Project-Based Learning (PBL) in Higher Education FAQs

Higher Ed students collaborating on a project

A project-based curriculum is built around project work, where students—guided, rather than directed, by faculty—gain responsibility for their own learning by tackling tangible, open-ended problems faced by real people. But why should institutions adopt a culture of project-based learning, and what are the benefits to doing so?

  • High-Impact Practices: PBL is a way to build first-year seminars, undergraduate research, and capstones into curriculum, which has been shown to benefit students.
  • Authentic Tasks: Students crave relevance and can be highly motivated by opportunities to apply what they’ve learned to real-world problems.
  • Transferrable Skills: Valued by employers, abilities such as effective communication, critical thinking, and teamwork can help students lead more fulfilling lives.
  • Stand out from Peer Institutions: A PBL curriculum will make your institution more distinctive and attractive by connecting your core curriculum, first-year program, or integrative capstone experience to your goals and values.
  • Engage the Community: Working on challenges and opportunities in the community can deepen an institution’s connection to the world and help students become engaged citizens.

Interested to learn more?

Below are some of the most frequently asked questions about PBL in higher education to help determine if it is a good fit for your institution. For more information about PBL, subscribe for our quarterly AdvancePBL newsletter.

PBL Basics

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What is the difference between project-based learning and problem-based learning?

Project-based and problem-based learning have similarities in that they both address open-ended problems, encourage students to apply knowledge and develop transferrable skills, and are typically longer and more involved than traditional classroom assignments.

Project-based and problem-based learning also have some differences:

  • Project-based learning generally extends over a longer period of time (weeks or months), as opposed to problem-based learning, which typically involves much shorter experiences.
  • Project-based learning frequently includes the creation of a detailed report, artifact, plan, performance, video, or other end result, instead of just a proposed solution.
  • Project-based learning usually involves a real-world scenario, instead of a case study or hypothetical situation.
  • Project-based learning is generally multidisciplinary, whereas problem-based learning often involves only one subject.

 

How is PBL different from traditional learning for students?

PBL requires students to become more active learners. In PBL, students…

  • Tackle open-ended challenges that do not have a “correct” answer
  • May need to draw on multiple disciplines
  • Are challenged to learn new topics and develop new skills, sometimes with less guidance than they’re used to
  • Are given multiple opportunities to get helpful feedback and revise their work
  • Typically work in teams and must communicate with different audiences (instructor, peers, others) in different forms (oral, written, visual)

 

How is PBL different from traditional instruction for faculty?

PBL also requires instructors to take on new roles and mindsets:

  • Instructors using PBL should seek to build a supportive environment where students aren’t afraid to fail or to ask for help. PBL requires students to get out of their comfort zones and become much more active/independent learners than they are typically used to being. That requires courage and trust.
  • Just as an athletic coach wants each athlete to develop and excel, faculty doing PBL should focus on helping all students succeed, rather than on determining which are “best.” Instructors should emphasize cooperation over competition, and let students learn as much from each other as they can.
  • Students need regular, formative feedback on project work, and so faculty must adapt their primary roles to be coaches and mentors, rather than experts and evaluators.
  • Process matters. Professionalism, teamwork, communication, and timeliness are key skills that will help students get and keep jobs later in life. Be explicit about the importance of these skills, promote good processes, and find ways to evaluate process and growth, not just products. Don’t just grade on results.
  • Progress matters. The focus should be more on student learning and growth than on “successful” projects, particularly for students new to PBL. Learning outcomes that state what students should learn to do should be (a) made clear to students, (b) used to guide the design of assignments, and (c) used to evaluate performance.
  • Help students learn to create equitable and inclusive teamwork environments. Learning to work in a team is crucial for professional success. Faculty tend to worry about “freeloaders,” but most common teamwork problems stem from (a) marginalization (students not being given the opportunity to contribute) and (b) conflict avoidance. Women, minorities, LGBTQ+ students, and first-generation students are more likely to be marginalized in teams and to have negative teamwork experiences than are other students. Resources to help mitigate inequitable teamwork can be found here.

 

Why are institutions moving toward PBL?

Among the colleges and universities we have worked with these are the most common motivations for advancing PBL work:

  • Improving learning and retention: Knowing that high-impact practices—such as collaborative work, undergraduate research, writing-intensive courses, community-based learning, and capstones—result in better student learning, some institutions see PBL as a way to achieve many such practices.
  • Enhancing the first year: High levels of engagement can lead to increased retention and student success. Some institutions see PBL as a way to make first-year experiences more engaging, applied, and integrative.
  • Reforming general education: Many institutions are moving away from distribution-based core curricula/general education requirements to more integrative and interdisciplinary models. PBL can be an effective strategy for these up-to-date models and for developing “transferrable skills” such as critical thinking, teamwork, communication, and problem solving.
  • Making the institution more distinctive: Some institutions are looking to stand out from their peers by establishing PBL as a signature pedagogy across the curriculum.

