The Basics

Project-based learning is a comprehensive instructional approach to engage students in sustained, cooperative investigation (Bransford & Stein, 1993).

Within its framework students collaborate, working together to make sense of what is going on. Project-based instruction differs from inquiry-based activity -- activity most of us have experienced during our own schooling -- by its emphasis on cooperative learning. Inquiry is traditionally thought of as an individually done, somewhat isolated activity. Additionally, project-based instruction differs from traditional inquiry by its emphasis on students' own artifact construction to represent what is being learned.

Students pursue solutions to nontrivial problems by

  • asking and refining questions
  • debating ideas
  • making predictions
  • designing plans and/or experiments
  • collecting and analyzing data
  • drawing conclusions
  • communicating their ideas and findings to others
  • asking new questions
  • creating artifacts (Blumenfeld et al., 1991).

There are two essential components of projects:

1. A driving question or problem that serves to organize and drive activities, which taken as a whole amount to a meaningful project

2. Culminating product(s) or multiple representations as a series of artifacts, personal communication (Krajcik), or consequential task that meaningfully addresses the driving question. (Brown & Campione, 1994).

Features of Project-Based Instruction

Let's take a closer look at four features that facilitate use of project-based instruction in K-12 classrooms.

1. A "driving question" that is anchored in a real-world problem and ideally uses multiple content areas

2. Opportunities for students to make active investigations that enable them to learn concepts, apply information, and represent their knowledge in a variety of ways

3. Collaboration among students, teachers, and others in the community so that knowledge can be shared and distributed between the members of the "learning community"

4. The use of cognitive tools in learning environments that support students in the representation of their ideas: cognitive tools such as computer-based laboratories, hypermedia, graphing applications, and telecommunications (Blumenfeld et al., 1991).

Issues Raised About Project-Based Learning

  • Support is essential.

    Despite considerable potential, project-based education is not without problems. The idea that projects represent learning by doing certainly is not new (Dewey, 1933; Kilpatrick, 1918).

    However, lessons from the past suggest that without adequate attention to ways of supporting teachers and students, these innovative educational approaches will not be widely adopted. Previous attempts at reform of curriculum and instruction in the 1960s used "investigative" and discovery learning as central themes. (Bruner, 1963)

    Although evidence suggests that such curricula enhanced student learning and motivation (e.g., Bredderman, 1983), their adoption and success were not as widespread as desired. According to Blumenfeld et al. (1991) the reasons for this included the fact that the projects were developed and disseminated without sufficient appreciation for the complex nature of motivation and knowledge required to engage students in difficult and reflective work.

  • Questions developed from novice learners are essential.

    Moreover, there was little regard for considering questions from the point of view of students [as novices] versus question formation from the vantage point of experts.

  • Focus on teacher knowledge and classroom environment is essential.

    Lastly, little attention was paid to the nature and extent of teacher knowledge and commitment to the complexity of classroom organization.

The Student in Project-Based Instruction

Students can be responsible for the creation of both the question and the activities, as well as the nature of the artifacts. Additionally, teachers or curriculum developers can create questions and activities.

Regardless of who generates it, the question cannot be so constrained that outcomes are predetermined, leaving students with little opportunity to develop their own approaches to investigating and answering the initial question.

Students' freedom to generate artifacts is critical, because it is through this process of generation that students construct their own knowledge. Because artifacts are concrete and explicit (e.g., a model, report, consequential task, videotape, or film) they can be shared and critiqued. This allows others to provide feedback, makes the activity authentic, and permits learners to reflect on and extend their knowledge and revise their artifacts.

Projects are decidedly different from conventional activities that are designed to help students learn information in the absence of a driving question. Such conventional activities might relate to each other and help students learn curricular content, but without the presence of a driving question, they do not hold the same promise that learning will occur as do activities orchestrated in the service of an important intellectual purpose (Sizer, 1984). Supporters of project-based learning claim that as students investigate and seek resolutions to problems, they acquire an understanding of key principles and concepts (Blumenfeld et al.,1991). Project-based learning also places students in realistic, contextualized problem-solving environments (CTGV, 1992).

Projects can thus serve as bridges between phenomena in the classroom and real-life experiences. Questions and answers that arise in daily enterprise are given value and are proven open to systematic inquiry.

  • Project-based education requires active engagement of students' effort over an extended period of time.
  • Project-based learning also promotes links among subject matter disciplines and presents an expanded, rather than narrow, view of subject matter.
  • Projects are adaptable to different types of learners and learning situations (Blumenfeld et al., 1991).

Instructional Sequence in Project-Based Instruction

The Mission to Mars unit (Petrosino, 1995) is a prototypical example of a model of project-based instruction. Beginning with a problem generation anchor video (Hickey et al., 1994) a context is set for students to generate their own problems in which they will be engaged for the remainder of the unit. Let's break down the instructional sequence:

The problem generation consists of problem posing, problem definition, and problem categorization.

This leads directly into the project-based portion of the instructional sequence

Next is the creation of cooperative teams (see Linn & Burbules [1993] for discussion on group learning in science classrooms) in which individual expertise will be acquired as groups begin to solve the problems posed and categorized in the preceding section.

After sustained study students break into Jigsaw groups, which provide a forum for the distribution of individual expertise to that of other students in the class.

It culminates with a consequential task in which students' thinking is made both visible and public (Brown & Campione, in press; Glaser, 1994).

Problem-based learning & project-based learning
(Moore et al., 1996).


1) Although schools attempt to prepare students for everyday life, school cultures are vastly different, and "success within this culture often has little bearing on performance elsewhere" (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989).

2) In fact, schools may actually be antithetical to any useful domain learning because resources, promotion of analytical skills, and types of activities differ dramatically in their use in out-of-school settings, including scientific activity (Roth & Bowen, 1995).

3) These apparent discrepancies are particularly noticeable in school science classes, which, in general, appear to be made to promote rites of passage rather than enculturating students into habits of mind and the high standards of experts (Roth & Bowen, 1995).

4) The long-term goal is to assist in the development of the students' abilities to learn for themselves (Bransford, Sherwood, Vye, & Rieser, 1986; Bruer, 1993; Resnick, 1987). If learning is properly understood as an activity of constructing knowledge, then students need to be mentally active. Since this type of thinking activity is consistent with that of experts in the field, it is unrealistic for students to "come upon" these habits of mind on their own.

5) Science as inquiry can no longer be interpreted by teachers as simply an investigative approach to science (Duschl & Gitomer, 1991). Science as inquiry must now also mean a minds-on approach.

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