Effective implementation of project-based learning

If you're looking to use project-based learning (PBL) in the classroom next term, a new research review offers some practical pointers for teachers.

The paper, by Durham University colleagues Dr Dimitra Kokotsaki, Victoria Menzies and Dr Andy Wiggins, also has six key recommendations for the successful adoption of a student-centred approach in mainstream schools. Writing in the journal Improving Schools, the academics explain PBL is an inquiry-based approach that can be used from early years through to higher education, where students learn by addressing a real-world challenge. They add that its uniqueness lies in the fact that students come up with an end product which represents their ‘new understandings, knowledge and attitudes ...'.

Their literature review looked at studies from around the world exploring evidence of the effectiveness of PBL – including the use of concept maps in Hungarian Kindergartens, a primary school PBL program for low SES students in the United States and a STEM-based project involving female high school students in Taiwan.

They note that although the strength of the findings are limited and some studies showed mixed results, the research indicates there are factors that can aid the successful adoption of project-based teaching in schools. These include:

  • Technology: Regarded as a ‘major enabler' for students to design and develop their project. Also found to help both lower and higher performing students construct knowledge, although the researchers add teachers need to guide and support students to use technology safely and effectively.
  • High quality group work: Kokotsaki, Menzies and Wiggins cite research suggesting positive interactions between students, individual accountability, equal participation and social skills are ‘pivotal' to the success of PBL collaboration, particularly when there are gender, achievement or social hierarchies at play.
  • Scaffolding: ‘The successful implementation of PBL in the classroom lies on the teacher's ability to effectively scaffold students' learning, motivate, support and guide them along the way,' the academics advise.
  • Professional support: Teachers who received support (acknowledging their competence and autonomy) from senior managers and colleagues were more likely to implement and persist with PBL.

When it comes to how teachers can best support PBL in the classroom, the paper discusses a US study where 12 teachers recognised as being experts in the instructional method were interviewed (Mergendoller & Thomas, 2005). Their advice for successful implementation and management included: being flexible with scheduling (and allowing for extensions to the project timeline); giving students a rubric before they start to help orient them; involving other teachers, parents and community members; and using a variety of assessment methods (including opportunities for reflection) where both individual and group performance can be recognised.

Having reviewed the literature, Kokotsaki, Menzies and Wiggins say it's possible to make six key recommendations ‘which are considered to be essential for the successful adoption of a PBL approach in the mainstream school setting':

  • Student support – including effective time management and student self-management, and effective use of technology;
  • Teacher support – networking and PD opportunities, and school leader support;
  • Effective group work – students need to have equal levels of agency and participation;
  • Balanced instruction – using both didactic instruction and independent inquiry to help prepare students for independent work;
  • A reflective, self- and peer-evaluated assessment process – specifically, ‘evidence of progress needs to be regularly monitored and recorded'; and,
  • Student autonomy and choice – Kokotsaki, Menzies & Wiggins, 2015 say this needs to be part of the process so students have a sense of ownership and control.


Mergendoller, J. R., & Thomas, J. W. (2005). Managing project based learning: Principles from the field. California: Buck Institute for Education.

Kokotsaki, D., Menzies, V., & Wiggins, A. (2016). Project-based learning: A review of the literature. Improving Schools, Vol. 19(3) 267–277.

Are you using a range of assessment methods for PBL? How are you assessing individual and group work?

How are you scaffolding student learning in PBL? Are you setting aside specific teaching time to prepare students for independent work?

When planning a project, how flexible is your schedule? Do you build in time for extensions if needed?