By Theresa Desaulniers                                                                                                                                      Access the PDF here

A Literature Review

The purpose of this literature review is to investigate how Project Based Learning (PBL) improves the learning environment for middle school students. Blumenfeld et al describes project-based learning as a comprehensive perspective focused on teaching by engaging students in investigation (1991). The learning environment is defined as a combination of the classroom setting, the instructor efficacy and the community engagement levels of the peer students within the classroom. This investigation seeks to understand the role project-based learning has in encouraging students to engage with the class project and how project-based learning develops problem solving skills in a social setting. A variety of projects and their resulting data will be analyzed to determine the beneficial levels of project-based learning for middle school students. This review will consider quantitative and qualitative peer reviewed works.

This literature review will investigate how research has shown the effects of project-based learning on middle school students. Teachers willing to utilize project-based learning are shown to have a positive effect on the students as well as on their outlook on their job as a teacher. The connection between the students and the community displays evidence for developing and growing understanding between them. Benefits to society, as a whole, by creating interest in particular industry career pathways are apparent. The learning theories that are used in project-based learning are historically supported throughout the education industry.

Benefits of PBL for the Teacher

Instructor efficacy in project-based learning incorporates multiple considerations. Matching the project to the level of the students can be difficult considering the range of students that may be in the class. The project must meet the standards that are required to teach at that level. Considerations regarding the scope of the project and the materials and time required all come into play for the teacher. Additionally, arranging the professional input of the community to add dimension to the project combines the goals of community and school.

Blumenfeld et al (1991) argues that project-based education enhances motivation and thought for many students. This article expresses the importance of teachers creating projects that relate to real world applications as well as keeping the projects within a scope that students can complete within a reasonable amount of time. The more long-term projects tend to lose the students’ interest as there are often interruptions in the project development. Blumenfeld et al also encourages teachers to utilize technology with special emphasis on the technology that directly connects the project to the actual uses that professionals routinely use. This article also warns that teachers must pay special attention to obtaining the front-knowledge of a project before undertaking it. Teachers may need more development time for a project, its instruction and management. This sentiment was echoed in the Liu et al (2012) journal who focused on a more multimedia project. In addition to the above warnings, the Liu paper suggests that the project also reflect the pedagogical beliefs of the lead teacher to maintain continued motivation in both teacher and students.

Ertmer et all (2009) addresses the interesting problems that teachers face in regards to and students are encouraged to decide on which specific learning issues to pursue. In these cases, the teacher is taking on the role of guide or facilitator while the students develop both problem-solving skills and self-discipline. Self-directed learning for the students is a major goal for teachers engaging in project-based learning. This article also associates the Internet as a connective technology with a significant effect on research conduct and teachers are encouraged to instruct on the merits of online sources prior to implementing a new project. Ertmer et al concludes with project-based learning as having a positive effect on student learning and motivation. Veterans of project-based learning are encouraged to share their experiences with novice teachers who may need extra support with the early stages of these types of open ended instructional approaches.

Grant (2002) details that project based learning has roots from the early 1900s. Constructivism and constructionism are both utilized in project-based learning. Constructivism is described as obtaining knowledge through an individual’s interactions with the environment and, because every individual may perceive the environment differently, that knowledge may hold discreet variances. Constructionism builds an individual’s knowledge by constructing connections between artifacts that are created in response to the exposure a student has to an environment. Grant continues to combine these two learning theories with examples of projects with which students may engage. Incorporating technology with web-quests and scaffolding experiences with teacher guidance are common implementations. One of Grant’s recommendations is to begin instruction slowly and to focus on in-depth investigations. This also allows teachers the time to develop their project plan and management before introducing the project to the students.

Student Response to PBL

Students reportedly enjoy the opportunities that project-based learning provide. Engagement levels are recorded as higher with a greater retention of information over time. Longitudinal studies tell of students favorably recalling educational projects and making long term connections positively affecting their education. International students enjoy the cultural immersion brought in with the implementation of project-based learning. Projects that fill a community need, as in a service project, also connect the students to the community as member and not merely an observer of the community.

Grant (2005) tracked the efficacy of project-based learning by reviewing student artifacts and interviewing these same students about how the students felt regarding whether their learning was beneficial or not. The students struggled with describing their own abilities. It was noted that, during the editing process of many artifacts, the teacher was not in attendance and plans were not recorded by the teachers. The emphasis was on the finished artifacts while it is the learning process that needs to be chronicled in many of these cases. Students described their mental processes, in this article, as being switched on or off depending on whether the students were entering or leaving a specific classroom. Grant describes this as a fragmentation of knowledge and skills suggests a greater emphasis should be placed on reflective opportunities. Discussing mistakes with peers allows students the ability to recognize a variety of thinking processes which could help with future decisions.

