Project Based Learning in Higher Education

The term "knowledge construction" or "knowledge management" presents the idea of a stair-step approach to learning whereby learning is a building process. In Project Based Learning (PBL), a learning loop is formed using the eight essential elements of PBL endemic in today’s learning milieu. PBL - Project Based LearningClosing that loop is not the end, as it might seem, but the emergence of the next platform of learning.

It has been said, “high school teaches you what to think; and, college teaches you how to think”. However, that is changing in today’s learning culture. Students are arriving on campus or participating in online courses with experience in knowledge design, collaborative learning, and a respect for the cognitive process. Motivating these students is challenging instructors on the higher educational level. Creative teaching disciplines such as PBL are replacing the decades-old passive learning practices to which students no longer respond. Interdisciplinary studies are not unique to today’s student experience. PBL enhances a global perspective as well as a flexible forum that will be pervasive in their work community. Technology, combined with progressive instructional strategies, is blurring traditional teaching approaches and the nature of learning is becoming more inclusive for diverse learners. Lifelong learning is becoming the norm.

The Center for Project Based Learning, a division of the Curriculum and Instruction Department at Sam Houston State University, has been approved to provide a platform for the study and implementation of PBL for all grade levels, K-16. Workshops are designed and presented to teach the PBL configuration and to support instructors interested in the PBL process at specific grade levels and in the post-secondary arena. Staffed and trained with qualified personnel, the SHSU Center is posed for cutting-edge instructional reform.

For higher education, student competencies go beyond content knowledge, to prepare and challenge the student to direct their own learning, solve problems of academic significance and to move beyond controlled information containment. Project Based Learning in the ClassroomIdeas must be explored, developed, integrated, and resolved within the context of a particular assignment as knowledge construction at advanced levels take on new meaning. Rather than being the source of content expertise, professors are challenged to be facilitators of knowledge and motivators of action learning preceded by a driving question. Unlike assignments of passive learning, the PBL approach recognizes and values unpredictable outcomes. Higher-level thinking and an extended thought process is to be expected from the learners to mimic real-world problems and life-skill expertise. Studies have also shown that PBL can be a motivating factor for students who might not otherwise be as successful as they are capable. At the post-secondary level, students experience responsibility for academics that guide them into the essentials of lifelong learning and are validated through their decisions and actions. For those responsible for instructional outcome, classes with large enrollments become easier to manage because learning is student-centered. Developing curiosity is a natural outcome of Project Based Learning and it can be argued that formative assessments throughout the project substantiate as much information as evaluating the assignments or projects summatively.

Project Based Learning RoadwayProject Based Learning organizes learning around projects or complex tasks precipitated by an in-depth question or problem. Students, particularly in the higher education setting, are encouraged to be self-directed and the learning path becomes the curriculum as the concepts are absorbed and idea development connects itself to the outcome. Often topics start out broad and then narrow as students delve into the material and they identify intricacies previously unknown. “Starting with the end in mind” is a phrase often used to explain the introductory phase of a project. Generally, the scope of PBL is larger and broader than a traditional assignment, but its application can range from days spent to semester projects depending on the pedagogic motive of understanding a concept or embracing an entire topic.

 The West Virginia Department of Education notes the differences between “doing projects” and Project Based Learning in this light:

Teacher-directed Inquiry-based
Highly-structured Open-ended
Summative On-going
Thematic Driving question/challenge
Fun Engaging
Answer giving Problem solving
De-contextualized – School world Contextualized – Real world

Though a PBL curriculum is considered innovative and creative by some, others, such as the Tennessee Department of Education, have enacted specific laws for such courses as Civics that demand a PBL format. In this instance, standardized testing and evaluations are eliminated to make way for project-based assessments and the focus is on the product. PBL is the paradigm of choice at some high schools in Texas such as Manor New Technology High School.

There are several characteristics that PBL activities hold in common:

  • There must be the presence of a driving question or central concept.
  • Students must learn through investigation of defined goals and should be constructive and knowledge building.
  • Projects are student-centered with teacher facilitation or guidance.
  • Projects are real-world and have significance to the student.
  • There is a task, a process, a product and a reflection. 

