Why Project Based Learning?

VMS Community Blog
Posted January 12, 2018
by Julie Schlossinger, Lower School Director

Can you recall the projects you completed as a child in your school? Perhaps you made an instrument for music class, or a diorama for English class, or composed an oral presentation about a U.S. President. While assignments like these can be engaging, you probably don't remember the specifics of what you learned, and there’s a good reason why. These types of projects only touched the surface of learning because they were not presented as a means to solving an authentic problem, which we now know is one of the keys to making learning memorable and relevant.   

In this last decade, as a result of significant research, we have come to realize that students are more engaged with learning when they are involved in some form of problem solving and hands-on project making. This specific type of learning has also been shown to lead directly to an increase in student achievement.

The Buck Institute for Education (BIE), a highly reputable Project Based Learning (PBL) organization, defines PBL as, “A teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge.”

Research has proven that PBL increases student engagement and interest, develops problem solving skills at a deeper level, and also naturally teaches students how to transfer their learning to new situations. (Hmelo-Silver, 2007)

Highlighted below are additional benefits noted in recent studies published by BIE in a research summary published in 2013:

Academic Achievement

Goals for 21st century learning emphasize mastery of significant academic content, which also is the foundation of any well-designed project. Comparisons of learning outcomes in PBL versus more traditional, textbook and lecture driven instruction show that:
  • Students learning through PBL retain content longer and have a deeper understanding of what they are learning. (Penuel & Means, 2000; Stepien, Gallagher & Workman, 1993)
  • In specific content areas, PBL has been shown to be more effective than traditional methods for teaching math, economics, language, science, and other disciplines. (Beckett & Miller, 2006; Boaler, 2002; Finkelstein et al., 2010; Greier et al., 2008; Mergendoller, Maxwell, & Bellisimo, 2006)
  • On high-stakes tests, PBL students perform as well or better than traditionally taught students. (Parker et al., 2011)

21st Century Competencies

PBL helps students master the key competencies identified as essential for college and career readiness. Research has shown:
  • Students demonstrate better problem-solving skills in PBL than in more traditional classes and are able to apply what they learn to real-life situations. (Finkelstein et al., 2010)
  • When teachers are trained in PBL methods, they devote more class time to teaching 21st century skills; their students perform at least as well on standardized tests as students engaged in traditional instruction. (Hixson, Ravitz, & Whisman, 2012)
  • PBL students also show improved critical thinking. (Beckett & Miller, 2006; Horan, Lavaroni, & Beldon, 1996; Mergendoller, Maxwell, & Bellisimo, 2006; Tretten & Zachariou, 1995)
  • Through PBL experiences, students improve their ability to work collaboratively and resolve conflicts. (Beckett & Miller; ChanLin, 2008)
  • Opportunities for collaborative learning provide benefits to students across grade levels, academic subjects, and achievement levels. (Johnson & Johnson, 2009; Slavin, 1996)


  • PBL shows promise as a strategy for closing the achievement gap by engaging lower achieving students. (Boaler, 2002; Penuel & Means, 2000)
  • PBL can work in different types of schools, serving diverse learners. (Hixson, Ravitz, & Whisman, 2012)
  • PBL also can provide an effective model for whole-school reform. (National Clearinghouse for Comprehensive School Reform, 2004; Newmann & Wehlage, 1995; Ravitz, 2008)


  • In PBL classrooms, students demonstrate improved attitudes toward learning. They exhibit more engagement, are more self-reliant, and have better attendance than in more traditional settings. (Thomas, 2000; Walker & Leary, 2009)

Teacher Satisfaction

  • Teachers may need time and professional development to become familiar with PBL methods, but those who make this shift in classroom practice report increased job satisfaction. (Hixson, Ravitz, & Whisman, 2012; Strobel & van Barneveld, 2009)
Based on these outcomes, VMS has dedicated significant time and resources to incorporating PBL into curriculum and learning for all of our students. We’re proud to report that this initiative is funded in part by the tremendous show of support for Project Based learning at this year’s Gala. Here are a few examples of initiatives that we have planned:
  • This academic year, all three divisions will participate in Intraterm, much of which will incorporate project based learning.
  • This summer, we will provide professional development and training for teachers in all three divisions with experts from the Buck Institute for Education.
  • In 2018-19, lower school classrooms will have access to kits from Right Brain Learning that will help us teach our existing curriculum content using a project based learning format. These kits will also serve as models for the development of curriculum and units by our own teachers.
  • In 2018-19, middle school will launch a pilot program centered on a project based learning approach that will empower a small group of students to design and direct a significant components of their learning.
  • In 2018-19, US students will have the opportunity to convert one of the school’s buses into a Tiny House inspired space.
  • In 2018-19, VMS will expand Senior Project to include all 12th graders, who will work on proposals, projects, research papers and presentations over the course of a semester. Students will work in small group cohorts and we will also seek to enhance the program through internships that will be opportunities for students to engage with our community, and provide for authentic real-life learning experience.
Our hope is that teachers and students will not “do” project based learning, but that it will become a tacit part of how we learn. And, ultimately, we hope that this will lead to empowered, engaged students who find meaning and relevance in their work and who make clear connections to the world. Here we go...