Han et al (2012) discusses how student achievement is influenced by many different factors and whether project-based learning reflects student achievement considering these factors. This longitudinal, quantitative study focuses on Science-Technology-Engineering-Math (STEM) project-based learning performances to determine the quality of positive outcomes for different students of different socio-economic statuses (SEC). At the time of this writing, very few studies had been accomplished with the subject being middle school aged students. Han et al collected mathematics scores from 2008 to 2010 and examined performance levels in relation to STEM project-based learning. These researchers concluded that project-based learning benefited all students in the subjects compared. Those subjects were math and the appropriate courses that implemented a project-based learning opportunity. The greatest growth was reported to exist in low SEC students and Hispanic students.

Hmelo-Silver et al (2007) discuss several benefits for the students who engage in project-based learning. The collaborative aspect of this learning technique helps distribute the cognitive load among the students sharing the expertise between them. This allows the whole group to learn from each other while dividing the research and discovery opportunities that would be too intensive for an individual student. The added ability to reflect on the learning process both individually and in a group supports the construction of knowledge of both prior and new understanding. This article also discusses the development of collaborative relationships between peers and how gaps in a group member’s thinking can be addressed with problem-solving strategies created during the process. Self-directed learning is also a goal of project-based learning and Hmelo-Silver agree that the students that were interviewed in this study displayed qualities that would support success toward that goal.

Connections with the Community through PBL

Community members, community businesses and corporations with a national presence have great interest in promoting project-based learning opportunities in schools. Small, local groups, such as churches and youth organizations, benefit from the community service projects that schools are employing in their project-based learning curriculum. Students are gaining new insights about opportunities that may await them outside of school hours or during vacation times. Local businesses are able to inject sustainable practices and sustainable theory into schools both enriching the business and the student experience. Larger companies, often those with a national presence, have financial sources that can support a school’s project-based learning that may also encourage students in a career pathway.

Verma et al (2011) partnered with MarineTech to study the effects of project-based learning on student motivation to continue in a marine engineering field. This project utilized the local expertise of the shipbuilding facilities in the area. MarineTech also provided multiple learning modules and kits that enabled students to perform relevant and authentic projects that developed and deepened their cognitive and motor skills. The article indicates that the forecast for skilled workers in the marine fields will continue to outpace the available supply. MarineTech provided the training for the teachers and the students with the desire to create an interest in the students to pursue these fields of study. Verma concludes that the instructional modules and activities provided will attract students toward STEM based careers that will benefit the Marine Industry.

Lui et al (2002) used the medium of media to extrapolate how project-based learning could impact the industries of multimedia design when used at a middle and high school level. Students expressed enjoying the skills learned and produced artifacts of which they were quite proud. An aspect that Lui noted as important was the student enthusiasm for working with professional software and being expected to work like a professional. The article indicates that students were subjected to real-world environmental conditions. Equipment failed and schedules became convoluted and partnerships conflicted with schedule changes. Regardless, the student reaction to real-world problems in industry-like conditions reflected authentic learning and most students were enthusiastic about the opportunity. Lui’s article indicated that the student response to teamwork was beneficial and the relationships built between the student demonstrated delegation and responsibility skills. The interviews were recorded in a natural and reflective manner after the projects had been completed. Students were allowed to think about their performances and suggest improvements for future endeavors.

Spiers et al (2012) performed an investigation measuring students’ engagement in a project-based inquiry process called Cinéma Veritéen. Students were tasked with developing a compelling question and synthesize a media presentation based on the resulting research efforts. Students gathered the music, performed their narration and utilized video and images to support their compelling question. This article doubled as an interesting research piece as well as providing excellent instructions for teachers to use as a guide should they want to undertake a Cinéma Veritéen project. Future research is suggested to conduct classroom-based research to create multiple case studies with particular focus on the outcomes of diverse learners.


The various articles reviewed here directly address the question of the efficacy of project-based learning in the classroom with considerations of the problems that accompany project-based learning. Although the papers reviewed have slight differences, the similarities support the implementation of project-based learning in a classroom. The positive effects of this learning technique include better student collaboration, meaningful community involvement, and an improvement in developing professional skills in students. The benefits of this learning style increase the engagement of students and teachers. The artifacts created by the students hold the potential to create emotional connection to subjects that a traditional lecture style of presentation cannot. The nature of projects also create a dynamic that holds the attention of the teacher and requires a teacher to invest continued education in himself.