These characteristics are incorporated into the eight essential elements of Project Based Learning.

  1. Significant Content must be the basis for any PBL assignment. In fact, BIE states it “…addresses a singular need in the field of PBL: to create standards-focused projects that fit well with the era of accountability and performance.” (BIE, 2013). It stands to be a significant part of an evolving process that begins by establishing the expected outcome(s) and creating a learning journey whereby students encounter and assimilate ideas of relevance to a topic.
  2. Mostly referred to as A Need to Know, this introductory phase sets the stage, motivates the learners and lures them with the relevance of the material.  There is normally some kind of “event” such as a narrative assignment or video to acquaint the student with the overall expectation, the vision and process. 
  3. A Driving Question is to be the nucleus of the assignment, challenging the student to move toward a particular leaning goal. It is often referred to as “…start with the end in mind”, but does not identify a distinct course of educational travel. That is the option of the student.
  4. Students will now work either independently or collaboratively as they begin and will have Voice and Choice as they choose how to address their goals. By taking responsibility for their learning, the project becomes student centered. Often a very broad topic gets narrow at this stage as learners begin to discover the finer points of a topic. Guidance from the instructor is expected at this point but only in terms of monitoring progress and direction. Students' diverse learning styles are respected and encouraged.
  5. Developing 21st Century Skills is one of the most powerful outcomes of this prototype. 21st Century Skills in Project Based LearningSkills necessary to the workplace are established such as collaboration and communication. Problem identification and solution are inherent to this model as a pattern of discovery ripens and takes shape. Various collaborative web applications such as IM, Google, Yahoo, Skype, Facetime, and Edmodo allow students to work together in real time or asynchronously. Thinking becomes more critical and higher level as teammates challenge each other. Intelligent listening on the one hand shows respect for others and on the other hand, more likely assures certain deference so that a free exchange of viewpoints is represented and decisions can be of a broader knowledge base.
  6. Instructors must be available as the Inquiry and Innovation step is entered. The art of true inquiry involves many resources and even more questions. Guided brainstorming will assist students and begin to mold the direction, present and future, of the desired outcome. As the steps of inquiry take shape, expertise is cultivated and learning is meaningful. Ownership is now present. Students may begin to move from finding definition and shape to creating and innovating new concepts that could lead them to their own unique spin of the topic.
  7. Feedback and Revision makes clear the progressive knowledge constructed and a learning loop. As the instructor provides feedback, the participants will begin to manage their knowledge in a way that forces new thinking or rethinking. Peer feedback is also important at this juncture. This is the place where the pyramid of information overrides the project outcome and clarification of ideas becomes necessary and useful. Many times, students will need to be motivated to continue as at this point, much time has been devoted to the assignment and deflation might be typical.
  8. A Publicly Presented Product ups the game, so to speak. Knowledge of the project as well as the process demands students to own their efforts and thinking. Presentations can be made before peers, administrators, community members or leaders, or parents. Public speaking anxiety is the most common of all phobias. Students should not only be knowledgeable but prepare themselves for whatever questions or comments may happen and learn to think on their feet. This real-world skill can be a crowning event to an arduous path and should be celebrated.

Moving forward or changing the way we teach can feel risky but there are many 21st Century Skills that can help. Websites are full of blogs, FAQs, and interactive commentary areas that afford teachers the opportunity to speak to others about the challenges and experiences of a PBL classroom. Project ideas sites abound for every age and grade level. Though some students will require more motivation than others, that is not unique to PBL. Being sensitive, especially during times of group formation, will persuade and launch new learning relationships. Many incoming college students have been involved in at least one Project Based Learning assignment and are familiar enough with the process to do some peer-teaching.  Developing lifelong learners with advanced thinking skills, good inquiry skills, the art of listening and seasoned public speaking goes a long way toward preparing them as they face their workplace responsibilities and opportunities.

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