Research Briefs

The following research briefs summarize the findings of peer-reviewed studies examining the impact of project-based learning across subjects and grades. The briefs provide context for the research and can help policymakers, educators, system leaders, and families deepen their understanding of what the evidence reveals about the effectiveness of rigorous project-based learning. See below for more information on the research briefs. Each is available to download or share.

Project-Based Learning Boosts Student Achievement in AP Courses

Saavedra, A.R., Liu Y., Haderlein, S.K., Rapaport, A., Garland, M., Hoepfner, D., Morgan, K.L., Hu, A., & Lucas Education Research. (2021). Project-Based Learning Boosts Student Achievement in AP Courses. Lucas Education Research.

This brief examines the findings of a study conducted by researchers at the University of Southern California examining a project-based approach to Advanced Placement courses. The randomized study found the proportion of students earning a credit-qualifying score on the AP test was 8 percentage points higher in the project-based version of the course, as compared to traditional instruction, after teachers had been teaching with the Knowledge in Action (KIA) program for a year. The gain was estimated to be 10-percentage points higher after teachers used the curriculum and related supports for two years.

The researchers examined the impact of project-based learning on AP U.S. Government and AP Environmental Science courses in five predominantly urban districts around the country. A higher proportion of the students were from low-income households than is typical of the AP test-taking community. That’s notable, as policymakers and educators are trying to get more unrepresented students enrolled in and passing AP courses.

Published: February 2021

Project-Based Learning Boosts Student Achievement in AP Courses

Saavedra, A.R., Liu Y., Haderlein, S.K., Rapaport, A., Garland, M., Hoepfner, D., Morgan, K.L., Hu, A., & Lucas Education Research. (2021). Project-Based Learning Boosts Student Achievement in AP Courses. Lucas Education Research.

This brief examines the findings of a study conducted by researchers at the University of Southern California examining a project-based approach to Advanced Placement courses. The randomized study found the proportion of students earning a credit-qualifying score on the AP test was 8 percentage points higher in the project-based version of the course, as compared to traditional instruction, after teachers had been teaching with the Knowledge in Action (KIA) program for a year. The gain was estimated to be 10-percentage points higher after teachers used the curriculum and related supports for two years.

The researchers examined the impact of project-based learning on AP U.S. Government and AP Environmental Science courses in five predominantly urban districts around the country. A higher proportion of the students were from low-income households than is typical of the AP test-taking community. That’s notable, as policymakers and educators are trying to get more unrepresented students enrolled in and passing AP courses.

Published: February 2021

Project-Based Learning Leads to Gains in Science and Other Subjects in Middle School and Benefits All Learners

Deutscher, R.R., Holthuis, N.C., Maldonado, S.I., Pecheone, R.L., Schultz, S.E., Wei, R.C., & Lucas Education Research. (2021). Project-Based Learning Leads to Gains in Science and Other Subjects in Middle School and Benefits All Learners. Lucas Education Research.

This research brief highlights the findings of a study looking at the impact of a project-based approach to science instruction in middle school. Stanford University experts and middle school teachers developed the project-based program, Learning Through Performance (LTP). Researchers found that the approach boosted student achievement in science by 11 percentage points and increased student engagement. The students using the LTP curriculum also outperformed their peers on state assessments in mathematics (from 12-18 percentage points in years one and two, respectively) and English language arts (from 8-10 percentage points in years one and two, respectively), indicating they grew in those subject areas as well. And English language learners outperformed their peers on a test used to measure language proficiency, by 8 percentage points in the first year and 28 percentage points for students whose teachers who were in their second year of teaching the LTP curriculum. 

Teaching practices shifted too. The study found LTP teachers improved at facilitating groupwork, increased their use of activities that involved real-world, hands-on application of science, increased their use of language-rich assignments and discussion strategies, and grew in their use of performance assessments.

Published: February 2021

Project-Based Learning Leads to Gains in Science and Other Subjects in Middle School and Benefits All Learners

Deutscher, R.R., Holthuis, N.C., Maldonado, S.I., Pecheone, R.L., Schultz, S.E., Wei, R.C., & Lucas Education Research. (2021). Project-Based Learning Leads to Gains in Science and Other Subjects in Middle School and Benefits All Learners. Lucas Education Research.

This research brief highlights the findings of a study looking at the impact of a project-based approach to science instruction in middle school. Stanford University experts and middle school teachers developed the project-based program, Learning Through Performance (LTP). Researchers found that the approach boosted student achievement in science by 11 percentage points and increased student engagement. The students using the LTP curriculum also outperformed their peers on state assessments in mathematics (from 12-18 percentage points in years one and two, respectively) and English language arts (from 8-10 percentage points in years one and two, respectively), indicating they grew in those subject areas as well. And English language learners outperformed their peers on a test used to measure language proficiency, by 8 percentage points in the first year and 28 percentage points for students whose teachers who were in their second year of teaching the LTP curriculum. 

