Researchers, Educators and Students React to Rigorous PBL Studies


A new body of research on project-based learning (PBL) makes a powerful case that young people across urban, suburban, and rural school settings from various socio-economic, racial and ethnic groups benefit from active, challenging, authentic and relevant learning experiences.

Anna Rosefsky Saavedra, research scientist, University of Southern California Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research, principal investigator, Knowledge in Action AP study: “The pattern of results was positive overall and improved performance was not driven by any one particular subgroup. Rather we observed improved performance among students from lower- and higher-income households, in both AP Environmental Science and Government courses, and in every one of the participating districts."

Walter Parker, professor emeritus of social studies and political science at the University of Washington, developer of the Knowledge in Action AP curricula: “Political and environmental knowledge and problem-solving matter now like never before. The Knowledge in Action AP study shows that thoughtfully constructed opportunities for active learning result in rigorous learning. We can have our cake and eat it, too.”

Nell Duke, professor of literacy, language and culture, University of Michigan, principal investigator, 2nd grade social studies and literacy learning study: “Too often, students in high-poverty school districts are denied the opportunity to experience intellectually rigorous and engaging curricula. This study shows what can happen when that opportunity is available. Through project-based learning, students made contributions to their local community and showed growth on measures of achievement. I’m hopeful that the project-based learning approach that we studied will be taken up more widely.”

Across the four studies, teachers report that project-based instructional practices greatly improved student engagement, and therefore learning and retention of information, within the classroom and across subject matter areas.

Erin Fisher, history and social studies teacher, Lake Braddock Secondary School, Virginia, teaches the Knowledge in Action AP Government and Politics curriculum: : “Before, my classes were all lecture-based, all me, and it was often boring for my students. With the switch to project-based learning, students were asking more questions, taking control of their learning, doing more research because their learning was more connected to the real world. And we saw a big jump in our AP scores.”

Shemeka Simmons, science teacher, Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology, North Carolina, has taught the Knowledge in Action AP Environmental Science curriculum: “The projects pushed the students to the next level and stretched me as an instructor. The units don’t start with showing the class an exemplar so the sky's the limit in terms of student creativity... During the food systems unit, students had the idea to invite visitors into our classroom to hear them present engineering plans for constructing a sustainable town.”

Jeremy Garn, third-grade teacher, Dye Elementary School, Flint, Michigan, teaches the Multiple Literacies in PBL science course: “Students learn how to arrive at answers without the teacher having to tell them. And it’s interdisciplinary. I’ve seen it create flourishing discussions where students are able to not just disagree but support their disagreements with evidence.”

Billie Freeland, third grade teacher, Kent City Community Schools, Michigan, teaches the Multiple Literacies in PBL science course: “Third grade students work on the "Toy Unit." But don't let the name fool you; they are not just playing around! Third graders learn the concepts of gravity, friction, force and direction by designing toys from simple objects such as water bottles, straws and recycled milk cartons. The unit ends with them designing their own toys that use magnetic or electrical force.”

Michelle Fitts, middle school teacher, East Bay Innovation Academy, Oakland, CA, teaches the Learning Through Performance science curriculum: “During the thermal energy unit, the students have to design an engineering box so that a local food truck can bake cookies using solar energy. I see the kids failing then figuring it out, and improving their second and third device. They are applying and testing their knowledge like real scientists."

Lynn Bigelman, principal (retired), Grayson Elementary School, Waterford, Michigan, who observed teachers at her school using the Project PLACE curriculum for second grade social studies: “The children had a voice and they were able to speak with the local city council member and get improvements done to their playground. Problem-solving, critical thinking, and civic learning were all happening.” 

Students report that learning in a PBL classroom felt more connected to their lives, got them out into their communities, and taught them skills they continue to find useful. 

Anna Gillespie, first year at Elon University, took AP Government and Politics: “The unit on elections gave us real-life experiences that were different from reading a textbook. The teacher didn’t lecture very much which gave us more opportunities for discussion where we could develop our own opinions on politics.”

Gil Leal, UCLA freshman, took AP Environmental Science: “It wasn’t just tests. The projects made class really cool and engaging and memorable, and we got to visit a real strawberry farm. AP Environmental Science is what got me interested in majoring in Environmental Science in college.”