Why Project-Based Learning Is So Effective

What’s the magic of project-based learning? Educators at The Roeper School share insight into this dynamic learning method.

Textbooks, homework assignments and exams are central components of the educational landscape — and have been for decades. But how effectively does this conventional approach spark curiosity, nurture creativity and develop critical thinking skills? Increasingly, educators are recognizing the value of project-based learning (PBL) for its ability to empower students, build agency and grow students who understand how to solve real-world problems.

Also referred to as problem-based learning, PBL reverses the traditional approach and starts first with the problem to be solved or the question to be answered, says Christopher Federico, Head of School at The Roeper School, an independent PreK-12 school for gifted students in Bloomfield and Birmingham. Through the process of completing the task or solving the problem, students build essential skills and knowledge.

There are short- and long-term benefits to PBL. “Evidence shows that students are more engaged because what they are learning is relevant and explicitly connected to the challenge they are facing,” Federico explains, “and that knowledge and skills learned this way end up being ‘stickier’ than when they are learned using a more conventional approach.”

Because gifted students typically have a high level of curiosity and interest in solving complex real-world problems, they rise to the challenge of PBL, Federico says. And the open-ended nature of PBL allows students to take ownership and extend their own learning by pursuing elements of the project that align with their own personal interests.

“They can also demonstrate their learning in novel ways that may not have been envisioned by the teacher at the outset,” he says.

Creativity and innovation with project-based learning

In her 20 years at Roeper, eighth grade science teacher Wendy Mayer has embraced PBL and incorporates hands-on project learning throughout the school year. She says that in addition to learning content, students can leverage PBL to build research, engineering, communication and presentation skills — all valuable for future higher education and careers.

“We still do tests, but we do a lot more projects,” she says. “Students might learn about the periodic table in chemistry, but then we take those concepts and experiment by creating pieces of art. Students can study the development of copper patina or try laser cutting or they can grow crystals or tie-dye fabric.” By digging into how chemistry works, students build foundational knowledge and learn the variables and intricacies of chemical reactions.

A favorite project among the students brings chemistry, food preparation, and technology — and a few handy life skills — together as students film themselves participating in stages of cooking and explain the chemical changes. “If they can’t get together, one films the prep and the other films the mixing and a third films the baking,” Mayer says. “Then they build technology skills by editing the video. They’re always challenging themselves by finding different ways to present their information.”

Students can also explore their creativity by utilizing resources in Roeper’s makerspace. When they study biology, for example, they can make cell models by sewing or embroidering or by using the 3D printer or Cricut.

Real-world skills in project-based learning

Communication and collaboration are inherent in PBL, and students at Roeper work together to overcome obstacles when their prototype or process doesn’t work to plan, says Mayer. “They recognize this is not failure, but part of the learning process. Most jobs require collaboration and our students learn how to work together. They learn how to break down tasks, delegate and communicate deadlines. They learn how to talk when someone isn’t stepping up or is taking on too much,” she says, adding that through this process, students build self-advocacy, communication and group dynamics skills.

Through a process of self- and group evaluation, students begin to recognize their own strengths and learn what areas need growth — and they learn how to resolve conflict and balance assertiveness with consideration for fellow students, says Mayer. “They learn confidence and how to navigate with their peers, which is important, especially for students who identify as female because, in general, we are taught to go with the flow. Here they learn they have a voice. That’s huge for us at Roeper,” she explains.

Skilled teachers engage students

For teachers, PBL is both time-intensive and rewarding. At Roeper, educators are empowered to innovate and create the best learning outcomes for their students.

“One of the things I love about Roeper is that when I have an idea, I can run with it. The way I approach biology, chemistry and physics changes each year, and students really get excited about the projects and the experiences are meaningful to them,” Mayer says. “It’s harder as a teacher, but very rewarding. I love the creative process.”

It’s a myth that PBL is simply an “anything goes discovery approach where teachers just stand back and let things happen,” says Federico, indicating that this myth implies that PBL lacks academic rigor. “On the contrary, good PBL experiences require incredibly thoughtful planning by the teacher to ensure that the questions they develop or the problem they set out to solve together with their students will lead to the desired learning outcomes.”

For the best experiences, teachers must carefully observe the learning process and always be ready to “step in and deliver explicit instruction ‘just in time’ when it becomes relevant to the ongoing learning,” Federico adds. They must also be flexible enough to share control with students while still effectively guiding learning. “It’s far easier to deliver preplanned direct instruction where you are the one who controls the questions asked and can anticipate all the answers.”

That level of instructional expertise exists at Roeper, says Federico, and, as a result, Roeper students experience meaningful project-based learning at all grade levels.

“Effective project-based learning requires teachers to work with students to answer questions they don’t already know the answers to,” he says. “That’s where real learning is happening.”

Learn more about The Roeper School. Visit roeper.org.

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Metro Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.

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