Project-Based Learning

From E-Learning Faculty Modules


Module Summary

Project-based learning (PBL) is used in a number of domain fields for college-age learners in order to combine academic knowledge with real-world applications. This module focuses on the types of learning that instructors are trying to achieve with project-based learning. This also looks at why (and how) projects are used in online learning. This describes some typical features of a project in project-based learning (PBL) and how these features enhance the learning. Practitioners and professionals in the various domain fields often play a role in PBL, and their roles will be discussed. Lastly, this module will examine the sorts of feedback given to learners in a PBL situation and how their work is assessed.


Learners will...

  • Explore what project-based learning (PBL) is and what current domain fields use project-based learning.
  • Consider the types of learning that instructors are trying to achieve using project-based learning.
  • Discover why and how projects are used in online learning.
  • Probe some typical features of a project in project-based learning and how these features enhance the learning.
  • Think about the role of practitioners and professionals in the field in PBL.
  • Reflect on the sorts of feedback that are given to learners in a project-based learning situation and also how such learning is assessed.

Module Pretest

1. What is project-based learning (PBL)? What domain fields use project-based learning?

2. What sorts of learning are instructors trying to achieve using project-based learning?

3. Why are projects used in online learning? How are projects used in online learning?

4. What are some typical features of a “project” in project-based learning (PBL)? How do these features enhance the learning? What is the role of practitioners and professionals in the field in PBL?

5. What sorts of feedback are given to students in a project-based learning situation? How are projects in PBL assessed?

Main Contents

1. Project-Based Learning (and Common Domain Fields in Which This Approach is Used)

Project-Based Learning

Project-based learning (PBL) is a pedagogical strategy that focuses learners (individually or in groups / teams) on ill-structured or loosely structured projects in which the learners must use a range of knowledge and skills in an applied setting. As the learners are developing the work, they are receiving support from their instructors, peers, and professionals in the field (often with a range of interdisciplinary backgrounds). During the PBL work, learners may be engaging in any or all of the following steps:

  • brainstorming the specifications for their project
  • getting acquainted with their team members
  • assigning work roles
  • documenting their work and decision-making on the project
  • creating prototypes of their project
  • monitoring their work
  • defining end users for their products or services or designs
  • writing project journals (or “design narratives”) to analyze what is being done and learned
  • formulating opinions of team members
  • self-critiquing
  • analyzing the quality of their project
  • presenting on their project

Some projects (the “deliverables”) will be evaluated by professionals in the field. Internal project files may also be perused. These may include project documentation, project plans, customer presentation documents, project meeting minutes, and technical documentation (Ikonen, Piironen, Saurén, & Lankinen, 2009).

Other PBL deliverables may be student portfolios with a culmination of work. Portfolios usually demonstrate the developmental phases of a learner and his / her evolving thinking and inspirations in the domain field over time and as his / her knowledge base and skills deepen.

Some Simple History

This project-based learning teaching and learning approach has been around for 30 years and is a part of progressive education—with the idea that learning can enable social change. Project-based learning is seen to enable deep learning and transferability from academia into the world. By deeper task involvement, learners build a sense of autonomy and greater degrees of freedom in terms of their creativity. Shared practices within a profession as well as shared technological and other tools help in the transfer from academia to the profession.

[“Didactic transposition” from the professions and into the “ivory tower” enables academia to better reflect professional practices in the curriculum. “Didactic transposition” describes “the adaptation of professional knowledge to teaching situations” (Hazzan, Dubinsky, & Meerbaum-Salant, 2010, p. 233).]

Project-based learning is used from elementary school through university as a form of “guided expedition” learning (Polman, 1996). The various domain fields help define how these PBL projects manifest.

Authentic Learning

Its strength is that it focuses learners’ attention on authentic projects and holds them to some professional standards. PBL is used to train individuals to align themselves with the profession in an experiential way. The assignments also enable them to form a sense of professional taste by constructively critiquing others’ works and their own works.

[To clarify, problem-based learning is considered a specific and more structured application of analytical and troubleshooting skills; problem-centered learning is “more explicit and structured than PBL” (Laware & Walters, 2004, p. 6). According to one researcher, though, there is some overlap between these forms. One author describes the basic structure of problem-solving as occurring in six stages: “defining the problem and identifying the need, collecting information, introducing alternative solutions, choosing the optimal solution, designing and constructing a prototype, and evaluation” (Doppelt, 2009, p. 57). Challenge-based learning is a form of project-based learning, although in this situation, competing teams or individuals compete with their deliverables—whether these are robotic cars or brand identity designs or other elements.].

