10 Things That Happen When Students Engage in Project-Based Learning

We often hear about the need for students to learn how to program in order to be ready for STEM fields and the Information Economy. It’s what we’ve been hearing for over a decade. However, there’s a fascinating piece from the Washington Post that explores how the so-called “soft-skills” might be even more vital than ever.

For years, Google focused on hiring the best computer science students who excelled in their core content area, positing that innovation required the best computer science minds in the world. But when they tested this hypothesis, they were shocked by the results.

According to the article:

In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

Don’t get me wrong. Students need to master content standards. But Google’s survey proves that many teachers have been saying for years: that the so-called “soft skills” aren’t soft at all. Fortunately, when students engage in PBL, they develop these skills and disciplines needed to thrive in the Creative Economy.

But it goes beyond economics. When students engage in PBL, they experience the sheer joy of learning. They are able to hit a state of creative flow and learn that there’s something deeply profound about creativity. They become self-directed, independent thinkers.

Ten Things That Happen When Students Engage in Project-Based Learning

The following are some of the trends that I notice when students engage in project-based learning. This is not a scientific study so much as observations I’ve noticed from my own experiences.

#1: Students learn how to engage in meaningful collaboration.

When students engage in PBL, they often get the chance to work on collaborative projects, where they work interdependently to solve problems. Initially, this was really challenging for me as a teacher because I hated group projects as a student. I hated doing all the work and then watching everyone else get the credit. But then I realized something. Collaboration isn’t just a skill. It’s a discipline. It’s something that takes years of practice. So, I started to embed structures that would help guarantee that every student participated in collaborative projects. It didn’t work every time but slowly, I watched students learn how to engage in meaningful collaboration.

When students genuinely collaborate in PBL, they learn how to speak up and listen. They learn how to ask incisive questions, how to contribute to the team, and how to give and receive critical feedback. Which leads to the next point . . .

#2: Students learn to see nuance and multiple perspectives.

When I did that History Day Project in the eighth grade, I encountered perspectives on the integration of baseball that I would have never experienced in reading a textbook. The same thing happened with my eighth grade students. When they were immersed in a PBL environment, they got to wade into the nuance of multiple perspectives.

Teachers can tap into this idea by specifically asking students to consider new perspectives. During the initial inquiry phase, it can help to let students ask multiple questions on their own and then share their questions together. When they engage in research, it can help to ask students to find sources from various perspectives and deliberately wade into the nuance of the ideas. As they ideate together, you can utilize a structured brainstorming approach that encourages them to examine ideas from multiple angles.

#3: They become divergent thinkers.

The best project-based learning units encourage students to tackle problems from a unique perspective. This is at the heart of divergent thinking. It’s the ability to explore problems from different angles, use materials in different ways, and ultimately grow into innovatorsHere’s where creative constraint comes in. Teachers often have to work with limited resources or tight schedules. They have to hack the standards to tie them into a PBL unit. But in the process, they are helping students to think outside the box by “thinking inside the box.” Here’s what I mean:

When students learn to “think inside the box,” they are practicing the type of divergent thinking that they will need in the future. This is the type of thinking that can’t be replaced with artificial intelligence or automated with a machine.

#4: They learn project management.

When I talk to people in business, in the arts, and in the STEM fields, I often hear people mention that they wished they had learned how to do project management when they were younger.  If we want students to think like artists, entrepreneurs, and engineers, they need the chance to engage in project management. When students have full ownership of the project process, they learn how to engage in project management. Here, they are able to set goals, monitor progress, make adjust, and reflect on their learning.

Project management is about more than just setting a schedule. It’s the idea of following through on your plans and continuing with tasks even when nobody is looking over your shoulder. It’s what happens when you learn how to set meaningful, realistic goals and break those down into tasks.

#5: They develop a maker mindset.

One of the most tragic things I hear students say is “I’m just not the creative type.” I don’t buy it. I don’t believe there is a “creative type” out there. We’re all creative. Every one of us. And PBL is a great chance for students to own the entire creative process, leading to a maker mindset where they can think like designers, artists, and engineers. When this happens, students are able to embrace a larger definition of creativity and value the creative contributions of those around them.

