Project-based learning

Mart Laanpere, Kai Pata

Principles of project-based learning

Project-based learning is used by teachers/schools to move beyond the more traditional forms of learning and toward the kind of learning that can be applied in everyday life. Students should be educated to become active members of the society and to be able to integrate knowledge from different fields that they have acquired in school, in order to collaboratively solve novel kinds of problems.

Project-based learning is based on a new paradigm of student-teacher relations. The task for the teacher is not so much to lead the learning process, communicate theoretical knowledge and apply suitable exercises or assessment methods, but rather to form a partnership with the students during learning – while the framework of what is to be learned is set by the curriculum, filling this framework with specific content and acquiring new knowledge is where the learners and the teacher should act in concert and to an equal extent. Projects are focused on the interests and needs of the students, thus upholding strong intrinsic motivation and dividing responsibility for the learning process between students and the teacher.

A project is a non-recurrent, unprecedented undertaking with a precisely defined aim, carried out with limited resources (time, money) and, preferably, by the means of teamwork.

Project-based learning designates first and foremost achieving the goals set by the curriculum through carrying out learning projects. Project-based learning involves the participation of the whole class and it enables students to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills in an active and motivated way.

The term ‘learning project’ relates to subject-specific or integrative projects that are carried out by students in the form of extracurricular activities or independent work.

Thus, individual extracurricular creative and research projects are not considered to be a part of project-based learning – only those learning activities that take place in the context of school work and integrate school subjects (e.g. some topic such as “technology and innovation”) are considered to be such. This includes the kind of joint “creative work” organised in elementary school.

Project-based learning consists in a collaborative activity between the teacher and students, focusing on a project topic that is based on the interests of the student(s), but also generates further tangible value for others and enables to develop innovativity, creativity, collaborative and social skills, combined with digital competence – thus providing an experience of success for the student.

Structure of project-based learning differs from a traditional lesson plan. Instead of the teacher taking up the role of a transmitter and students being the receivers of knowledge, it focuses on heavy group work where the communication between students themselves is much more intense. The role of the teacher in project-based learning is to guide the planning process, model the necessary know-how, shape the teamwork skills.

Great emphasis is put on joint working skills and how to develop the principles of strategic planning in a group. Discussion, negotiation and argumentation fulfil an important role.

In order to solve the problems that are raised, the students need to integrate the knowledge acquired in different subjects. Project-based learning focuses on mastering a specific topic placed into the context of our actual daily lives. With project-based learning, students acquire new manual skills and practices that can be easily carried over to everyday situations.

Everything that is done within project-based learning has the aim of achieving some specific goal, carrying out the project. Different activities (measuring, drawing figures) are necessary in the context of a bigger picture rather than in themselves.

Instructions for project-based learning and problem-based learning


Suitable as a project: *Noise pollution. Listen to various sounds. Observe the ambient noise level on a graph. Distinguish the ambient sounds that are most unpleasant for the ear. / Find out the five worst sources of noise pollution in Tartu. Draw up action plans on how to eliminate those sources or how to lessen the noise they produce.

Merely an inquiry task, not a project: *Average speed. find out whether the cars that pass by the schoolhouse exceed the speed limit. / Using indirect measuring, mark down a 100m section in front of the school. Find the average speed of five cars and present the data in the form of a spreadsheet.

Project-based approach lies in-between routine and creative work. Its topics and results allow for creativity. Execution of the project can be managed by using the methods of project work.

  • students’ knowledge and skills should be developed with having real-world problems in mind
  • students are involved in an intrinsically motivating knowledge acquisition process
  • the communication process between the teacher and students leads to novel solutions to problems
  • collaboration between students is required to develop templates of social relationships and train their social skills
  • collaboration promotes mutual respect and understanding
  • school as an organisation becomes more open and bound with wider social processes

Examples of applying the project-based learning in school

Project-based learning as a self-standing subject

A class of project-based learning is inserted into the curriculum (facultative subject), which consists in year-round work on specific integrative projects. Project-based evaluation.

Positive. Students are more motivated, interest in applying what is learned is high; students do not acquire merely superficial factual knowledge. The teacher can witness the development of a child in the success of a given project.

