Project-Based Learning’s Next Project: Understanding When It Works

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — June 21, 2017 3 min read
A multi-ethnic group of elementary age children are in the computer lab using laptops. A little boy is watching a video and is listening to music.
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Can project-based learning help close the achievement gap? New research focused on young elementary schoolers suggests that a well-designed and well-taught project-based-learning curriculum can help make a difference for students living in poverty.

Researchers Nell K. Duke, a professor at the University of Michigan, and Anne-Lise Halvorsen, an associate professor at Michigan State University, investigated whether a project-based social studies curriculum could help improve the literacy and social studies skills of 2nd graders. They wrote about the findings of the project, which they called Project PLACE: A Project Approach to Literacy and Civic Engagement, for Edutopia.

Second graders who were living in poverty from 20 different schools with low academic achievement were randomly assigned to two groups: one that used a project-based learning curriculum for social studies and another that taught history in a more traditional way.

Duke and Halvorsen provided detailed plans and some training and support to teachers in the group using the project-based learning program. The program was closely aligned to Michigan’s curriculum standards and covered four major topics: economics, geography, history, and civics and government. (The researchers write about how and why they developed the program this way in a separate article for Edutopia. The curriculum units are publicly available through the University of Michigan’s website.)

Teachers in both groups were asked to teach 80 social studies lessons, so the researchers could evaluate the effect of using the project-based learning curriculum, not just the effect of teaching social studies to elementary school students.

The researchers assessed students on Michigan’s literacy and social studies standards, using a tool they had prepared themselves, at the start and end of the program. They also assessed students from a more-affluent school that was not using the project-based-learning curriculum.


The project-based curriculum had a strong positive effect on students’ scores in social studies, and a positive effect on scores in literacy. Students whose teachers used the project-based-learning curriculum made gains that were 63 percent higher than their peers in the control group in social studies and 23 percent higher in informational reading. Students in the project-based-learning group’s test scores drew closer to the students in the more-affluent school, while the control group did not close the gap.

Just how well teachers taught project-based learning seemed to matter: Students whose teachers implemented the program better had more growth in informational reading than those whose teachers implemented it less well.

Duke and Halvorsen concluded from this that project-based learning, if tied to standards and implemented well, can help improve students’ achievement. But they join other advocates in cautioning that not all project-based learning is created equal—some programs aren’t aligned to standards or are developed on the fly.

“Rather than saying that PBL raises or does not raise student achievement compared to other approaches, the most defensible stance from our research is that PBL can raise student achievement in high-poverty communities,” they write in Edutopia. The next project for project-based learning, they write, is figuring out what the circumstances are in which project-based learning works well and how it compares to other approaches.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.