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Project-Based Learning and Student Achievement

A growing body of research supports the use of Project-Based Learning (PBL) as an instructional methodology. Schools where PBL is practiced find a decline in absenteeism, an increase in cooperative learning skills, and improvement in student achievement. When technology is used to promote critical thinking and communication, these benefits are further enhanced.

Looking specifically at how PBL supports 21st century learning goals, we can find several promising areas surrounding both academic achievement and 21st century competencies, including:

Academic achievement:
Goals for 21st century learning emphasize mastery of significant academic content, which also is the foundation of any well-designed project. Comparisons of learning outcomes in PBL versus more traditional, textbook-and-lecture driven instruction show that:
  • Students learning through PBL retain content longer and have a deeper understanding of what they are learning.(Penuel & Means, 2000; Stepien, Gallagher & Workman, 1993)
  • In specific content areas, PBL has been shown to be more effective than traditional methods for teaching math, economics, language, science, and other disciplines.(Beckett & Miller, 2006; Boaler, 2002; Finkelstein et al., 2010; Greier et al., 2008; Mergendoller, Maxwell, & Bellisimo, 2006)
  • On high-stakes tests, PBL students perform as well or better than traditionally taught students. (Parker et al., 2011)

21st century competencies:

PBL helps students master the key competencies identified as essential for college and career readiness. Research has shown:

  • Students demonstrate better problem-solving skills in PBL than in more traditional classes and are able to apply what they learn to real-life situations. (Finkelstein et al., 2010)
  • When teachers are trained in PBL methods, they devote more class time to teaching 21st century skills; their students perform at least as well on standardized tests as students engaged in traditional instruction. (Hixson, Ravitz, & Whisman, 2012)
  • PBL students also show improved critical thinking. (Beckett & Miller, 2006; Horan, Lavaroni, & Beldon, 1996; Mergendoller, Maxwell, & Bellisimo, 2006; Tretten & Zachariou, 1995)
  • Through PBL experiences, students improve their ability to work collaboratively and resolve conflicts. (Beckett & Miller; ChanLin, 2008)
  • Opportunities for collaborative learning provide benefits to students across grade levels, academic subjects, and achievement levels (Johnson & Johnson, 2009; Slavin, 1996)