Project-Based Learning Strategies

Project-Based Learning Strategies

Table of Contents

Strategies listed in a four x four square - totaling 16 squares


The Active-Learning definition is “students doing things while thinking about what they are doing.” The range of what students “do” includes a diverse range of activities to construct their knowledge and understanding (i.e., develop higher-order thinking). Although not always explicitly required, student reflections about what they are learning and how they are learning are essential elements. The goal is to link the activity with learning. Active-learning is a broader educational strategy, within which many other project-based learning tactics reside.  


Inductive learning is the process of learning by example and observation. Students induce a general rule, concept, or principle from a set of observed examples. Deductive learning presents the idea first and demonstrates how it works—but this process simply isn’t possible, or as effective, for the diversity of simultaneous explorations that occur with project-based learning. PBL exposes students to how a concept or principles happens in practice (through case-studies, system-thinking analysis, just-in-time teaching) so they can better understand the universal principles that build towards a rule or lesson. The flexibility of in-course activities in PBL allows for inductive learning to occur through specific examples, events, experiences crafted to the particular stage of development.

Backward Design 

The open-ended nature of day-to-day activities within a student-led PBL format can be uncomfortable for some instructors if used to control the process by which the lessons are presented and learned.  Backward course design (or backward mapping) is essential for project-based learning because it provides a planning framework that works back from the module’s overall objectives, course, or project and creates a series of lessons built to help achieve these goals. PBL is a goal-focused approach with distinct phases which allows instructors to align short-term activities with long-term goals, content production, and student performance. Progress in PBL classes may not happen linearly with predictable results, but instructors can provide a framework for this advancement through lessons, problems, and goal-oriented assignments. Students work towards these deadlines, thus, crafting the process of teaching to support the goals of student learning.

Experiential Activities 

PBL courses frequently integrate a series of experiential-learning opportunities throughout the process. The purpose of these experiences is to expand opportunities for students to discover, empathize, and understand the problem in different ways. In these activities, students are exposed to, or create, a direct “experience” related to the course topic or project question (e.g., “What makes a shoe fit well?” or “How difficult is it to carry water long distances?”). This experience begins a process of reflection, discussion, analysis, and evaluation of the skills to guide further activities. Ideally, these experiences include exposure to circumstances, and people, not typically included in traditional classroom environments. The authenticity and significance of PBL problems cemented during this process. 

Haptic Engagement 

Many experiential activities involve a haptic, hands-on approach to learning. Some learners look for ways to include the sense of touch in their educational process: drawing, building, fiddling with something, manipulating elements to complete a task. In project-based learning, these preferences are well-suited to aspects of the discovery and ideation process. Imagine how to learn about food safety practices through cooking or product design performance by testing it for failures. 

Retrieval Practice 

The idea behind retrieval practice is to develop ways to turn passively-absorbed information into more embedded knowledge and understanding. Instead of re-reading books and notes, retrieval depends on one’s ability to “hack” their ability to recall information. This step occurs through visual note-taking, peer-to-peer teaching, or with hands-on experiences. As an example, imagine lifting two seemingly identical rods made of different densities; this one simple experience (“that’s heavier than the other one”) will immediately trigger an understanding of density and materiality. Explaining this lesson to others or drawing it would enhance the experience.

Metacognition & Problem-Solving Strategies

For questions with right/wrong answers, solving a problem is embedded within the job (e.g., orders of operation, application of principles, etc.). Still, many of the problems used in the PBL model intentionally defy straightforward solutions. When problems are complex, multi-faceted, and vexing, a non-linear problem-solving method becomes necessary. PBL courses need to teach strategies for solving problems, ideally using best practices of metacognition (thinking about thinking). Specific tactics are essential to demonstrate: Students should be encouraged to articulate which principles and concepts are unclear and explain how their previous successful attempts at problem-solving might be useful. When students share their strategies by demonstrating their solutions aloud or graphically, they gain confidence in their efforts and foster a community mindset. Instructors should model problem-solving strategies rather than offering answers and ask directing questions to help students overcome obstacles.

