills necessary for self-directed learning. While it is clear students work collaboratively in PBL, more research needs to be conducted to the effectiveness of this collaboration.


Title: “The Contribution of Project-Based Learning to High-achievers’ Acquisition of Technological Knowledgeand Skills”

Authors: David Mioduser and Nadav Betzer (2007)

Methodology: Five different instruments served the data collection and analysis process. The methodology was thus mixed, there are qualitative, quantitative, and longitudinal measures in the study. The main goal of the study was to investigate the technological knowledge construction process by high achieving high school students. The pedagogical means for this investigation was project-based learning.

Key Findings: The researchers conclude, “Besides the gain in formal knowledge, we found that PBL contributed to the experimental group students’ meaningful learning in additional aspects as well. The students considerably expanded and enlarged their technological knowledge base; they improved their technological skills and acquired teamwork abilities; the technological design process was learnt and developed to significantly high levels” (Mioduser and Betzer, 74).

My Takeaways: Tons of juicy tidbits here. Let’s start with the population sample. The researchers looked to increase interest in technological learning among high achieving students. Interestingly, the article states that many high achieving students shy away from technological learning even as the world is becoming more technological. PBL not only increased formal knowledge, especially for girls, but students in PBL settings learned different ways of accessing information and greater design skills. Most salient to the research question, PBL displayed an affective influence. Students in PBL classes reported more positive attitudes to technological learning after the introduction of the pedagogy. Here’s my question, would similar effects been seen in “low-performing” students?

Title: Engineering Education — Is Problem-Based or Project-Based Learning the Answer?”

Author: Julie E. Mills and David F. Treagust (2003)

Methodology: Research Review/ Case Studies. The authors look at the small body of PBL research in engineering education.

Key Findings: The authors conclude,“Students who participate in project-based learning are generally motivated by it and demonstrate better teamwork and communication skills. They have a better understanding of the application of their knowledge in practice and the complexities of other issues involved in professional practice. However, they may have a less rigorous understanding of engineering fundamentals” (Mills and Treagust, 12).

My Takeaways: The chief concern of the authors is that traditional methods of instruction do not provide engineering students with the skills needed for today’s workforce. Students are expected to have strong communication and teamwork skills. Students need to understand how to apply knowledge rather than simply acquire it.

The authors acknowledge a common criticism of PBL; students certainly gain much from a PBL pedagogy, but they may miss out on foundational and essential knowledge. To alleviate this concern, the authors suggest mixing instruction methods with consistent use of active learning. Using familiar teaching methods like “chalk and talk” approaches to engineering education are not effective to building skills necessary. The authors also believe innovative teaching pedagogies, like PBL, may push out traditional norms in engineering and help solve critical issues like the number of females in STEM.

Other quick reads and book chapters

Title: “Project-Based Learning for the 21st Century: Skills for the Future”

Author: Stephanie Bell (2010)

Title: “Problem-Based Learning: The Foundation for 21st Century Skills”

Author: John Barell (2010)

Title: “Designing New Learning Environments to Support 21st Century Skills”

Author: Bob Pearlman (2010)

  • A link to the referenced research can be found in the title of each summary.


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