What is PBL and why do it?

An Introduction and Overview

Project-Based Learning (PBL) is an instructional methodology that encourages students to develop deeper knowledge and skills by engaging in real-world, meaningful projects.

Students work on a project over an extended period of time – from a week up to a semester – that engages them in solving a real-world problem or answering a complex question. They demonstrate their knowledge and skills by creating a public product or presentation for a real audience.

As a result, students develop deep content knowledge as well as critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication skills. Project-Based Learning unleashes contagious creative energy among students and teachers. (Buck Institute for Education)

PBL pedagogy includes identifying a challenging problem/question, which is addressed through sustained inquiry in context, driven by student voice/choice and reflection. PBL also relies on critique and revision to create a public product. For example, students in Jessica Holmes’ Health Economics and Policy class worked with the Green Mountain Care Board to find ways to improve the allocation of scarce health-care resources in Vermont. Their literature reviews, stakeholder interviews, and creative problem-solving laid the groundwork for new state legislation involving certificate-of-need jurisdiction and inspired the development of more sophisticated ways to identify community-level gaps in health care.

WHY? What are the Benefits?

PBL is an important way in which Middlebury College fulfills its mission to “prepare students to lead engaged, consequential, and creative lives, contribute to their communities, and address the world’s most challenging problems.” In this era of global interconnection and rapid societal and economic change, the context in which today’s students will make choices and create lives is one of disruption and interdependence, and the most pressing problems facing our region, nation and world are highly complicated and require expertise from multiple perspectives. A 21st-century liberal arts education “intentionally fosters, across multiple fields of study, wide-ranging knowledge of science, cultures, and society; high-level intellectual and practical skills; an active commitment to personal and social responsibility; and the demonstrated ability to apply learning to complex problems and challenges.”3

In addition PBL:

  • Results in higher levels of engagement and achievement
  • Is a “high impact” effective educational practice, the benefits of which are especially striking for minority and low-income students.4 Research finds that this is a more empowering framework for learning for marginalized students:
  • makes the world more rather than less real.5 \

In short, PBL teaches students how to be lifelong learners by providing the experience of independently identifying what they do not know and pursuing new knowledge and skills. It is among the most effective active and engaged pedagogies that asks students to apply their learning to multidisciplinary, unscripted problems and projects, and exposes them to the complexity and volatility that they will face when they leave Middlebury.

In these ways, PBL is an important pedagogical bridge for Middlebury to reach its vision. PBL benefits and challenges both students and faculty. It compels faculty to move beyond a content emphasis, to learn new forms of pedagogy, to take risks with their teaching, and to trust their students’ forays into uncharted territory. In this way, PBL offers transformative instead of just better learning, and in some cases, allows us to take advantage of our global network to enrich our curriculum.

Project-based courses deepen students’ engagement with the material, their faculty, and their communities.

Learning in these environments also helps students develop a knowledge of self and diverse others, skills in complex thought, a deepened sense of their own values, and a commitment to civic action—all of which build students’ commitment to engaging in their world in meaningful ways. These outcomes require collaborative leadership by those in instructional roles, reflective processes that allow for meaning-making and connections to other learning experiences and knowledge of social structures, and supporting students’ development of civic leadership skills.6 PBL embeds experiential learning within academic contexts so that each supports and enhances the other with close collaboration with faculty members. Often these experiences and connections lead to policy change or employment opportunities that keep graduating students in Vermont to continue to contribute to our community.

Although PBL might not be appropriate for all classes, and some departments will incorporate it more frequently than others, our goal is to create a more supportive environment and curricular infrastructure for those faculty members who would like to expand or start using PBL.

3 AAUP, 2007.
4 AAUP 2007.
5 Teaching to Transgress, 1994; Catherine Epstein, Dean of the Faculty at Amherst College: https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2019/06/06/colleges-can-bridge-divides-campus-through-intellectual-pursuits-opinion
6 Bringle, R. G., Hatcher, J., & Muthiah, R. (2010). The Role of SL on the Retention of First-Year Students to Second Year. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 16(2), 38-49: Knefelkamp, L. L. (2008). Civic identity: Locating self in community. Diversity & Democracy, 11(2), 1-3; Komives, S. & Dugan, J. P. (2010). “Contemporary leadership theories.” Political and Civic Leadership, 2010. SAGE Publications. 20. Jan. 2011; Phillips, H., Craig, T., & Phillips, C. (2013). Engaging Students as Practitioners through Experiential Learning. In C. Nygaard, S. Brand, P. Bartholomew, & L. Millard (Eds.), Student Engagement: Identity, Motivation and Community (pp. 251–270).

“College Learning for the New Global Century: A Report from the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise.”  Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2007.

* Text  adapted from “College Learning for the New Global Century: A Report from the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise.”  Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2007.

A rubric illustrating the Gold Standard Project Design Elements.

A quick reference for checking projects against Gold Standard Design Elements.

A brief article describing the Gold Standard PBL Project Design Elements in more detail.

A case study of the ES401 Capstone Course model mapped to each of the Gold Standard Essential Project Design Elements. This exercise helps put the Gold Standard into a familiar Middlebury-specific context.

A powerpoint used in a workshop giving an overview of PBL, some examples and best practices from Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

An overview of the comprehensive PBL curriculum model at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and how it advances Global Learning outcomes.

A more in-depth article providing research context for Gold Standard PBL Essential Design Elements. The High-Quality Project-Based Learning Framework describes PBL in terms of the student experience and is intended to provide educators everywhere with a shared basis for designing and implementing good projects.

A PowerPoint presentation from a CTLR workshop providing a quick glance at PBL and its benefits and application.