Student Outcomes from High-Quality Project-Based Learning
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Peter Dufresne
Senior Vice President of Academic

As grown-ups, we live in a world full of projects and problems, collaborating in social settings to find solutions collectively. This fundamental course of reasoning, investigating, and cooperating in a social setting to find solutions is the rationale behind integration of Project-Based Learning (PBL) at schools. PBL is a very effective teaching method which allows high school students to gain knowledge, skills, and a better practical application of what they are learning.

Project-Based Learning enables students to be: 

  • More inquisitive
  • Solution-oriented
  • Data-driven 
  • Constructive and empowered decision-makers

Giving students the freedom to choose their own topics to make projects with their peers not only empowers them to drive their own learning, but it also teaches them necessary skills such as problem solving and a growth mindset. When students have the chance to pursue projects of their own interests, they are more motivated to create more authentic projects.

Example from a Case Study for PBLWorks

This single-teacher case study explores the pathway to student outcomes by implementing one teacher-created project based on PBL training she received. The sample for this study consisted of two sections of a high school chemistry class taught by one teacher with approximately 40 students enrolled in the fall 2019 batch. A range of qualitative and quantitative measures were used to collect evidence about one teacher’s journey of PBL implementation, from training to student outcomes. These measures included classroom observations, student focus groups, teacher interviews, student and teacher survey instruments, and student outcome data. 


The teacher, Sheila, who designed and implemented this PBL unit:

  • has 25 years of experience teaching high school chemistry.
  • served as the science department coordinator for the last 8 years.
  • received PBL professional development training during the summer of 2019. 
  • has extensive experience designing and implementing high-quality performance-based instruction and assessment.

The case study took place in one high school chemistry teacher’s classroom in New Hampshire. The high school reports student progress on academic and non-academic competencies, such as student success skills, to parents each trimester. As such, students are used to being graded on both academic content and use of student success skills. 

Project Description

After her training, Sheila created a high-quality PBL unit on Transfer of Energy. She later designed and implemented this unit over the course of the next few weeks to two sections of high school chemistry students toward the beginning of the school year (mid-September to the first week in October 2019). Considering many students have misconceptions about Transfer of Energy, she decided to create an experiential learning opportunity for her students that focused on how they experience Transfer of Energy on a daily basis. She also designed her unit to elicit the student success skills of self-direction and collaboration, as well as mastery of academic core content and science practices in chemistry. 

When asked about the challenges, she said she felt that she had already been implementing what she thought was PBL in her classroom, but after her training, she realized she “had much to learn.” Specifically, the PBL training was really helpful for her in terms of learning creative ways to design engaging and collaborative projects based on the curriculum she was already teaching. 

Success Skill Development: Self-Direction

The project was designed from a student’s perspective in demonstration of science practices through disciplinary core ideas from the Next Generation Science Standards. The science practices emphasized in her project required students to generate testable questions, plan and carry out investigations, analyze and interpret data, communicate findings, and develop arguments using the evidence collected. The students especially focused on core ideas such as the flow of energy, the law of conservation of energy, and specific heat. The academic success of students was promoted by the inbuilt design of the project to teach important science content through hands-on experimentation and investigation. 

As a collaborative project, it required all students to:

  • Demonstrate their understanding of the science content standards. 
  • Culminate their collaborative learning in a final project of their own choice.
  • Experience self-directed learning.
  • Challenge themselves to learn deeply and think critically.

Academic Success

Many students also shared that Scientific Methodology — generating testable questions, designing and carrying out investigations, analyzing and interpreting data — challenged them to contextualize Transfer of Energy in real world situations. 

By working in groups of four, students of all abilities were able to benefit from other students’ background knowledge and prior experience. While they had a chance to share their ideas in groups, the project did not end with a collaborative project. Instead, all students were assigned a culminating performance task, “Now You’re Cooking!” that allowed the teacher to examine the extent to which each student was able to independently transfer their knowledge and skills from one context (beverage stones) to a new context (cookware).

Another example where this project elicited independent measures of student knowledge and skills was when one student told the teacher that she did not know how to create a data table, because her group members had created it in the collaborative project. 

Emphasizing that teachers must focus on the process of completing the project for a summative performance assessment, Sheila expressed that another implication of this case study is the importance of collecting evidence about what a student is capable of independently, as well as what they are capable of in a collaborative project. For this matter, independent assessment can probe the extent to which students are able to transfer their learning to new or novel contexts, as well as provide evidence about individual student performance.


Reference: Student Outcomes from High-Quality Project-Based Learning: A Case Study for PBLWorks Carla M. Evans, Ph.D. National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment.

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