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Project-Based Learning in Higher Education

By Hannah Jackson

After having been out of school for a few years, I attended a 2-hour training one morning where the instructors showed slides and chatted to the audience for the duration. The overhead fluorescent lights made my eyelids feel like tiny weighted blankets as I tried incredibly hard to focus on the slides, the instructors’ voices, and the content as it was presented. My gaze flicked between my coffee cup and the projection on the wall, over and over again. About halfway through, the little voice in my head asked, “Is this going to be over soon?” 

I had forgotten how tedious it can be to sit and listen to someone lecture. I haven’t been in a college classroom for a few years, but this training brought me back to early mornings when my eyelids drooped as I tried so hard to listen. Even when the content truly mattered to me, it was never easy to sit through a class that consisted solely of lectures, slides, and a passive “transfer” of knowledge from instructor to student.

I get it. It seems the simplest way to present information is to tell someone what you want them to know. Sometimes with the demands of higher education, it might just not feel realistic to prepare much else. Yet, we see side effects of such lectures in low student motivation, students who value a grade more than the learning process, and graduates that are ill prepared for solving problems in the workplace. Also, sleepiness. 

Fix the Engagement Issue

Your solution to avoiding the woes of lecture humdrum might lie in a methodology called project-based learning. Project-based learning (PBL for short) is a term you may have heard bounced around in modern academic circles along with jargon like microcredentials, spaced learning, liquid syllabi, and ungrading. Maybe you’re ready to ask yourself what, pray tell, ungrading is, throw your hands up, and decide some of these terms must surely be pretend. Before you do though, humor me for a few minutes. Project-based learning actually isn’t new, or fancy, or complicated. Let’s unpack the term and look at some of the ways instructors at the University of Dayton are using project-based learning to prepare skillful, critically-thinking, cooperative students who are ready for the workforce.

Are your projects dessert or the main course?

Project-based learning is more than just assigning a project in class. A “dessert” project is one that finishes off the instructional unit. Students create a product about something they learned from your teaching as an end-cap to learning. With PBL, the project is the unit. The project is the main course.

A large meal, including meat, vegetables, fruit, sauces, and French fries, sits on a table.

What makes it PBL?

The Buck Institute for Education maintains their seven Gold Standards for successful PBL.

  1. Complex Question: The project starts with a challenging problem or question presented to students. This should be authentic, relevant, and closely tied to the area of study and student interest. 
  2. Sustained Inquiry: Students should engage in “sustained inquiry,” working to research, find resources, and use acquired knowledge as they work through the question.
  3. Authenticity: The project is set in a real-world context and has an impact on something outside of the classroom. The issue matters to students.
  4. Student Agency: Student choice is critical. After setting your expectations, the methods for research, collaboration, organization, and the final product should be almost entirely student-driven. This one is tough. It takes practice to transition from the “driver of the learning bus” into this role as a “guide with a compass.”
  5. Reflection: Students should be provided with ample opportunity to reflect on their process with instructors and peers. Students evaluate how well things are going, challenges they face, and what about their process can be improved.
  6. Critique and Revision: According to the Buck Institute, “Students give, receive, and apply feedback to improve their process and products.”
  7. Public-Facing Product: At the end, students will have produced something that is shared with the campus, community, or other stakeholders beyond the classroom.

The Buck Institute for Education lists their seven Gold Standards for successful PBL in the form of a wheel.

Image source

In a nutshell PBL is a process of learning new skills and applying existing ones by working through a real-world, complex problem. Students collaborate and communicate and eventually produce a project with authentic implications in their world. They leave the project with experience and knowledge that transfers directly into the workplace.


Why implement PBL?

  1. Engagement increases. Student engagement and motivation is significantly higher during and after project-based learning when opposed to traditional, direct instruction.
  2. Learning is student-centered. Because you will not be lecturing, your time is freed up to offer students your most valuable asset– you! Give small-group and individual guidance, share a wealth of subject-matter expertise when students need it, and contribute to building positive classroom relationships. Research tells us that positive learning environments founded on strong peer-peer and peer-instructor interactions lead to higher academic achievement.
  3. Students graduate primed and ready for a job. Employers and recruiters are often impressed with candidates who have project-based experience from school. Just ask the business school (I did. You can read about that in a few paragraphs, free of charge). 
  4. Students really, really learn the content. In order to complete the project, students must generate questions, actively problem solve, and drive their own learning. 
    1. Blumenfield et al. recommend curbing student resistance to “more cognitively  complex tasks” by ensuring the project is meaningful to students, that students have the freedom to decide on the artifact created at the end of the project, and there is opportunity for working with others. When it comes to engagement, “a number of researchers (e.g., Deci & Ryan, 1987; Lepper, 1988) have argued that choice and control are critical to enhance motivation to work on classroom tasks.”
  5. It’s practice for the workplace. When students move away from theory and towards its practical application, they learn to grapple with imperfect outcomes. In the workplace, it is rare that everything folds neatly into a little box, and life doesn’t often stick to regularly scheduled programming. PBL gives students the skills to collaboratively work through the real messes and deal with the outcomes, no matter what they look like.


The Business of Project-Based Learning

When I asked three of my colleagues which instructors or programs use PBL, all of them recommended I reach out to the UD School of Business Administration. After a meeting with Professors Michael Gorman and Stephen Hall, it was clear as to why. In a 30-minute Zoom meeting, I had a peek into decades’ worth of project-based learning that has catapulted business students into successful, meaningful careers. 


The Operations Management Capstone course in the School of Business is one of many business capstones based entirely on a problem-solving project with real clients. In it,

  • Students are “hired” (at no cost) by a business that has a problem in need of solving.
  • They work in groups of 3-4 to research the problem, create a proposal which lays out the data, the approach to solving, and benefits to the client.
  • The client signs off on the proposal.
  • The student teams spend weeks to months solving the problem which the company then implements.
  • Final presentations include a publicly-consumable product called a showcase.
  • Students work with an advisor on a weekly basis to guide their process and improve their technical writing.


The problems that need solving are real, which means they are often vague and messy. Students are asked to take their prior knowledge and theory and apply it to a live situation. Professor Gorman noted that the class provides no teaching of skills beyond what is needed on a case-by-case basis. The goal is not to learn theoretical skills, but to apply the ones that students have spent their time at UD studying. In the decade-long capstone study he conducted with his students, Gorman says, “In a classroom you can learn the skill of optimizing operations, but applying optimization technique to a real business problem is an entirely new challenge once it is combined with the other business disciplines.”


Professor Hall told me that after 20 years of implementing the capstone, recruiters seek out candidates from UD’s program. They like that students have had experiential learning and are leaving the university with tangible business experience.


Students report feeling prepared when interviewing for positions and reflect on the value of solving a real business problem prior to looking for full-time employment. Professor Hall noted that students are often “flabbergasted” to realize that a major chunk of their time on the project is spent planning and organizing. Gaining consensus from all stakeholders and defining the requirements can take months, or sometimes the entire first semester of the project. Students graduate with a more realistic and holistic view of what it means to operate as a stakeholder in such a large project, having worked through the muddledness of the problem to decide on methods that will address the needs of their client.


If you love the idea of project-based learning but are wondering where it could ever fit into your course load, start by taking inventory of what you already teach. Identify areas that could be taught with a project instead of traditional methods. Remember, the idea here is not to supplement content with a project but to conduct the learning process through the project, allowing students to drive their own growth as they work through complex problems. 


The following are great resources for designing a project-based unit or course:

Gold Standard Project Design

Edutopia - Project Based Learning

How to Begin Building a PBL Culture from the Start

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