Project Based Learning

This is a 4-5 minute read.


It’s usually a good idea to start with

A definition

A nice starting point is Thom Markham’s concise definition

“PBL can be defined as an extended learning process that uses inquiry and challenge to stimulate the growth and mastery of skills.” (2012, p.x)



So, what are the features of Project Based Learning?

In a great review of PBL research Thomas (2000) lists the following essential features of Project Based Learning:

  • Projects are complex tasks based on realistic, challenging questions or problems.
  • The questions or problems involve learners in design, problem-solving, decision making or investigative activities.
  • Learners have the opportunity to work, fairly, autonomously over extended periods of time.
  • The culmination of the project is a realistic product or presentation.
  • In undertaking the project collaborative and cooperative working is promoted including the formation of communities of enquiry. Lifelong learning skills are promoted.
  • Technology, when used, is viewed as a cognitive tool.
  • Reflection on learning and the process is central.


…and what makes it Project Based Learning

Thomas (2000) identifies a set of 5 criteria to judge if you project is actually PBL:

  1. The Project is central to the curriculum. The project is the central teaching strategy and the central learning strategy, learners encounter the concepts to be learned through doing the project.
  1. The Project revolves around a central driving question or problem. The question or problem should promote learner engagement between the project activities and the concepts we wish to encourage.
  1. The Project should engage the learners in a constructive investigation. The project should be challenging – leading to new knowledge and skills for the learner. Each project should have a clear goal which can be achieved through a process of inquiry, building knowledge & finally resolution.
  1. The Project should be student-driven. It should prioritise opportunities for learner autonomy, choice, unsupervised work time and responsibility.
  1. The Project should be realistic. The focus of the project should be an authentic (not simulated) problem or question that requires a real-life challenge to resolve. The resolution will be practical and applicable to real-life situations.

Thom Markham lists seven principles for PBL (2012, p.xiv). I will not address all of these at the moment but I think it is worth noting two of them for those concerned that PBL is a woolly, anything goes approach.

  1. The Project should focus on quality. Teachers/Facilitators have an expectation of quality work and outcomes. Quality in both working and results are more likely as a result of purposeful task.
  2. The Project should have clear assessment criteria. Before the learners embark on their projects they will know and understand the specific criteria against with their project will be assessed. The assessment will not be solely based on the final product – which encourages a performance based approach to learning. Rather a mastery approach to learning is encouraged through focus on (amongst other criteria) process, identification of skills and knowledge developed an acquired, self-reflection….


Project Based Leaning is not…

…well from the discussion so far we can say that PBL is not just hands-on project work under another name. Neither is it, in the field of ELT, Task Based Learning (Willis & Willis 2007).



What does this bring to the learner?

This form of active, inquiry based learning is firmly rooted in the socio-constructivist tradition. Amongst the claims made for its use are that it:

  • is learner centred.
  • employs high-quality, real life scenarios.
  • develops problem-solving, communication and respect for others.
  • encourages cooperative and collaborative learning.
  • encourages self-directed learning and responsibility.
  • encourages meta-cognitive self-awareness of learning.
  • is challenging and motivating.
  • encourages communities of practice with learners becoming the experts in the chosen area.
  • encourages the development of information and digital literacies.
  • promotes critical thinking through negotiation.

Quite a nice list!



Colliver, J A 2000, ‘Effectiveness of problem-based learning curricula: Research and theory.’, Academic Medicine, vol. 75, no. 3, pp.259–266.

Hmelo-Silver, C E 2004, ‘Problem-Based Learning: What and How Do Students Learn?’, Educational Psychology Review, Vol. 16, No. 3, pp.253-266.

Markham, T 2012, Project Based Learning. Design and Coaching Guide, viewed 1st May 2014,

Thomas, J W 2000, ‘A review of research on project-based learning.’, viewed, 21st July 2014  from

Ushioda, E 2011a, ‘Language Learning motivation’ self and identity: current theoretical perspectives’, Computer Aided Language Learning, vol.24 no.3, pp.199-210.

Willis, D, & Willis, J 2007,  Doing Task-Based Teaching: A practical guide to task-based teaching for ELT training courses and practising teachers, OUP, Oxford


Related Posts

What is Project Based Learning

Problem Based Learning

Applying PBL to English Language Teaching



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