In some cases, PBL is used as a replacement for a text (Qidwai, 2011) and in others, this is a framework for the learning, an augmentation to more traditional forms. Such project-based learning is widely seen as augmenting academic textbook methodologies by applying the learning “in real-world examples of changing requirements, budget constraints, culture, and competing objectives” (Laware & Walters, 2004, p. 6).

The project should be integrative of a range of learning, often over time. Some projects are formative ones that are applied throughout a curriculum. Others are summative and are applied at the end of a term or certificate or degree program.

Domain Fields

Common domain fields in which project-based learning is used include those in which design is an important aspect of the learning: film, business administration, web design, art, architecture, interior design, fashion design, engineering, information technologies, and others.

2. The Types of Learning Enabled by Project-Based Learning

Project-based learning, if applied with skill, may be adaptive and integrative of learners’ backgrounds in a domain field. Such projects may activate the prior knowledge and experiences of learners for the applied learning (Rivet & Krajcik, 2004). Those with more experiences may bring more to the problem at hand, and those with fewer experiences (novices and amateurs) may bring fresh eyes to challenges and potent questions. Further, PBL is seen to enhance learner motivation—by building excitement about a particular domain field and by offering broader degrees of freedom for learner choices in their projects (Doppelt, 2009). Some service-oriented projects may result in real change in the world, and open-source IT contributions will leave a mark on particular digital contents or computer codes; this participation does require plenty of prior training and learners with higher level skills to take part in development communities (Krogstie, 2008).

Some open-ended projects may continue well into the future after a course has ended. Project-based learning work may provide occasion for positive public relations and outreach to the larger publics around an institution of higher education.

Project-based learning is used to enhance learners’ problem-solving skills in a practical way. They conduct research on their projects. They apply their skills. They communicate their ideas to others (Matsuura, 2006), often using a variety of mediums. They collaborate with peers and professional colleagues. They express their own style or aesthetic.

This pedagogical approach also enables learners to be assimilated into a community of practice, in which amateurs and novices interact with experts, and this interaction benefits all. For the new learners, the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD) is lessened with the intervention of experts in the field. The distance between what a novice can learn to do alone in a field is larger than what he / she can do with the support of a subject matter expert who serves as a guide or mentor, according to Lev Vygotsky. Immersing in a community of practice may enhance the learner’s identity in the field.

According to Wenger (1998), there are three modes of belonging to a community of practice: engagement, imagination, and alignment. When students are engaged in mutual activity, such as making a presentation, they develop shared histories of learning and relationships as peers and as friends that in turn shape students’ identities as different kinds of participants in that activity. Members of this community of practice may hail from various interdisciplinary backgrounds.

“Students must imagine the broader communities to which their work is connected; that is, the audience for their work together is outside the immediate classroom and shapes how students see the work they are doing (Allen & Pea, 1992; Blumenfeld et al., 1991). Finally, students may align themselves with broader activities or initiatives, when their learning connects to what other students in other schools are learning or to what professionals are learning and doing in their own communities of practice” (Penuel, Korbak, Cole, & Jump, 1999, p. 445).

One project described in the research literature that used problem-based learning involves the following factors:

  • “Anchored in core curriculum; multidisciplinary
  • Involves students in sustained effort over time
  • Involves student decision-making
  • Collaborative
  • Has a clear real-world connection
  • Systematic assessment throughout the project
  • Takes advantage of multimedia as a communication tool” (Penuel, Korbak, Cole, & Jump, 1999, p. 446).

3. Reasons and Methods for Using Projects in Online Learning

The reasons for including project-based learning in online courses vary. For some, project-based learning enhances real-world sensibilities of learners. These offer opportunities for virtual teaming as individuals collaborate around projects. Learners may acclimate to the professional practitioner environment—with the professional standards and rules applied to their own (or group) creations. Learners may become aware of the wider marketplace for which they are building services and deliverables. Learners may find ways to innovate because they are in an environment without ready-made solutions and for which numerous open-ended designs may fulfill the project specs (depending on the field).

