Project Based Learning Is So Much More Than An Assignment

You just finished a unit in your class. For their final project, you are going to have students create a presentation on one of the five main learning concepts from the unit. They will have three days in class to complete the presentation and two days dedicated to presenting. Once they are finished with their presentations, you will move onto the next unit.

Consider this similar scenario: You are coming up on the end of a unit in your class. Since the very beginning students have been working on a project dealing with a real-word issue in which they incorporate everything they have learned throughout the unit into one big presentation. At the beginning of the unit you set aside two days at the end of it for presentations. Once students are done with their presentations, you will move onto your next unit. 

In the first scenario above, students are assigned a project at the end of a unit with a limited amount of time to complete it. This can be a good way to assess student learning, but it does not allow students to explore the concepts in depth or to apply what they have learned to real-world problems. In the second scenario, students are following a project based learning model in which they complete the project as they learn. This allows students to explore the concepts in depth and to apply what they have learned to real-world problems.

So what is better: assigning projects or utilizing project based learning? The answer to that is not very simple, but by outlining the differences between the two you can make a decision.  

Assigning a project is a common practice in education, where students are given a specific task or assignment to complete within a given timeframe. The focus is primarily on the end product or outcome. In this approach, the topic is often predetermined by the teacher or curriculum, and specific guidelines and instructions are provided. The project has a limited scope and structure, with predetermined steps, requirements, and timeline. The primary goal is to assess students' knowledge and understanding of a particular subject or topic, with the project serving as evidence of their mastery of content.

In contrast, Project-Based Learning (PBL) takes an immersive and dynamic approach to learning. PBL begins with an essential question or a real-world problem that engages students' curiosity and inquiry. Students are actively involved in investigating and seeking solutions, making the learning experience meaningful and relevant. Unlike assigning a project, PBL gives students a significant role in shaping their learning experience. They have the freedom to choose topics, develop research questions, and explore areas of interest within the broader project framework. This autonomy promotes student ownership and intrinsic motivation.While assigning a project often emphasizes individual effort, PBL focuses on collaboration and teamwork. In PBL, students work together in groups, sharing ideas, perspectives, and skills. Collaboration enhances communication skills, fosters empathy, and prepares students for real-world collaboration scenarios. Moreover, PBL is designed to develop students' critical thinking and problem-solving abilities. Students analyze complex problems, evaluate information, think critically, and develop creative solutions. The process involves higher-order thinking skills and encourages students to apply their knowledge in authentic contexts.

Another key distinction lies in the duration and depth of engagement. Assigning a project is typically a one-time activity stretched out for a small duration of time, whereas PBL extends over a more elongated period. PBL allows for in-depth exploration and iteration, involving multiple phases such as research, planning, execution, and reflection. This extended engagement fosters deeper understanding, revision, and growth.

Furthermore, PBL integrates various skills and content areas, fostering interdisciplinary connections. Students apply knowledge from different subjects to solve real-world problems, enabling them to see the relevance and interconnectedness of their learning. Normal projects allow for this, but usually centered on a single topic where several disciplines and content areas may not overlap. 

Reflection is an integral part of PBL, with students regularly reflecting on their learning, progress, and challenges throughout a unit. Assessment in PBL is multidimensional, focusing on the process, collaboration, presentation skills, and the final product. It goes beyond a predetermined rubric to consider student growth and reflection.

In summary, while assigning a project may provide a snapshot of a student's understanding, Project-Based Learning offers a transformative educational experience. PBL immerses students in authentic, inquiry-based, and collaborative learning opportunities. It fosters critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills, preparing students for the challenges of the 21st century.

By understanding the differences between assigning a project and implementing PBL, educators can design learning experiences that truly empower and engage students in their educational journey. 

Main post image by Vanessa Loring via Pexels

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