Negative. Since subjects are usually taught separately, it is difficult to conduct project-based learning in an integrative way. A long cycle of project-based learning can communicate merely a small amount of the information, compared to the same duration of traditional teaching methods. Project-based learning absorbs a lot of energy; its assessment is less determinate and more time-consuming; it is difficult to fulfil the requirements of the curriculum.

Project-based learning fused into other subjects

The teacher applies the methodology of short projects to teach specific topics, alternating it with traditional teaching methods. Students are assessed with tests and in other standard ways.

Positive. The teacher is able to communicate a large amount of information in a short time and can check in the end of the learning cycle whether it was received. Learning does not get boring thanks to the interactive projects inserted into the learning cycle.

Negative. Intrinsic motivation of students is low with short projects.

A school-wide project week

A single week is used solely for project-based learning. Project-based evaluation.

Positive. Brings the whole school together.  Allows for a lot of inter-subject integration.

Negative. Planning takes a great amount of time.

  • general theme of the week is assigned by the school; students can choose a specific field of interest for themselves
  • each class carries out a project, which is presented to the whole school in the end of the week.
  • two teachers are involved with each class – in addition to the class teacher, there is a subject teacher present. While forming such pairs, it is good to bring together teachers with different working styles, so they would learn through collaborating with each other and thus understand each other better
  • a flexible use of the computer lab for finding information and compiling the work
  • throughout the week, students can participate in various activities (quizzes, competitions)
  • alumni can be involved in the activities of the project week

Inter-school and international project-based learning

These forms of project work provide added value for developing digital competencies:

  • Project-based learning involves several schools; computers are used for communication and execution of the project.
  • The added value of the project consists in digitally recorded creations, results etc., which are to be shared via computers.
  • Enables to discover other contexts and cultures, to take an outsider’s perspective toward one’s own context
  • Promoting interethnic understanding, disposing of prejudices
  • Development of language skills
  • Inter-school collaboration on a topic helps to create contacts between students

Classification of projects

Projects are classified based on the activities involved:

Data collection projects – the project will result in a common database, which can be used for further research or solving a problem (e.g. environmental education projects “Hello Spring”, Globe project gather observational data together)

Development projects – during the project, a novel item or solution (e.g. process, activity, environment, service, product) is developed by also involving the users.

For instance, an education development project: related to the daily school life; takes place within the timetable; involves several classes; has a positive effect on the whole school;

Creative projects – the purpose is to reach innovative and creative solutions, e.g. shows, plays, performances, joint creative works (e.g. a collaborative writing with a professional author)

Theme-based days – a central topic is chosen for the activities of the project-based learning day or week. It is important that students are involved in both planning and execution.

Simulation projects – during the project, a phenomenon or situation is simulated either directly or indirectly (using a fictional analogy), by the means of role-playing etc. elements, so the participants can gain deep knowledge about it. Students are involved in planning and execution of the project; rules that contribute to its success are partly laid down in collaboration between the students and the teacher.

Modelling projects – the aim is to model some phenomenon or situation that is hard to understand or measure in a straightforward way. Purpose of the model can be to demonstrate the how a certain phenomenon/situation works (e.g. flashmob, robot), but it could also enable repeated data collection for solving a certain problem.

About the history of project-based learning

History of project-based learning goes back to the 1920s, when people started discussing the following pedagogical ideas:

  • John Dewey – problem-based learning

Education should not be based on mere acquisition of strictly determinate factual knowledge, for it is inherent for humans to learn through action and communication. Gaining knowledge is a communication process between teacher and students, during which one learns to find new solutions to problems. For Dewey, ‘project’ designates an integral, purposeful activity that promotes democratic ideals. He envisages a three-stage process of problem-solving: defining the problem, laying down the strategy for solution, simulating the solution.

  • William Heard Kilpatrick – founder of problem-based learning; the essay “The Project Method” (1918)

One should attend to the problems that have been chosen by the children when making a learning plan — this involves them in an intrinsically motivating knowledge acquisition process. According to Kilpatrick’s philosophy, learning is at its most efficient when students can weigh in on a meaningful activity, plan how to carry out an action and how to accomplish the desired results. Students should be at the center of project-based learning and the project should serve as a vessel for what is to be learned. Kilpatrick claims that a project consists of four stages: setting a goal, planning, execution and evaluation. Students rather than the teacher should initiate all four stages of project-based learning.

