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October 27, 2016

Teaching at Pitt


Developing project-based learning

Project-based learning (PBL) is a student-centered, inquiry-based teaching method in which students gain deep knowledge and skills through extended investigation of an authentic, meaningful question or problem.
While more common in professional schools, PBL is becoming popular as a teaching method among all faculty. The reason is simple: Research indicates that when done well, PBL works. It produces better educational outcomes and an improved learning environment. Results also show increased faculty satisfaction, a more evenly distributed workload during the term, improved pedagogical knowledge, and improved understanding regarding students’ ability, reasoning and interests.

Here are some examples of PBL:

• In a graduate education course, students are tasked with creating a 10-minute video presentation. The video is to be prepared as if it is a presentation to a local school board. Students are to advocate a policy change or educational initiative of their own choosing. The presentation has to be clear, persuasive and evidence-based. It is meant to draw on the topics of the course and demonstrate mastery of the material. Students work in teams of their own choosing. Final videos are shared online.

• A more elaborate form of PBL is case-based, a version often used in the medical fields. For example, students can be assigned to a “treatment team,” with each student playing the role of a different care provider in the team: doctor, nurse, social worker, etc. The team is presented with a “patient” who comes with a case history. Each student must address the concerns of their particular care provider role, but team members must come to consensus and use evidence-based reasoning to explain and justify their treatment plan.


It is no longer enough to teach students to memorize the body of knowledge in a given discipline. We need to prepare students for a career in which they will generate, disseminate and apply information. They will need to understand both general and specific discipline knowledge, and then integrate theory and practice through the application of critical thinking to practical problems. They’ll also need to be able to work in teams, learn from failures and communicate effectively in both written and oral form. PBL provides a chance to develop all of these skills through work on real problems similar to what students will encounter in their future.

All of these gains do not come without trade-offs. Research indicates that faculty report a higher level of class unpredictability and less control with PBL. Faculty also report an overall increase in the time and workload needed for planning and implementation in their classes. It’s not easy to move from the traditional instructor-focused lecture model to the incorporation of student-centered PBL. But faculty indicate that the benefits outweigh the trade-offs.

Keep in mind that PBL covers a wide spectrum of formats, and works best as a key strategy in a course that still includes other instructional methods. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition.

PBL comes in many forms, including case-based, design-based and simulation-based. But all good PBL will include certain key elements. These elements may be articulated in different ways, but will all boil down to this:

• The project has clear student learning goals, including discipline content, problem-solving skills and collaboration.

• The focus of the project is a non-trivial problem or question that is appropriate for the level of the course.

• Students must engage in a rigorous process of questioning, research and iterative application of information.

• The project is authentic in nature, featuring real-world context, tools, standards and impact. It must be scaled appropriately for the course level.

• Students have reasonable autonomy to make decisions about what to do, how to do it and what their final solution/outcome will look like.

• Students and instructors reflect on the effectiveness of approaches, the quality of student work, challenges and solutions.

• Students give and receive feedback in an ongoing dialogue with the instructor and each other.

• The solution that results from the project is shared within and outside of the class. Consider posters, presentations and discussions.


How can you incorporate PBL in your teaching?

• Walk before you run! Start small and then expand your efforts gradually. Your first attempt at PBL should be short and focused.

• PBL is more planning-intensive than traditional classes. Begin planning now for the fall 2017 term. Keep in mind that the work is front-loaded. Time spent planning will ensure a much easier and more successful transition later.

• Take a layered approach to development. Focus on design first, then implementation. Finally, integrate appropriate technology for the learning outcomes you envision. Technology can be a key component and broaden your PBL impact in many ways.

John G. Radzilowicz is a teaching and learning consultant for the University Center for Teaching and Learning.

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