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Project-Based Learning (PBL)

A short guide for creating engaging, student-centered, and real-world lessons that support community in the classroom
by Anthony J. Girasoli, Ph.D.

PBL Overview

Project-Based Learning (PBL) is a constructionist approach to learning. Students build their understanding by solving real-world problems and navigating to the solution with guidance from their instructor. In PBL, students have defined roles and work together on a project to solve a complex, real-world problem.

Students’ Self-efficacy

A person’s self-efficacy is the level of confidence they have in the performance of a task. Supporting students’ self efficacy when designing PBL and coaching them is essential to increasing success with learning. The four sources of self-efficacy from the strongest to the weakest are:

  1. Mastery Experiences: A student knows and can demonstrate the skills that are needed to succeed.
  2. Vicarious Experiences: These are the skills that a student learns by observing a knowledgeable model. A peer who has strong mastery experiences can offer a stronger source of vicarious experiences.
  3. Verbal Persuasion: By providing supportive and clear feedback to a student’s actions, an instructor can persuade a student that he/she is on the right track.
  4. Emotional States: By ensuring that a student’s stress and anxiety levels are low, a student is more likely to succeed.

Creating a PBL Lesson

Lesson Design
  1. Begin with an open-ended, complex and relevant real-world problem that students should be able to personally connect to.
  2. Define the learning goals of the lesson. What kind of research must the students perform? What smaller problems must students solve in order to reach the overarching problem? What artifact(s) must the students create (e.g., a report, a presentation, a video, etc.) to communicate the results of the project?
  3. Create the student groups for the project. These groups can be random, or if needed, purposive: where each group has one or more stronger peer models. Help the students define their roles in the project.
  4. Guide the students through the learning process as a coach, providing support as needed.
  5. Evaluate the students’ success from their artifact(s) using rubrics. Students should have access to the rubrics from the onset.

Additional Resources 

General resources on PBL

  • Center for Project-Based Learning: Worcester Polytechnic Institute's website provides information on PBL basics, PBL pedagogy, implementing PBL in different disciplines and student contexts, and using PBL with external partners. The website includes a series of research briefs on PBL, a free quarterly newsletter on project-based learning, and podcasts and webinars.
  • Getting Started with Project-Based Learning: This resource from Columbia University provides an overview of PBL and suggestions for developing project-based teaching practices.
  • PBL Works: This website created by the Buck Institute for Education provides tips for getting started with PBL, information on essential design elements, and videos highlighting PBL projects in K-12 settings.
  • Problem-Based Learning is closely aligned with Project-Based Learning. A difference between the two is that students create an artifact to demonstrate understanding with Project-Based Learning. The Problem Library at the University of Delaware has many undergraduate-level Problem-Based Learning lessons that fit into Project-Based Learning.
  • Project-Based Learning in the First Year: Beyond All Expectations: Written by Kristin Wobbe & Elisabeth A. Stoddard, this book discusses the value of PBL; shares how to introduce it in first-year programs; and provides sample syllabi, assignments, and assessments. The book is available to borrow from the CTLA Lending Library (ask for book #81).

Additional resources for implementing PBL

Resources on self-efficacy