Wurdinger et al (2007) points out a paradox involving project-based learning where a teacher who engages in this teaching style must prepare more in advance and appear to not have prepared very much so the students may take on that role. “Free-ranging self-directed inquiry depends on a tight design structure” (Wurdinger, 2007). Teacher preparedness becomes a crucial point in providing engaging projects for students to select. Technologies continue to evolve and improve and teachers must continue to grow their own knowledge base and skill set with continued education. This has a benefit of providing a model for students to follow and creates an understanding that knowledge is dynamic. Selection of a project is also under the control of the student after the teacher skillfully directs the student toward projects that have been carefully vetted by the teacher. Efforts to connect the students with career choices and industries that need specifically trained individuals are necessary to change as needs change.

Project-based learning can provide lesson opportunities in myriad subjects. This review has seen marine, multimedia, STEM and mathematics industries presented. A creative teacher has the ability to implement project-based learning in any subject and create the emotional connections that support long term learning. Constructivism and constructionism meld together with projects to create an interaction between the student and the environment that also support learning and has shown students have a strong recall of concepts that are presented in this learning style.

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Blumenfeld, P. C., Soloway, E., Marx, R. W., Krajcik, J. S., Guzdial, M., & Palincsar, A. (1991). Motivating project-based learning: Sustaining the doing, supporting the learning. Educational psychologist26(3-4), 369-398.

Ertmer, P. A., Glazewski, K. D., Jones, D., Ottenbreit-Leftwich, A., Goktas, Y., Collins, K., & Kocaman, A. (2009). Facilitating technology-enhanced problem-based learning (project-based learning) in the middle school classroom: An examination of how and why teachers adapt. Journal of Interactive Learning Research20(1), 35-54.

Grant, M. M. (2002). Getting a grip on project-based learning: Theory, cases and recommendations. Meridian: A middle school computer technologies journal5(1), 83.

Grant, M. M., & Branch, R. M. (2005). Project-Based Learning In a Middle School: Tracing Abilities Through The Artifacts of Learning. Journal Of Research On Technology In Education, 38(1), 65-98.

Han, S., Capraro, R., & Capraro, M. M. (2015). How science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) project-based learning (project-based learning) affects high, middle, and low achievers differently: The impact of student factors on achievement. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education13(5), 1089-1113.

Hmelo-Silver, C. E. (2004). Problem-based learning: What and how do students learn?. Educational psychology review16(3), 235-266.

Hmelo-Silver, C. E., Duncan, R. G., & Chinn, C. A. (2007). Scaffolding and achievement in problem-based and inquiry learning: a response to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark. Educational psychologist42(2), 99-107.

Jurow, A. S. (2005). Shifting engagements in figured worlds: Middle school mathematics students’ participation in an architectural design project. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 14(1), 35-67.

Krajcik, J. S., & Blumenfeld, P. C. (2006). Project-based learning (pp. 317-34).

Krajcik, J., Blumenfeld, P. C., Marx, R. W., Bass, K. M., Fredricks, J., & Soloway, E. (1998). Inquiry in Project-Based Science Classrooms: Initial Attempts by Middle School Students. Journal Of The Learning Sciences, 7(3/4), 313.

Liu, M., & Hsiao, Y. P. (2002). Middle school students as multimedia designers: A project-based learning approach. Journal of interactive learning research13(4), 311-337.

Liu, M., Wivagg, J., Geurtz, R., Lee, S. T., & Chang, H. M. (2012). Examining how middle school science teachers implement a multimedia-enriched problem-based learning environment. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning6(2), 3.

Savery, J. R. (2006). Overview of problem-based learning: Definitions and distinctions Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning,, 9, 5-15.
Spires, H. A., Hervey, L. G., Morris, G., & Stelpflug, C. (2012). Energizing Project‐Based Inquiry: Middle‐Grade Students Read, Write, and Create Videos. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 55(6), 483-493.

Thomas, J. W. (2000). A review of research on project-based learning. Autodesk Foundation

Verma, A. K., Dickerson, D., & McKinney, S. (2011). Engaging Students in STEM careers with Project-Based Learning — Marine Tech Project. Technology & Engineering Teacher, 71(1), 25-31.

Wu, H. K., & Krajcik, J. S. (2006). Exploring middle school students’ use of inscriptions in project‐based science classrooms. Science Education, 90(5), 852-873.

Wurdinger, S., Haar, J., Hugg, R., & Bezon, J. (2007). A qualitative study using project-based learning in a mainstream middle school. Improving Schools10(2), 150-161.

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