Why every teacher should look into project based learning

Project based learning (PBL) is often misunderstood. On one side, it is touted as a strategy for “future focused learning” and “21st century learning”. On the other end, there is misconception that PBL involves sending students off to learn by themselves using “online research”. This is unfortunate as the more experience I have in implementing PBL, the more I see it as an overarching structure that combines a multitude of evidence-based teaching practices that ties in with goal 2 of the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians:

All young Australians become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens.

Some of the features of successful learners include:

  • the capacity to learn and play an active role in their own learning
  • able to plan activities independently, collaborate, work in teams and communicate ideas
  • on a pathway towards continued success in further education, training or employment, and acquire the skills to make informed learning and employment decisions throughout their lives

In other words, we want our students to become life long learners who are self-regulated and self-directed. PBL is an effective way to teach students how to be self-regulated and self-directed learners, through evidence-based practices.

How does PBL develop self-regulated and self-directed learners?

The key word here is develop. Self-regulated and self-directed learners are made, not born. To be successful at PBL, students must have a level of self regulation and self direction. Many teachers implementing PBL for the first time find that their students have low levels of self regulation and self direction, which can make PBL frustrating for all. The learning design behind any PBL experience needs to have built-in teaching moments that build students’ skills in self regulation and self direction. One of the most useful papers I have found that describes this is Supporting Student Self-Regulated Learning in Problem- and Project-Based Learning. I have drafted a graphic that combines the paper and my own experience to show how teachers can design PBL experiences that scaffold student self regulation and self direction.


To enable students to be successful in PBL, many of the strategies teachers need to use are evidence based. For a while now I have been using the Teaching and Learning Toolkit from Evidence for Learning. The site is a collation of Australian and international research that informs teachers on the impact on a range of teaching and learning strategies. A sort of the strategies show that the top 5 that make the most impact are:

The top 3 strategies, feedback, meta-cognition and self-regulation and collaborative learning are key components of PBL:

  • Feedback – The nature of PBL involves formative assessment, assessment for learning and assessment as learning. Students are constantly drafting and re-drafting their work based on feedback. This requires teachers to build in multiple opportunities for teacher feedback, peer feedback and self feedback. One of the best resources I have found in designing and implementing formative assessment and feedback is Strong Start, Great Teachers, particularly the sections on teacher questioning.
  • Meta-cognition and self-regulation – PBL allows the opportunity for students to monitor their own learning goals and the effectiveness of a range of learning strategies for them as individual learners. Students are regularly required to reflect and evaluate the progress of their projects.
  • Collaboration – PBL requires students to work as a learning community. They need to trust each other and respect each other to have effective self feedback, to work collaboratively as a team and to take risks in their learning. It is essential that teachers build and sustain a positive classroom culture to move their “class” to a community. it is also essential that teachers teach students how to collaborate. Collaboration and cooperation are skills that are learnt; they aren’t just naturally there in students.

A key component of success in PBL is for teachers to teach students how to be effective learners. Most students need high levels of teacher guidance to know how to act on feedback, how to give each other and themselves feedback, how to set goals, how to monitor their progress and how to work productively with others.

While PBL is not a silver bullet to solve all the challenges of education, it ties in many components of evidence based teaching. If teachers embark on PBL as long-term journey, their students will have more opportunities to develop into successful self-regulated, self-directed learners.



15 thoughts on “Why every teacher should look into project based learning

  1. Thank you so much for this post. I love all that you have said. You’ve put all my thinking into words. If you don’t mind, I would love to share it with my team, acknowledging you as the author of course. Warm regards Carole Jaye

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. This is similar to my experience of PBL with the last/current school I am casually working at. Teachers are still struggling with devising a proforma that works with their cohort. The students still struggle with self regulation and trusting their judgement in self directing their projects.

