Thinking about authentic learning? Try Project-Based Learning

The Educationalist. By Alexandra Mihai

Welcome to a new issue of “The Educationalist”. This week I would like to discuss an active learning method that has the potential to bridge the gap between the classroom and the labour market: Project-Based Learning (PjBL). Have you ever thought about how far the learning experience you are offering students is from what they will experience in their future professional careers? And if so, what can you do to reduce this gap? This has been on my mind in the past weeks so I thought I’d write down some of my thoughts and, as usual, collect and share some resources. To help you get a better grasp of the potential of this method I am briefly describing its main features and the potential learning objectives PjBL can achieve and then conclude with some tips to consider while designing a course based on this approach. If you have examples of projects your students have been working on- please feel free to share them! Have a great week!


What is Project-Based Learning?

Part of the broader family of Active Learning pedagogies, Project-Based Learning (PjBL) is an inquiry-based instructional approach, based on a paradigm that places the learners in the centre, in control of their own learning. The learners are expected to use disciplinary concepts as well as various tools and technologies to solve real-life problems. I am using PjBL as an abbreviation in order to distinguish it from Problem-Based Learning (PBL), which was the topic of the last issue; however, in literature you mostly find both methods abbreviated at PBL, which makes it rather confusing.

Five main features of PjBL

  1. The instructors play the role of a coach or facilitator: They need to design a learning experience that will allow the students to reach the learning goals by themselves, working individually or in groups and learning how to manage their own work, under the guidance of the instructor.

  2. It involves a mix of substantive knowledge and skills: The instructors need to find a balance between the amount of input they provide and the guided and non-guided group activities.

  3. It usually consists of activities performed in small groups (ideally 3-5 students): By simulating team work in a regular work environment, this collaborative work in itself is a way to train a series of skills that are relevant on the labour market: distributing roles, independent work within a team, accountability to peers, shared responsibility as well as active listening;

  4. The direct involvement of practitioners in the learning process: They play a crucial role by bringing their expertise to the table and motivating students by involving them in either real-time or simulated projects;

  5. One of the main goals is to engage students in real-world tasks: Due to the practical, hands-on nature of this methodology, students are also thought to increase their sense of responsibility and discipline.

Why use PjBL?

  • Active inquiry is thought to lead to deeper learning and it contributes to transforming students into independent learners;

  • It provides a practical component that comes to complement more theoretical courses;

  • It offers students the opportunity to gain hands-on experience of a work environment, meet practitioners and try to solve real-life problems from their perspective and with their tools;

  • It represents a useful venue for professional development, such as practicing various skills like team work, presentation and project management;

  • Because of its versatility; you can use this method across disciplines and at different levels, adapting the projects to students’ background and experience; the projects can take a full semester (like capstone projects, for instance, which in some cases replace the thesis) or run over several weeks.

PjBL vs PBL

While Project- Based Learning and Problem-Based Learning share many features (e.g. small group work, teachers as facilitators), there are some differences worth noting when you decide on the approach to follow. PjBL generally implies a specific output (e.g. creating a product, a service, designing a toolkit, drafting and pitching a report, etc), which is not always the case for PBL. Also, in the case of PjBL, students usually work on one project for the duration of the entire course, whereas in PBL there can be various assignments (which is also one of the strengths of the method). What is more, in PjBL the project represents the core of the course, with all the learning activities being designed to support students in the completion of the project. The involvement of practitioners/ partner organisations is a very important feature that distinguishes PjBL from other approaches, as it provides an authentic element to the learning experience and offers students an insight into a potential work environment.

Tips

  • Think creatively: When you use PBL you should design activities that both your students and you can enjoy;

  • Be ready to assume the role of a coach and move away from the “lecture mode”: You will offer students resources and support but refrain from providing them with direct answers or closely controlling and directing the course progress;

  • Find a “teaching partner” – be it a colleague professor or a practitioner. If you choose to teach together with a practitioner or a partner organisation try to make sure they are fully committed to the learning objectives of the course and that they are reliable and available to support the students;

  • Try to find the right balance between real-life tasks and the learning experience: The real work environment is often unpredictable and highly demanding, thus creating potential stressful situations that could alter the learning experience and detract the students from the initial learning objectives;

  • Have students reflect on their learning and especially on the group work dynamic: organise brief teambuilding exercises whenever possible.

Resources