  • Work school” ideology (1920s— Blonsky, Markarendo)

Schools should encourage cooperation between students in order to develop templates of social relationships and train social skills.

  • 1960s

Project-based learning was re-discovered in France, Great Britain, Germany and USA as an opportunity to enhance students’ knowledge and skills in connection with real life, thus promoting mutual respect and understanding in the school environment.

  • Contemporary project-based learning is characterised by adherence to the following principles:
  • Promote joint activities among students rather than competition between them
  • Help with applying the knowledge and skills acquired in various subjects to daily life in an integrated way
  • Combine cognitive, affective and manual forms of activity
  • Find ways to implement individual abilities of students
  • Link what is learned in school with activities outside the school
  • Motivate the integration of different subjects while learning
  • Encourage collaboration between teachers and students
  • Transform the school into an open organisation and connect it with broader society

Supporting project-based learning with digital technology

Strategic planning of project-based learning:

  • The teacher and student groups set the general goals and priorities
  • The teacher and student groups develop various project ideas and choose the ones that are suitable for group work
  • The teacher and student groups plan the activities involved in the project
  • The teacher and student groups plan the execution (participants, schedule) of the project
  • The teacher and student groups initiate the project
  • The teacher and student groups carry out the project
  • The teacher and student groups give mid-term evaluations for the stages of the project
  • The student groups formulate the results of the project
  • The teacher and student groups assess the project

General framework of project work: enables to create one project for free, but it is possible to combine a suitable solution for project work from different environments, where one can control, follow, capture the activities of the project and engage in joint creation.

  • Initiation of the project – determining the needs and problems, doing an analysis of interest groups and setting a goal

During this phase, various heuristics are used – e.g. the fishbone diagram (for mapping problems and solutions) – – or a problem-and-solution tree. Mappings will be fitted together and used in laying down the goals and activities.

For the analysis of interest groups, one could use (joint) observation, brainstorming, group interviews and online surveys.

Results can be generalised by making conceptual maps, consequence maps or diagrams. These will be later used in substantive project work to create solutions.

2) Planning the goal – decomposing the ultimate goal into smaller, more comprehensible sub-goals. One environment that is easy to use for planning and keeping an eye on goals in a collaborative way is

3) Scheduling – an ordered list of tasks for achieving a goal; durations and milestones. Milestones can be shared on a joint web calendar. A Gantt chart is used for planning.

4) Planning the resources – figuring out the resources necessary for fulfilling the tasks;

5) Planning the expenses – creating a project budget;

6) Management of human resources – assigning roles and domains of responsibility;

7) Risk management – identifying risky events, evaluating the level of threat, planning countermeasures;

8) Putting together an integrated project plan – all parts of the plan have to be consistent. For project work, best digital solutions are wikis, blogs or joint documents and spreadsheets shared in the Google Drive environment.

9) Executing the project and controlling it; planning and conducting meetings and forms of work; continuous documentation of the activities and results. For instance, keeping a project diary on a blog; creating a portfolio of (intermediate) results (e.g. design examples).

10) Finishing the project – final report and self-evaluation.

Outputs of the project:

  • A project plan (in written form, e.g. a business plan),
  • Realization of the project (activities which support creating the result)
  • Results of the project (a product or service)
  • Final report of the project (a written document that compares the initial plan with actual realization and results).

Even when the project fails (e.g. the goals will not be fulfilled), project-based learning has succeeded, because students need to analyse the differences between the plan, the realization and the results and can draw consequences about what might have caused the failure.

Evaluation of the project

  • Assessing the success of stages in strategic planning

To assess the intermediate stages, one needs to keep track of indicators (measurable data that describe whether you have managed to initiate the project successfully, carry out the activities, guarantee the necessary resources, stick to the schedule, achieve the expected goals). Evaluation during the intermediate stages helps to adjust the course of the project when needed and is first and foremost useful for the group members, but also the teacher, in order to follow the progress of learning. With intermediate stages, the teacher could assess the activities of the students, their individual and group accomplishments.