Just-in-Time Teaching

One of the challenges of teaching an open-ended educational practice is the potential variability in timing for when introducing specific lessons. Imagine a scenario in which student groups reach an impasse in their work because they lacked knowledge about a particular subject or the skills to manage one of their learning tools. Just-in-Time teaching tries to anticipate these impasses by creating a series of exercises that allow the instructor to survey and assess the students’ abilities and knowledge. This learning activity often takes the form of open-ended warm-up questions or surveys about the course material before class begins—the instructor can adjust the course activities to address any shortcomings or misunderstandings meaningfully. The learning happens just-in-time to apply it towards the PBL project. For example, an instructor asks students in a course about sustainable practices in landscape architecture to explain water retention principles. Then, they realize that most students don’t understand the relationship between soil types and drainage, so an in-class demonstration of the concept is created and shown at the start of class.

Guided Discovery 

A cornerstone of all project-based learning models is the exceptional relationship between curiosity, critical thinking, and problem-solving. These strengthen connections through guided discovery problems. These are carefully constructed puzzles, challenges, or discrete questions that push students to learn how to solve the issues and build a framework of knowledge from these inquiries—before explaining the content to them. This type of discovery learning method based on the profound and straightforward notion that students are more likely to remember concepts and principles when they initially discover them. These “learning-by-doing” exercises are combining with experiential learning and haptic engagement exercises. Ideally, introducing these lessons in a collaborative setting in which individuals experience the learning, reflect upon it, and convey the lessons they’ve learned to their teammates. As an example, asking at a beginning astronomy course for students to speculate on how to explain the phases of the moon using physical models and a light source—they discover that the Earth’s shadow doesn’t cause the moon’s phases. 

Coached Ideation 

At certain stages in the project-based learning/design thinking process, groups apply their knowledge of course content towards a project as they generate ideas. When the problems are complex, and the design process is collaborative, instructors must guide to facilitate these activities. A coached ideation process gives smaller groups of students a particular issue to address as it applies to the overall project (e.g., identifying options for non-conductive metals, prioritizing options for food distribution, etc.). The point isn’t to solve the broader problem of PBL, but perhaps a crucial stage in one of the branch problems. These exercises should be short, somewhat informal, and ungraded interactions where students present ideas, explore, and evaluate collaboratively. Instructors should encourage all students to interact (modeling inclusive classroom tactics) and provide just-in-time learning to clear misconceptions, suggest case studies, or provide technical expertise for concepts not apparent to student teams. The most important aspect of this process is that the work remains student-led. Doing so helps to emphasize student “voice and choice” while strengthening their engagement in the process. In a team-based learning process, this role of a “coach” may fall upon peer coaches or other team members.  

Visualizing Systems Thinking

The complexity and interdisciplinary nature of the problems used in PBL courses require participants to understand systems thinking. Systems thinking is the process of trying to understanding how constituent parts interrelate and influence each other within a whole system. Systems thinking looks for a holistic approach to the research, analysis, and design activities (e.g., how air, water, plants, and animals interact in an ecosystem). Systems thinking and visualizing the various means (e.g., causal loop diagrams (CLD), qualitative/quantitative (QQ) diagrams, Behavior Over Time (BOT) models, simulators), serves as a universal language that connects inter-disciplinary teams. Systems thinking deals with the variables, links, effects, and constraints that affect behaviors in complex systems—it is an ideal evaluative tool for the agile project-based learning approach. Although the visualization techniques and modeling can be advanced, the process need not be; consider these drawtoast examples of people have visually mapped “How To Make Toast.” 

Case-Study Method

Case-studies are real-world examples of situations, solutions, or failures that can provide valuable information during a project-based learning approach. Many professions rely upon case methods for continuing education because it is particularly useful in linking new learning to existing conditions. It is a valuable tactic in PBL courses in three primary ways:

  • First, the PBL method relies extensively upon information gathering to define the problem, suggest potential solutions, and to understand the scope of on-going efforts either as a literature search or precedent study.
  • Second, introduce specific case-studies as a way of provoking questions and challenging solutions. When students confront dilemmas from previous cases, they can assume the role decision-maker and weigh their potential choices against the real-world consequences.
  • Finally, the case’s real-life nature brings relevance and authenticity to the project—the data sets and theories connect to an actual event with consequences.