    • PBL requires students to have self regulation and self direction, but it needs to be taught, just like literacy, numeracy and content knowledge. I think it’s why PBL is often used as a gifted and talented strategy because those students often already have self regulation and self direction. PBL can work for ALL students, but teachers need to have a long term structure and scaffold for students to develop self regulation and self direction. It’s easier said than done!

  3. Hi Alice,
    This is a great post linking SRL and project based learning. I’m a teacher in Vancouver, Canada and I’m working on redesigning my high school Biology class to focus on project-based learning as a way to help students develop their self-regulated learning skills. Do you mind if I repost to SRL Canada?

      • Super… thanks! I really like how you created the handy table showing how PBL helps students with self-regulated learning skills. I feel as though they are a perfect fit… so long as the teacher is there to guide the process!

  4. Pingback: Episode 38: Check Out PBL and Metacognition for Learning – Teachers Talking Teaching

  5. Great article! “Self-regulated and self-directed learners are made, not born.” This is so true! Too often, students are given materials for a project and sent on their way! I love how you align the principles of PBL with those of self-regulated learning. I noticed that for PBL to be successful, teachers need to be explicit in teaching students how to set-goals, self-monitor and accept and use feedback which aligns with the principles of self-regulated learning. I agree that PBL can be used for all students, but for successful implementation, teachers need to be present and scaffolding teams and students along the way.

  6. Hello Alice,

    I was very interested to find your post about project-based learning, as I am both an ESL teacher in a project-based learning class, and a graduate student currently taking a course on self-regulation. In the class that I teach, my English language learners engage in project-based learning by planning, creating, editing and sharing photography and video projects. The projects range in scope and scale from a 2 day project to create a public service announcement ad to a 13 week class-wide documentary project.

    I see in your chart contained in this post that teachers should explicitly teach how to give feedback. We have a format for viewing one another`s media projects and providing `warm and cool` feedback for classmates. This skill is hard for my students at the beginning of our semesters, but they improve and become more comfortable providing constructive criticism to their peers.

    It is interesting that the phases of project-based learning –discover, create, share– almost seem to mirror Zimmerman`s stages of self-regulated learning –forethought, performance, self-reflection. (Zimmerman, 2002). It`s been my experience that the discover phase of PBL includes a lot goal setting, understanding of the task and breaking the task down into manageable chunks similar to the forethought phase of SRL. The drafting and re-drafting during PBL`s create stage mimics the monitoring process that occurs during SRL`s performance phase. Lastly, it is natural that as students share their final products, the engage in self-reflection.

    Thank you for sharing your expertise with us.

  7. Thank you for this resource (and the links to a couple more resources that I can dig into later). This is an excellent summary of strategies for effective and meaningful project based learning. I appreciate that your article highlights the need for active teacher involvement in the process: “A key component of success in PBL is for teachers to teach students how to be effective learners. Most students need high levels of teacher guidance to know how to act on feedback, how to give each other and themselves feedback, how to set goals, how to monitor their progress and how to work productively with others.” Too often inquiry or project based learning becomes un-regulated instead of self-regulated. Research shows that SRL skills need to be taught and reinforced in order to create self regulated learners (Moos & Ringdal 2012; Zumbrunn et al 2011). Your article make very clear the excellent opportunity for developing SRL skills that project based learning can provide, but doesn’t ignore the pitfalls of becoming hands-off before students are ready.

  8. “Most students need high levels of teacher guidance to know how to act on feedback, how to give each other and themselves feedback, how to set goals, how to monitor their progress and how to work productively with others.”

    This one sentence from your article has summarized my understanding of why my attempts at an inquiry or project-based learning approach have not been successful in the past. I had attempted to use strategies such as SMART goals and self-reflection but these alone needed a higher level of explicit teaching than I could have imagined. I didn’t even consider that students needed to be taught other skills such as how to monitor their progress and adjust their course of action let alone regulate their behaviours and emotions related to the project. It all seems so vast and complex but your suggestion to intentionally design your learning plans to include strategies to develop these skills is a great one.

    I’m so glad I came across this article.

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