PBL in Different Contexts

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Can first-year students handle project work?

Yes. Many of the institutions we’ve worked with see project work as a way to engage and connect with first-year students. That is consistent with our experience at WPI. Kristin Wobbe and Elizabeth Stoddard recently published a book, “Project-Based Learning in the First Year: Beyond all expectations,” that has examples of PBL assignments and grading rubrics as well as other guides for using PBL. While these elements come from courses for first-year students, most can be modified, adapted or used as is for upper-level students as well.

 

Has PBL been effective at minority-serving institutions?

WPI’s Center for PBL has worked with numerous minority-serving institutions who see PBL as a way to better prepare their students for successful careers and lives. Here’s what the literature says:

  • Project-based learning (PBL) has been demonstrated to be equally effective (Laursen et al., 2011; Corkin, Horn, & Pattison, 2017) and, in some studies, more effective (Han, Capraro, & Capraro, 2015; Mehalik, Doppelt, & Schuun, 2008) at increasing student learning with underrepresented minority students as it is with White and Asian students.
  • PBL has been found to be more appealing to underrepresented minority students than traditional lecture-based courses (Dierker et al., 2015), which can increase student engagement.
  • For minority-serving institutions with open admissions policies, PBL has been demonstrated to improve students’ motivation to succeed and boost students’ self-efficacy (Corkin, Horn, & Pattison, 2017; Schaffer, Chen, Zhu, & Oakes, 2012), which translates into learning gains.
  • For more about these findings see this CPBL Research Brief.

 

Is PBL a good fit for community colleges?

WPI’s Center for PBL has worked with over a dozen community colleges from around the U.S. that are implementing project work in their courses and programs. Here’s what the research says:

  • Many community college students do not experience high-impact practices with any regularity; however, faculty at community colleges often expect their students to learn 21st century skills (Center for Community College Student Engagement, 2015).
  • Experiential learning, such as project-based learning (PBL), has been found to be one of seven high-impact practices that promote retention (Kuh, 2008; National Survey of Student Engagement, 2007).
  • The impact of PBL and other experiential learning experiences on community college students’ academic outcomes is scant, revealing mixed outcomes on grades, competencies, and course credits earned (Taggart & Crisp, 2011; Prentice, 2009).
  • Several practices common in PBL, such as student choice and authentic problems, increase the positive effects of service learning (Yorio & Ye, 2012) and of learning communities (Sommo, Mayer, Rudd, & Cullinan, 2012; Weiss, et al., 2015).
  • For more about PBL in community colleges, see this CPBL Research Brief.

 

Can PBL used in graduate education?

Yes. While PBL has been used extensively in medical and other professional schools for years, there is little research about using PBL in more academic graduate programs.  Here is what the research says:

  • Project-based learning (PBL) can be used to enhance research experiences by helping graduate students learn how to translate their content expertise into discipline-appropriate products for a variety of audiences (Mallinson, 2018; Sleeter, Schrum, Swan, & Broubalow 2019).
  • As has been demonstrated in undergraduate education (Ahern, Dominguez, McNally, O’Sullivan, & Pedrosa, 2019; Hart, 2019; Stolk & Martello, 2015), graduate students who experience PBL learn an array of professional skills (Brundiers & Wiek, 2013; Wurdinger & Qureshi, 2015).
  • Graduate students engage in more advanced levels of knowledge construction in online courses that use PBL than in online discussions during non-PBL competency building assignments (Koh, Herring, & Hew, 2010).
  • For more about PBL in graduate settings, see this CPBL Research Brief.

 

Can PBL be effective in hybrid and fully online courses?

Many of the principles of good online education align with those of PBL:

  • Provide opportunities for students to learn from each other in small-group interactions
  • Provide students with regular feedback
  • Limit lecturing and put more of an emphasis on designing learning activities for students

The CPBL website contains a collection of resources for PBL online, including these:

  • This blog post by Christopher Pappas links to a number of other resources that can be adapted to PBL online, depending on which type of resources you’re looking for in your own teaching.
  • This blog post by Josh Temple takes a student/end user perspective, which brings a different set of advice to the foreground. These suggestions might be more readily adapted in MOOCs than hybrid courses or online courses within traditional college programs. However, the strategies could make for great advice to students. Much of what Josh writes about here involves the “hidden curriculum” of learning online.
  • Chanpet, Chomsuwan, & Murphy (2018) describe their implementation of online with useful tables and figures.
  • The Team Care Model is an online tool that can be a resource for (self-) managing team dynamics, with research backing from the University of Calgary.
  • Finally, Practera is an online platform that supports PBL through team management, analytics appropriate to team- and individual-based PBL, and various other mechanisms built specifically for experiential learning.