Shared Solutions / Send-A-Problem

During the problem-solving phases of project-based learning, it becomes tricky to solicit multiple potential solutions to the same problem simultaneously. Some groups or individuals may dominate the conversation, and others become disengaged if no one pursues their solution. An excellent strategy to avoid these conflicts while still maintaining the cooperative problem-solving effort is to use a Send-A-Problem method (a variation of the Coached Problem-solving method). In this method, forming multiple student groups (2-4 each).

  • Give each group a different discrete problem; the problems should be complicated and nuanced enough that no single right answer is possible.
  • Teams discuss the issue, record their solution, and pass their resolution off to another group. Each group contributes a new or revised solution to the original.
  • Eventually, after the problem has made its way through the class, a final resolution is selected (often a hybrid model of many suggestions). This process nurtures collaborative problem-solving and communication skills—groups have to learn to listen and consider other perspectives before offering their solution. It encourages creativity without demanding originality—set solutions are within the context of ideas that others have developed.
  • In-person and online forums are equally useful for this process.

Learning Artifacts & Portfolios

Learning artifacts/objects are tangible demonstrations of student learning. They are essential elements of a project-based learning course. The public presentations of learning artifacts often mark the transitions between the various stages of a project-based learning approach. As the stages progress from discovery to ideation, evaluation, and implementation, the artifacts change. The goal is to have students produce a series of expressions that showcases the process:

  • Some elements demonstrate critical thinking, initial ideation and problem-solving, others to show a progression through design/problem-solving development.
  • Eventually, all the artifacts can be linked together in a compelling story—ideally with demonstrations of work across format with a refined sense of resolution. The production of a portfolio at the end of the process is a critical learning tool. It promotes student self-reflection on learning and becomes evidence of the competencies required in the course’s learning objectives.
  • The link between the visual representation of complex ideas is an essential professional communication skill to promote.
  • Finally, portfolios are artifacts that extend the project’s life through publications, research funding, and as case-studies for other similar projects.

Cooperative & Team-Based Learning 

Collaboration is one of the essential components to successful project-based learning courses—but it is a soft skill that deserves specific instructional attention that it needs. PBL depends on the students’ ability to work as a team to produce a shared work. When students learn to work in a supportive, inclusive, and cooperative environment, they thrive. Teaching productive collaborative learning tactics involves a series of exercises presented to students that allows them to understand more about form teams, assess team members’ assets, refine roles and contributions to the project, and foster supportive intra-team communication. There are specific ways to model positive cooperation in the course: informal learning groups, think/pair/share exercises, peer instruction, jigsaw, etc. The PBL process has regular intervals built into the process for a routine sharing of ideas and formative evaluation of team-working efficacy. A more formalized model is the team-based learning (TBL) format. This small-group learning experience emphasizes student preparation out of class and application of knowledge in class. Students are organized strategically into diverse teams of 5-7 students that work together throughout the course. 

Role-Playing & Evaluation

A critical aspect of the project-based learning method is the ability to generate empathy and insight as an integral part of the initial information collection/discovery/research phase. One way of trying to instill an understanding of the process is to use a role-playing method. Simply put, ask a student (or groups of students) to assume the perspective of a particular character or user group. To do so, they’ll need to supplement their imagination with actual data, cultural competence training, and other research information about how the issues affect human interaction. Once the research is complete, the instructor facilitates an event (role-playing exercise) in which groups interact with questions and answers—during this event, raise concerns and present potential solutions, etc. as a way of evaluating progress. Specific feedback is essential for growth (“I don’t think that will work because…” vs. “I don’t like it”). Depending on the discipline or scenario, some vibrant online role-playing forums and simulations may lend additional feedback.