There are a range of Web-based tools for such collaborations. These include web conferencing tools, design tools, wikis, groupware, blogs, and others. Some learning / course management systems (L/CMSes) are brought into play as well. For specific domain fields, there is collaborative project-based learning using software tools that scaffold (or structure) the learning (Ward & Tiessen, 1997).

Communications are a critical aspect of success in group project-based learning. Some researchers observe:

“Not all verbal exchanges within collaborative groups lead to the solving of problems or the construction of shared meanings. Rather, productive verbal interactions within a group require that: (a) ideas are presented clearly and explicitly so that they may become shared, (b) group members elaborate on their own and others’ ideas, and (c) reasoning and evaluation of the ideas is done collaboratively” (Hoek & Seegers, 2005; Mercer, 1996, as cited in Apedoe, Mattis, Rowden-Quince, & Schunn, 2010, p. 596).

4. Typical Features of a Project in Project-Based Learning

While learners take on some critical responsibilities in project-based learning, faculty members are responsible for many aspects of coordinating and supporting the learning. One example is the practice of having learners share their own stories and opinions about real-world factors related to the project, in order to relate the learning more closely to what students already know and to help learners see how the project may have applications in their own lives. Further, there are “features that foster integration such as concept maps and presentations are associated with thinking about both personal events and science together” (Rivet & Krajcik, 2004, p. 435). The structure of project-based learning creates a “need to know” situation and provides deeper learner motivates for the learning (p. 435).

A project may be defined by the instructor (who sets up the parameters in rubrics, matrices, checklists, or other ways) to a degree. Students often play a big role, too, in defining the “project.” They may select a client—such as an organization or business—for whom they will create the work. They may also define the parameters of their project, the goals of the project, and the deliverables.

Different domain fields require different design features. The following is about project-based science learning.

“Design features which support contextualizing instruction in project-based science curriculum materials include: (1) a driving question to introduce and organize the contextualizing theme of the project, (2) an anchoring event or experience that all students share, (3) project activities linked and woven to the driving question and contextualizing theme, (4) student artifacts or projects related to the contextualizing theme that are developed during the unit, and (5) a culminating event or experience that brings closure to the project” (Rivet & Krajcik, 2002)”

(Rivet & Krajcik, 2004, p. 436).

Another instructional approach involves what other authors call “constructive controversy” (Daniels & Cajander, 2010). This begins with a defined crisis as a starting point to understand complex problems. The definition: “Constructive controversy exists when one person’s ideas, information, conclusions, theories, and opinions are incompatible with those of another and the two seek to reach an agreement”[Johnson & Johnson, 2007, as cited in Daniels & Cajander, 2010, p. 74]. This process helps learners achieve different points-of-view and empathize with different perspectives. A further lesson, the authors note, is that learners must be open-minded about different solutions and not commit to a particular solution too soon to the exclusion of other possibilities. Other researchers have noted that project-based learning often results in “intersubjective orientation” created by the shared work (Pifarré & Staarman, 2011, p. 187).

Most projects require documentation of the decision-making during the project and the work that is done. A layer of documentation involves the individual and group learning of the participants.

One tactic in “learning by design” (LBD) involves the capturing of learner reflections and experiences in their project work in order to inform future designs. Building on past processes enhance work in the field (Ryan & Kolodner, 2004, p. 450).

Professionals in the field often play a role in providing expert feedback to the learners. Instructors monitor progress throughout a project and will often intervene with coaching support and constructive observations.

Such projects enable learners to apply the principles of a field along with the methods. They may experience the professional work in a practical way. Learning is embedded in the design and execution of the activities. Projects are often iterative, with each new version getting closer to a practical and somewhat idealized solution.

5. Feedback for Learners in a PBL Situation / The Assessment of Projects in PBL

The products in project-based learning indicate an encapsulation of plenty of learning (Slivosky, Liddicoat, Clark, Widmann, Mello, & Self, 2007). Such projects often are designed to require research, collaboration, design, development, oral and written communications, and various technical competencies.

Learners will often get feedback from their instructors and subject matter experts (SMEs) from various fields. They may also receive peer assessments on the projects. There are often multiple points of feedback. Learners also write design (or research or project) journals to chronicle their work.

Socio-technical systems also are used to capture ideas and “feedback” for learners in PBL. Wikis offer “dialogic spaces” (Pifarré & Staarman, 2011, p. 187) where learners may share ideas.