We often hear that our current students will work in jobs that don’t exist right now. But here’s another reality: our current students will be the ones who create those jobs. They will have to rewrite the rules.  Some students will be engineers or artists or accountants. Some will work in technology, others in traditional corporate spaces and still others in social or civic spaces. But every single one of them will need to think creatively in their jobs.

As students work through PBL, they are able to experience a broad spectrum of creative thinking. They learn how to think like an artist but also think like an engineer or a hacker. At one moment, they might be building empathy by doing an interview. In another moment, they might be doing prototyping in an engineering project and or engaging in information literacy for a publishing project. Over time, they see that creative work is interdisciplinary. And this ultimately leads to a maker mindset, where students learn to view the world differently and find new solutions to complex problems. Which leads to the next point . . .

#6: They become problem-solvers and critical thinkers.

PBL encourages students to solve complex problems by engaging in inquiry, research, and ideation. This is the kind of work that you don’t accomplish in filing out a packet or doing a worksheet. It requires students to view problems from multiple angles and sometimes even navigate multiple systems in order to solve these complex problems.

Not only are they solving the problems but they are taking it to the next level and actually creating the solutions. So, they are able to see that problem-solving actually connects to real-world contexts. I remember when we were doing our Tiny House projects and a student said, “I get it now. I understand why people need to know proportional reasoning.” He needed a complex problem, rooted in a real-world experience, for that concept to make sense.

Note that this doesn’t always work. There are moments when it gets frustrating. However, that’s also part of the problem-solving process. Students get the opportunity to fail forward. Which leads to my next point . . .

#7: They develop iterative thinking.

Project-based learning includes a phase for revision. In some cases, it’s more about feedback and revision while other projects require testing and revision. But the idea is the same. Students test, revise, and iterate. This is one of the areas where I see a big disconnect between school (where you are graded once and move on) versus life (where you are constantly improving and iterating). I want students to learn how to figure out what’s working, make sense out of what’s failing, and then create a better iteration.  But this requires a shift toward mastery-based grading as well as the freedom to make mistakes. For all the talk of “high standards,” iterative thinking only works when students experience slack. And yet, when they have this permission to fail, they can then improve their work and develop endurance.

#8: They are more likely to develop a growth mindset.

Iterative thinking ultimately leads to a growth mindset. It’s counterintuitive but the best way for students to have higher standards is to experience the permission to fail. This doesn’t mean we embrace failure but that we treat failing as a part of the learning process. After all, fail-ure is permanent and fail-ing is temporary.


Note that failing isn’t fun. It actually sucks when stuff doesn’t work out. And that’s an important reminder. Sometimes PBL isn’t fun. Sometimes it’s really, really frustrating. I have had students cry when something didn’t work. It wasn’t because of a grade, either. They were simply so into their project that they wanted it to work. But eventually, when it did work, they were able to develop a growth mindset.

#9: They grow more empathetic.

One of the PBL approaches we will explore is design thinking, which is centered around the idea of empathy. In some models, empathy is the starting point. Other times, it occurs in the research and ideation phases. But regardless of when it happens, if students are going to launch heir work to an audience, they need to design products out of a place of empathy.

This is one of those areas that goes far beyond the corporate world. We have a crisis of empathy in the U.S. I see it every time I go to Facebook. People talk over one another and lob easy insults at the opposite side. Trapped in their echo chambers, they move into a place where they miss the pain that others are experiencing. But I think we can change this as educators when we ask students to engage in empathy-driven design thinking.

#10: They increase in metacognition.

When I first saw the metacognition cycle, I thought, “Man, this seems so similar to aspects of PBL.” This is because PBL encourages students to plan, monitor, and reflect throughout the entire process.

So, if we want this for students, they need to work on projects. Real projects. The kind of projects that they get to own. And ultimately that requires a teacher who is wiling to take the leap and make PBL a reality.

Share Your Thoughts

Share your thoughts in the comment section below. Here are a few ideas:

  • Share your favorite project you did as a kid
  • Share your favorite project you’ve done with your class
  • Share what else I’m missing. What are other skills do they develop when using PBL?


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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

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