 

How do you consider commuter students in designing PBL courses?

Here are some of the strategies college often use:

  • Form student teams based on their schedules/availability, or where they live
  • Think about what tasks can be done asynchronously, and which will benefit from synchronous or in-person group work
  • Devote some scheduled classroom time to certain group activities. This guarantees student teams will have time to collaborate and signals the importance of working together.
  • Encourage use of online collaboration platforms for synchronous and asynchronous group work.

PBL Pedagogy

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Where do project ideas come from?

Project ideas can come from instructors, students, or third parties (community organizations, government, private sector, etc.). Here are a few suggestions:

  • Instructors should look for projects that are at an appropriate level of challenge and, to the extent possible, are likely to be compelling or relevant to students.
  • If possible, giving students some choice about which project to tackle increases the likelihood that they will become engaged and feel some ownership.
  • With suitable guidelines, students can choose project topics for themselves—in that case, it’s probably best for the instructor to approve topics for suitability.
  • Often the most compelling and engaging projects come from outside the classroom—a community organization, for example, or a current event in the news.

 

Do I need different project ideas each time I offer the course?

The more “open-ended” a project is, the easier it is to use it for multiple offerings. Still, it’s preferable to offer a unique project challenge for each offering, if possible. The underlying instructional design (assignments, deadlines, deliverables) can often remain the same for an entirely new project topic in a given course.

 

How is grading managed in projects?

PBL grading requires some thought, since it’s focused more on student learning and skill development than on answers that are right or wrong. Still, students in PBL can generate rich evidence of their learning and accomplishments that can be helpful both for program improvement and for accreditation. Some grading suggestions:

  • Students should be informed of grading criteria at the very start of a project.
  • Project grades should reflect not just products and outcomes, but also process and effort.
  • Grade determination should be aligned with clearly stated learning outcomes.
  • Instructors can decide if grades for work done in teams need be the same, or if the grade can be different for each team member. Students should know which will apply.

Grading rubrics have many benefits. They:

  • Assess student work in a consistent manner
  • Convey quality standards to students
  • Support student self- and peer-assessment
  • Form a basis to evaluate programs
  • Proactively create a basis for having rational discussions with students when grade disputes arise

 

How do you design impactful capstone projects?

Think of capstones as a way for students to apply some previous knowledge to a new situation, rather than a way for them to learn new content (although that will almost certainly happen).

  • Be intentional about building in opportunities for students to develop and demonstrate “transferrable” learning outcomes such as critical thinking, teamwork, oral and written communication, and project management, regardless of the discipline.
  • Using your community as a backdrop or recipient of student work can be very powerful. Capstones need not be overly technical nor elaborate—high-quality work can be demonstrated in a number of ways, and the most important learning outcomes (application, communication, critical thinking, etc.) are broadly applicable.
  • Give students opportunities to make their work public through poster presentations, online galleries, or presentations to sponsoring organizations.

 

If you were doing a long-term project spread over more than one semester, would you encourage students to work at their own pace to master the learning objectives?

We have found that PBL works best with regular interim assignments and clear deadlines.  Students who may not be used to open-ended assignments benefit from structure and regular feedback, both to keep them on task and on track.

  • Use early assignments as a way to monitor project direction and make sure students are on a productive path. If not, steer them in a better direction. Try to focus more on helpful, formative feedback than evaluation during the early stages.
  • Breaking the project into bite-sized, accomplishable tasks, especially for novice learners, can make the whole experience less overwhelming and helps students with time management.
  • More advanced students may need less structure, but regular meetings and interim deadlines are still a good idea to provide guidance and monitor progress.

 

How can I make sure students learn content information while using PBL?

Some options to consider:

  • Assign student groups different sections of content and have them develop a short presentation and/or materials for their fellow students. The students would still be responsible for all the details (or those that you find important) and would deeply learn the ones that they have to teach. You could award points for creative materials that would make the content memorable.
  • Another possibility might be something along the lines of the attached assignment/rubric used in a human biology course here at WPI (enrollment about 100). You could modify the exact assignment to better fit your course materials.

