That’s the question that John Mergendoller, executive director of the Buck Institute, hears often. His response is a resounding "yes." But measuring project-based learning can be a challenge. If an English teacher and a math teacher both do a project, and one lasts a week while the other lasts a month, those projects will look very different, Mergendoller points out.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that teachers believe project-based learning helps students develop higher-level thinking skills. Students also become more actively engaged in the learning process.
"Because project-based learning focuses on real things, an aspect of life that you can analyze, it’s motivating and it grabs students," says Peter Rillero, associate professor of science education at Arizona State University. Students learn and retain more knowledge, teachers say–knowledge that is applicable to the real world.
Hard data also show that project-based learning can be effective. Research suggests that students who engage in hands-on activities at least once a week score significantly higher on standardized tests of science achievement than students who don’t. To apply this concept to virtual experiences, Sebit LLC, developer of Adaptive Curriculum, executed a pilot program to explore the effects of hands-on learning through Adaptive Curriculum on sixth-grade students’ science knowledge.
The study, which focused on 71 students who used Adaptive Curriculum and 46 who did not, found that students in the Adaptive Curriculum group had a 49.5-percent increase in their science assessment scores from pretest to post-test. (Students in the control group had negligible gains.)
Another study, conducted in 1997, showed that students at a project-based British secondary school performed better on math problems requiring analytical or conceptual thought than students at a school that used more traditional, direct instruction.
Technology, too, has been found to play a valuable role in project-based learning. In a five-year study of students involved in the Challenge 2000 Multimedia Project–which had students complete interdisciplinary, multimedia projects that integrated real-world issues and practices–students using technology to create presentations aimed at a particular audience outperformed their peers who did not use technology in areas such as communication, teamwork, and problem solving.
Challenge 2000 Multimedia Project