Now is the time for project-based learning

Project-based approaches to education have been around for over 100 years, but I believe the time has come for us to fully embrace them. In projects, students work over an extended period, often in an interdisciplinary fashion, for a purpose beyond satisfying a school requirement — to build something, to address a question they have, to solve a real problem, or to address a real need. Now is the time for project-based instruction. Here are three key reasons why:

#1. Research supports it.

Studies that examined the effect of project-based approaches on students’ learning have found that students developed knowledge, skills, and improved attitudes about learning. For example, Pedro Hernandez-Ramos and Susan De La Paz found that students who experienced the project-based approach to studying Westward Expansion developed greater content knowledge and reported much higher engagement in learning history than students receiving more traditional instruction.

Positive effects have been found in other domains as well, including civics and government, mathematics, and economics. Project-based instruction is also well-suited to literacy learning, in which research shows that students develop comprehension more quickly and write more effectively when they have real-world purposes and audiences for their work.

And studies have found that this approach can be effective with a wide range of students, including younger students, students with learning disabilities, and students living in high-poverty settings. In fact, in a study of a project-based approach to teaching social studies and content literacy to 2nd graders, my colleagues and I were able to close the gap, statistically speaking, between students in high-poverty school districts — who experienced project-based units — and students in wealthy school districts — who did not.

#2. Higher standards and skills demand it.

Project-based instruction is particularly well suited to addressing more rigorous standards, such as the Common Core State Standards, for example, which call for writing for different tasks, purposes, and audiences. Project-based instruction also provides ways for teachers to address the skills identified as in demand for work and citizenship, such as those outlined by the Partnership for 21st-Century Skills, as it provides lots of opportunities for students to problem solve, collaborate, and think creatively.

#3. Today’s students need it.

The hard, cognitive work necessary to meet more demanding standards and the unprecedented competition for students’ attention from multimedia entertainment make it more pressing than ever to find ways to motivate and engage students in their learning.  Yet, many current instructional practices involve work that holds little interest for students. When learners have a compelling purpose to achieve and a meaningful audience to reach, we see their attention to tasks, their willingness to persevere in reading challenging texts, and even their motivation to revise and edit their work increase. In fact, people seem to be built for learning through projects.

Like many approaches, project-based instruction can be done well or poorly. For example, I deliberately use the term “project-based instruction” rather than “project-based learning” to try to help guard against the tendency of this approach neglect explicit, systematic teaching. But the promise is there, and the time has come.

NELL K. DUKE ( is a professor in literacy, language, and culture in the combined program in education and psychology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.


  • Bruce Mitchell

    Hello, I’ve published in the Kappan before. My son, Jeff Mitchell, has been working on a project for his students. It’s called “In The Field.” It focuses on all the things that can be learned through hiking on the Pacific Coast Trail between Mexico and Canada. We’re starting to co-author an article about it. I’d like to know if such a writing concept might be appropriate for the Kappan. Please let me know what you think.

    Dr. Bruce Mitchell
    Professor of Education

  • Elizabeth Albert

    I completely agree that “project-based learning” is a method of instruction that increases engagement and allows students to demonstrate their learning using an alternative to traditional paper pencil tasks. Project-based learning allows for freedom of expression and the use of a variety of artifacts or evidence of understanding. Not all students learn the same way, so why should all students be assessed the same way? I support project-based learning and have found that when I have incorporated it into a unit of study, the finished products are typically above and beyond my expectations. Great post!

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