PBL in Specific Disciplines

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Does PBL work well with healthcare programs?

Problem-based learning is very common in health-related education, and project-based learning can be similarly well suited, particularly for providing students with opportunities to apply and practice their learning. In fact, you may be doing something similar to PBL already, but calling it a practicum, lab, or clinical experience.

 

What are some examples of how PBL can be used in the humanities?

Many liberal arts-focused colleges are advancing PBL. Here are a few examples of how PBL can fit into humanities and arts courses:

  • Music students can plan and deliver a performance, perhaps of original work.
  • Art students can plan and deliver an exhibit or installation.
  • Writing students can develop websites, brochures, or manuals for local organizations.
  • History students can develop multimedia stories depicting historical events in their communities.
  • Language students can develop multimedia stories about a part of the world where the target language is spoken, or be partnered with a student in such a country to develop a bilingual podcast. For more about PBL in the Humanities, see this CPBL Research Brief.

 

Do engineering programs using PBL face difficulties aligning to ABET standards?

As an example, about 60% of WPI students earn ABET-accredited engineering degrees. ABET was a strong supporter of WPI’s move to a PBL curriculum because it changed the emphasis from passing courses to demonstrating abilities. That doesn’t mean it was easy—some accreditation visitors have had trouble wrapping their heads around the idea of looking for evidence of learning outcomes as opposed to “counting beans” on transcripts, especially in the early years of the curriculum.

But PBL work can produce student artifacts that are powerful evidence of learning, if the faculty understand the learning goals and scaffold the experiences accordingly. For example, most engineering programs now use PBL to satisfy the capstone design criterion. The engineering community has made great strides in understanding learning theory and high-impact practices in recent decades. Having a good assessment plan, of course, is important.


Working with External Partners

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What happens when the community partner connected to a successful PBL-embedded course has a change of staffing or focus?

When this does occasionally happen, it’s often best to simply find someone else. In order to safeguard against disruption, using multiple community partners or allowing students to identify potential projects can help provide more options for pivoting to a new topic.  Most community organizations and many businesses, either for-profit or not-for-profit, have problems that they are eager to have help with, and when choosing a partner, it’s wise to take on smaller challenges rather than mission-critical ones.

 

How do you handle the lifetime of projects with a community partner? How do you narrow or expand the scope of the project to fit into the academic term?

We encourage community partners to identify problems rather than tasks, so that faculty advisors can work with the students to “scope” the project to the time/resources available by choosing a suitable and realistic project goal. That goal is often to develop recommendations or a system-level specification rather than taking something all the way to implementation.

We make sure that the sponsors see this not as an internship, but as a for-credit academic activity. We suggest that sponsors give us “back burner” problems rather than something mission-critical. And often, we will have multiple teams work on a problem over time, with subsequent teams building on the work of previous students.


Faculty Development for PBL

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What support can institutions provide for faculty implementing PBL?

Different institutions handle this differently, depending on their resources. Often the nexus of support is the college’s or university’s Center for Teaching and Learning. Some examples of support:

  • Summer stipends for faculty to redesign a course
  • Resources to attend a conference or workshop to get and share ideas
  • Mentoring programs that pair faculty new to PBL with more experienced colleagues
  • Faculty learning communities that meet regularly to share PBL ideas and strategies
  • Faculty showcase events to share and celebrate innovative classroom approaches

As an additional resource, WPI’s Center for Project-Based Learning also supports faculty development at other institutions through our Institute on Project-Based Learning and through professional development.

 

How much work is required to design a good PBL course? What resources can you suggest for helping faculty begin the PBL design process?

Good instructional design takes time. The design time depends on the extent of the PBL.

  • Faculty often start by designing PBL assignments (for example, to replace some homework or lab experiences) that constitute a modest portion of the course, say 20% or so.
  • Transforming a course to all-PBL would, of course, require more time (and carry more risk, if the instructor has little experience with PBL).
  • The good news is that once you’ve done the instructional design (learning outcomes, interim assignments, teamwork processes, grading rubrics, form of deliverables), often you can use them again and again, making only minor adjustments in future offerings.
  • The place to start is always with learning outcomes: Try to articulate what skills and abilities are motivating the move to PBL. Then think about how students might generate evidence of those outcomes through their work. If your college has instructional designers, they can also be of great assistance.
  • You can find a lot of great PBL resources and ideas at PBLWorks, even though it’s aimed mainly at K-12 educators.
  • The Center for PBL website has resources as well.

 

Do you have resources for contacting PBL consultants?