To be effective, assessments need to mirror industry standards—albeit with constructive learner supports. Learners should have specific and defined steps about how to improve. They should develop an internal sense of the expectations of the field.


Business courses involve learner projects to write business plans, create marketing campaigns, and create and deliver products and services in the real world.

Journalism courses involve student projects to create media and stories for publication.

Research writing courses involve real-world projects to conduct research and analysis.

How To

The "how to's" can vary so widely that it would be too complex to list here.

Possible Pitfalls

Project-based learning assumes the culmination of some complex knowledge and skill sets. Without fairly intensive instructor support, learners who have not acquired a fair amount of prior knowledge may struggle in ways that are not necessary (and are frustrating to learners).

Plenty of thought and planning should go into the design of the projects in project-based learning. Instructors should assess the effectiveness of such projects and make changes as indicated. There should be feedback from learners. There should be feedback from industry (to ensure that the learning is relevant to the students' future work lives).

Module Post-Test

1. What is project-based learning (PBL)? What domain fields use project-based learning?

2. What sorts of learning are instructors trying to achieve using project-based learning?

3. Why are projects used in online learning? How are projects used in online learning?

4. What are some typical features of a “project” in project-based learning (PBL)? How do these features enhance the learning? What is the role of practitioners and professionals in the field in PBL?

5. What sorts of feedback are given to students in a project-based learning situation? How are projects in PBL assessed?


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Daniels, M. & Cajander, A. (2010). Constructive controversy as a way to create ‘true collaboration’ in an open ended group project setting. In the proceedings of the 12th Australasian Computing Education Conference: Brisbane, Australia. 73 – 78.

Doppelt, Y. (2009). Assessing creative thinking in design-based learning. International Journal of Technological Design Education: 19, 55 – 65. Springer Science + Business Media. DOI 10.1007/s10798-006-9008-y.

Hazzan, O., Dubinsky, Y., & Meerbaum-Salant, O. (2010). Didactic transposition in computer science education. ACM Inroads: 1(4), 33 – 37.

Ikonen, A., Piironen, A., Saurén, K., & Lankinen, P. (2009). CDIO concept in challenge based learning. In WESS ’09: Grenoble, France. 27 – 32.

Krogstie, B.R. (2008). Power through brokering: Open source community participation in software engineering student projects. In the proceedings of ICSE ’08: Leipzig, Germany. ACM. 791 – 800.

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Penuel, W.R., Cole, K.A., Korbak, C. (1999). Imagination, production, and collaboration in project-based learning using multimedia. In C. Hoadley (Ed), Proceedings of the 1999 Computer Support for Collaboration Learning Conference (pp. 445-453). Palo Alto, CA. Stanford University. Retrieved Jan. 4, 2012, at

Pifarré, M. & Staarman, J.K. (2011). Wiki-supported collaborative learning in primary education: How a dialogic space is created for thinking together. Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning: 6: 187 – 205. DOI 10.1007/s11412-011-9116-x.

Polman, J. L. (1996, July). Guiding expeditions: The iterative, situated design of a learning environment for project-based science. In D. C. Edelson & E. A. Domeshek (Eds.) Proceedings of the International Conference on the Learning Sciences, 1996 (pp. 585-586). Doctoral Consortium conducted at ICLS 96. Charlottesville, VA: AACE. Retrieved Jan. 4, 2012, at

Qidwai, U. (2011). Fun to learn: Project-based learning in robotics for computer engineers. ACM Inroads: (2)1. 42 – 46.

Rivet, A.E. & Krajcik, J.S. (2004). Contextualizing instruction in project-based science: Activating students’ prior knowledge and experiences to support learning. In the proceedings of the 6th International Conference on Learning Sciences. Retrieved Jan. 4, 2012, at 435 – 442.

Ryan, M.T. & Kolodner, J.L. (2004). Using 'Rules of Thumb' Practices to Enhance Conceptual Understanding and Scientific Reasoning in Project-Based Inquiry Classrooms. International Conference of the Learning Sciences, June 2004. 449 – 456.

Slivovsky, L.A., Liddicoat, A.A., Clark, C.M., Widmann, J., Mello, J., & Self, B. (2007). Enabling creativity in capstone design. In the proceedings of Science of Design Symposium (SOD ’07): Arcata, California, USA. 32 – 33.

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