In project-based learning (PBL), teachers present students with a real-world problem and challenge them to solve the problem through research and inquiry, often collaborating with each another and producing a final product that encompasses everything they have learned. The project relates back to the standards and learning objectives teachers are covering, but in a more tangible way. Often, PBL will naturally integrate objectives from a variety of subjects within the same project.

The Buck Institute for Education outlines seven essential components for project-based learning:

  1. a strong student activator
  2. a driving question
  3. opportunities for student voice and choice
  4. 21st-century skills
  5. time for inquiry and innovation
  6. feedback and revision
  7. a publicly presented final product.

Learn more about these seven essentials here.

The benefits of PBL

PBL not only makes instruction more meaningful for students; it helps them develop the skills they will need to be successful in their post-secondary lives and careers. Here are four benefits of PBL:

1. Opportunities for differentiation
One of the seven essential elements is student voice and choice, which naturally leads to more differentiation. Students can choose the topic they want to focus on within the main driving questions, which resources they want to use, and which type of product/output they’d like to develop. Additionally, they will spend much of their time doing independent research or group inquiry. This setup gives the teacher the time and space to meet with individual students and small groups to provide more specialized instruction.

2. Increased student engagement
PBL makes the connection between the classroom and the outside world easier to grasp. Students are actively solving real-world problems that their communities are experiencing right now. When you couple this with student choice, you create a learning experience that’s far more exciting and one that “sticks.”

3. Improved academic performance
Research shows that PBL helps students retain content knowledge longer, develop better problem-solving skills, and perform better on high-stakes tests. This makes sense when you think about the opportunities for differentiation and increased student engagement.

4. 21st-century skills development
The Framework for 21st Century Learning identifies both learning and innovation skills such as creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving, communication, and collaboration. With PBL, students have to employ critical thinking as well as creativity to solve real-world problems. Additionally, they work with their classmates throughout the projects, which fosters communication and collaboration skills.

PBL + SEL

The link between PBL and social emotional learning (SEL) lives directly within the 21st-century skills. In addition to the learning and innovation skills, the Framework for 21st Century Learning also identifies life and career skills: flexibility and adaptability, initiative and self-direction, social and cross-cultural skills, productivity and accountability, and leadership and responsibility.

SEL can lay the foundation and help students develop these skills. PBL provides an opportunity to put SEL skills into practice. For this reason, SEL programs and PBL initiatives complement and support one another when implemented correctly.

Let’s look at an example. PBL requires that students be able to effectively communicate and collaborate with one another. SEL helps student develop communication skills, respect for others, empathy, and ability to navigate conflicts or disagreements as they arise. It is important to realize that PBL can be challenging and sometimes frustrating. The ability to self-manage and be resilient will help students navigate these obstacles. SEL programming helps students develop these and other important life skills and sets them up for successful PBL.

About the Author:

Jennifer Money is a former classroom teacher. After watching her students struggle with emotional management, stress, and trauma, she knew that teachers needed more resources to meet their students’ social and emotional needs. Money currently works with Move This World, a social emotional learning program that provides preK-12 educators and students with digital tools to strengthen their social and emotional well-being in order to create healthy environments where effective teaching and learning can occur. Through evidence-based, developmentally appropriate digital tools, Move This World ritualizes a daily practice of identifying, expressing, and managing emotions.