Teaching practices shifted too. The study found LTP teachers improved at facilitating groupwork, increased their use of activities that involved real-world, hands-on application of science, increased their use of language-rich assignments and discussion strategies, and grew in their use of performance assessments.

Published: February 2021

Project-Based Learning Increases Science Achievement in Elementary Schools and Improves Social and Emotional Learning

Krajcik, J., Schneider, B., Miller, E., Chen, I.C., Bradford, L., Bartz, K., Baker, Q., Palincsar, A., Peek-Brown, D., Codere, S., & Lucas Education Research. (2021). Project-Based Learning Increases Science Achievement in Elementary Schools and Improves Social and Emotional Learning. Lucas Education Research.

This is a review of the findings of a study investigating the impact of a project-based elementary science curriculum on academic achievement and aspects of social and emotional learning. The study by Michigan State and University of Michigan researchers found that use of the project-based learning (PBL) program, Multiple Literacies in Project-based Learning (ML-PBL), led to gains among third-grade students in science achievement.

Students in ML-PBL classrooms outperformed their peers in non-PBL classrooms by 8 percentage points on a summative science assessment. They also grew in areas of self-reflection and collaboration. The results held for all subgroups of students. So, for example, struggling readers in the ML-PBL classrooms outperformed struggling readers using more traditional approaches. ML-PBL includes high-quality professional development, which is necessary for teachers to switch from more traditional forms of instruction to rigorous PBL.

Published: February 2021

Project-Based Learning Increases Science Achievement in Elementary Schools and Improves Social and Emotional Learning

Krajcik, J., Schneider, B., Miller, E., Chen, I.C., Bradford, L., Bartz, K., Baker, Q., Palincsar, A., Peek-Brown, D., Codere, S., & Lucas Education Research. (2021). Project-Based Learning Increases Science Achievement in Elementary Schools and Improves Social and Emotional Learning. Lucas Education Research.

This is a review of the findings of a study investigating the impact of a project-based elementary science curriculum on academic achievement and aspects of social and emotional learning. The study by Michigan State and University of Michigan researchers found that use of the project-based learning (PBL) program, Multiple Literacies in Project-based Learning (ML-PBL), led to gains among third-grade students in science achievement.

Students in ML-PBL classrooms outperformed their peers in non-PBL classrooms by 8 percentage points on a summative science assessment. They also grew in areas of self-reflection and collaboration. The results held for all subgroups of students. So, for example, struggling readers in the ML-PBL classrooms outperformed struggling readers using more traditional approaches. ML-PBL includes high-quality professional development, which is necessary for teachers to switch from more traditional forms of instruction to rigorous PBL.

Published: February 2021

The Impact of Project-Based Learning on Social Studies and Literacy Learning in Low-Income Schools

Duke, N.K., Halvorsen, A-L., Strachan, S.L., Kim, J., & Konstantopoulos, S. (June 2020). Putting PjBL to the Test: The Impact of Project-Based Learning on Second Graders’ Social Studies and Literacy Learning and Motivation in Low-SES School Settings. American Educational Research Journal. doi.org/10.3102/0002831220929638

This brief describes the findings of a study into the effects of a project-based learning (PBL) social studies curriculum, Project PLACE, on social studies and literacy achievement among second graders in low-income communities. The study by University of Michigan and Michigan State researchers found the PBL curriculum led to gains in social studies and informational reading. Students using the curriculum experienced a 63-percent gain in social studies learning, translating to five to six months of increased learning. The approach resulted in a 23-percent gain in informational reading, or an additional two months of learning for the year.

Project PLACE calls for a combination of teacher-led and student-led activities all driven by authentic purpose. An important contribution of the study is that it makes the case for the benefits of PBL in high-poverty schools. Research has shown students in low-income schools have fewer opportunities than more privileged students to engage in inquiry-based, student-directed activities.

Published: February 2021

The Impact of Project-Based Learning on Social Studies and Literacy Learning in Low-Income Schools

Duke, N.K., Halvorsen, A-L., Strachan, S.L., Kim, J., & Konstantopoulos, S. (June 2020). Putting PjBL to the Test: The Impact of Project-Based Learning on Second Graders’ Social Studies and Literacy Learning and Motivation in Low-SES School Settings. American Educational Research Journal. doi.org/10.3102/0002831220929638

This brief describes the findings of a study into the effects of a project-based learning (PBL) social studies curriculum, Project PLACE, on social studies and literacy achievement among second graders in low-income communities. The study by University of Michigan and Michigan State researchers found the PBL curriculum led to gains in social studies and informational reading. Students using the curriculum experienced a 63-percent gain in social studies learning, translating to five to six months of increased learning. The approach resulted in a 23-percent gain in informational reading, or an additional two months of learning for the year.

Project PLACE calls for a combination of teacher-led and student-led activities all driven by authentic purpose. An important contribution of the study is that it makes the case for the benefits of PBL in high-poverty schools. Research has shown students in low-income schools have fewer opportunities than more privileged students to engage in inquiry-based, student-directed activities.

Published: February 2021

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