Five students, male and female, sit around a laptop and work together on a project


Making the Case for Project-Based Learning

The release of four studies shows the wide-ranging benefits of students becoming active participants in their education

When the covid-19 pandemic forced colleges across the country to close, Rebecca François quickly realized many of her neighbors were in trouble. A second-year business major at University of Massachusetts Boston, François saw that students who relied on campus housing were suddenly homeless and slipping through the hastily assembled safety net of aid and relief. So she began advocating for her community to get them the help and support they needed—work made possible thanks to what she learned in high school.

As an AP United States History student at Dr. William W. Henderson K-12 Inclusion School, in Boston, François was part of a project-based learning classroom that flipped the script on how young people learn. Rather than being lectured to in preparation for a test, François and her classmates were active participants in order to prepare them to use what they learned—in school and in their lives. 

“We did not just stop at theories when it came to problem solving,” François said during a recent Edutopia webinar. “We actually worked through the steps to see what it would look like to put the ideas we have into action, facing the constraints you would have in real life, which mimics more the environment students face when they leave the classroom.”

“We were equal contributors in our education,” she added.

Three high school students, two male and one female, look at a model wind turbine and take notes

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A two-year study of the use of project-based learning in AP Environmental Science and AP U.S. Government and Politics showed significant achievement gains across socio-economic, racial, and gender lines.

What we learn is important—but how we learn makes all the difference. That’s one of the takeaways from data released last month by Lucas Education Research that examined the value and efficacy of project-based learning (PBL) in elementary, middle, and high schools.

Three of the studies were randomized controlled trials: one looked at the efficacy of using the rigorous Knowledge in Action PBL curricula and professional development, created by professors at the University of Washington along with teachers from Bellevue, WA and Des Moines, Iowa, in AP U.S. Government and Politics and AP Environmental Science; another gauged the effects of the Multiple Literacies in Project-Based Learning curriculum on elementary school science students; the third examined the impact on social studies and literacy learning in low-income schools that used Project PLACE, a PBL curriculum developed by the University of Michigan. The fourth was a quasi-experimental design study by Stanford University researchers of the Learning Through Performance curriculum to gauge PBL impacts on sixth grade science classes.

What researchers found in all the research is that rigorous project-based learning benefits students across income, racial, ethnic, and gender lines.

One reason is that PBL classrooms flip the script on who is driving learning. Rather than passively listening to and watching a teacher lecture, students become active participants in their education. They learn through inquiry-based projects built around a central, challenging question that is rooted in real-world problems. In AP US Government and Politics, for example, that can mean mock trials and simulated political campaigns where students are assigned roles and then required to dig into a policy position or job function.

Researchers from the USC Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research conducted the Knowledge in Action/AP study. It was the first ever study on the impact of PBL in the AP context. Their goal was to assess the practical impacts implementing PBL had on students and teachers in the high-stakes environment of an AP class. They partnered with five of the country’s largest predominantly urban districts, and over a two-year period researchers examined how learners and educators responded to the PBL experience.

Principal investigator Anna Rosefsky Saavedra said the first year represented a “big shift” for teachers and students as they acclimated to changed roles. But at the end, researchers compared AP test results from students in PBL classrooms against those in more traditional learning environments. They found PBL students outperformed their peers by 8 percentage points. That number grew to 10 points in the second year. “We saw that pattern of positive results within the AP U.S. Government course, within the AP Environmental Science course, within students from lower-income households and within students from higher-income households, and within each of the five districts,” Rosefsky Saavedra says in an Edutopia video. “I think that's very compelling.”

Young woman points holding a pencil while leading a discussion group

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In AP U.S. Government and Politics classrooms that use a project-based learning curriculum, students engage with course materials through exercises like mock trials, debates, and simulated political campaigns.

The Knowledge in Action program is in use across the country, including in many of the districts that participated in the study, which is a testament to its value for teachers and students.

“When we're doing a project-based learning classroom, we start to think more explicitly around power with rather than power over,” Stanley Richards, Digital Curriculum Manager at PBLWorks, tells The Elective. “There’s always room for lecture. Sometimes that didactic approach is necessary in the same way that, in PBL, you still need to do assessments. But it's done with a little bit more attention to how to bring students into experience a little bit more authentically.” (PBLWorks partnered with the College Board to train teachers for new PBL-focused AP courses.)

Prioritizing authentic learning experiences is what resonated most with Amber Graeber. She is the AP coordinator for Des Moines Public Schools and she brought PBL principles into Des Moines classrooms after using them as a teacher in Washington state. Graeber said the Knowledge in Action research project fundamentally changed her career, but more importantly resonated with her colleagues and students.

Two female high school students talk while their teacher, also female, listens

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In project-based learning classrooms, teachers are no longer center stage as students become the facilitators of their learning.

“Project-based learning impacts every teacher I work with and every coaching conversation I have ... and it has pushed me off the stage as a sage or a director and into the role of a facilitator of student learning,” she said in the Edutopia webinar. “These kids exceed my expectations every time. They are extremely creative, they are so productive. But we have to sometimes just get out of their way. … We really need to put students in the driver's seat and make them active participants in the classroom.”

Making school work better for students is what attracted George Lucas’ interest in PBL. Famous for creating the Star Wars universe, Lucas gravitated toward filmmaking in part as a result of his unpleasant school experience. Through the George Lucas Educational Foundation (GLEF), he has spent decades working to improve how kids across the country learn. In 2013, the Lucas Education Research division of GLEF was founded to focus on the design and evaluation of innovative practices in K–12 schools." Its first area of research was project-based learning, resulting in Knowledge in Action and the recent research.

“When the students have a stake in it, when students are enthusiastic, they learn a lot more,” Lucas said, opening the Edutopia webinar. “Being able to solve problems and to build things and to put things together, that's what it's all about.”