  • Assessing the final result and long-term effect

Productivity of most projects can primarily be evaluated based on the goals that were accomplished. The project is assessed both in quantitative (grades, numerical reports) and qualitative ways (interviews, self- and group evaluation, expert opinions).


  • Intelligibility, relevance:

How clearly were the goal and course of the project characterised in the project presentation?

Is the project interesting and motivating for its target group?

Is the project necessary for the target group?

Are the planned activities expedient for achieving the project goals?

  • Structure:

Is the strategic plan of the project logical?

  • Efficiency and productivity:

                        Were the resources handled in an efficient way?

Did the project manage to accomplish its goal in accordance with the set schedule?

Did the activities lead to desired results?

How did the risks that were involved in the project reflect in the results?

  • Influence:

What was the role of results like in accomplishing the general goals?

  • Sustainability:

Are the accomplished results here for a longer term?

Is it possible to predict a continuing influence of the project after the project has ended?

In self-evaluation, the student should describe the following:

  • What was your interest in participating in the project (intrinsic and extrinsic motivation)?
  • How responsibly have you been carrying out your tasks?
  • How would you evaluate your part in project’s success?
  • How would you evaluate your skills in fulfilling various roles for the project?
  • In which project-related activities did you develop further?
  • Which project-related activities were too hard for you?
  • What was your greatest accomplishment during the project that you are most proud of?
  • What was your group’s greatest accomplishment that you appreciate the most?
  • What else?
  1. Example of a self-evaluation questionnaire.

Evaluate the following claims on the scale:

4 – always, 3 – often, 2 – sometimes, 1 – never, 0 – don’t know.

  • Did you need the help of others to present your thoughts? ….
  • Did you keep any ideas, feelings, thoughts and reactions, that you had during group work, to yourself? …..
  • Were you understood? …….
  • Were you tired and weary? …….
  • Did you try to grab a leading role? …….
  • Did you support others in expressing their thoughts? …….
  • Did you take any risks with disputing any ideas or presenting some completely new ones? …….
  • Are you satisfied with the group work? …..
  • Was your contribution in achieving the result noteworthy? ….
  • Are you responsible for the results? …..
  • Describe the group atmosphere in one adjective: ……

Analysis of the activities of fellow group members and oneself:

Evaluate the participation of your fellow group members on the scale:

4 – always, 3 – often, 2 – sometimes, 1 – never, 0 – don’t know.

Acted as… me
Information gatherer
Support searcher

Evaluate the participation of your fellow group members on the following scale:

4 – very active 3 – active, 2 – passive, 1 – none, 0 – don’t know.

Activities me
Generating ideas (fisbone diagram)
Problem-and-solution tree
Goal tree
Planning the activities
Creating a schedule
Evaluating the intermediate stages
Putting the project together
Presenting the project
Final assessment of the project

Problems with arranging project-based learning

Bottlenecks of project-based learning from the teacher’s perspective:

  • Fear of appearing ignorant, when lacking a good overview of everything that relates to the project’s topic. Open questions from students are hard to answer
  • Risk of becoming a target for critical remarks from seniors and the community
  • Students do not acquire enough during project-based learning. Risk of leaving some points in the curriculum unattended. Eventually, the students nevertheless have to meet the general requirements of exams and succeed in tests.
  • When conducting project-based learning alone, you will be isolated from other teachers and might lack sufficient support from school
  • One might lose control of the learning process – students do not participate actively; students get out of hands; students get into difficulties and you are unable to assist and motivate them sufficiently
  • Long preparation; lack of resources
  • Informing the parents of current activities is complicated
  • The number of students in a class could be too large. Mixed groups of boys and girls could be difficult
  • Long-term projects are not suitable for younger students – they can lose track of the main goals and focus on details.
  • Goals of the project can be hard to define
  • Research projects and discussions might exceed the schedule
  • Evaluation of group work and results can be unfamiliar and difficult.
  • It appears that project-based learning has to originate from top-down. Administration has to take a stance that there is going to be a project week. Curricula are not sufficiently integrated; “no common topics”; everyone follows strictly their own lesson plans; there is already too much material to cover and no time to “waste”, or else one might fail to finish the curriculum.

Creative Classroom project-based learning scenarios