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REL Central Ask A REL Response

College and Career Readiness

September 2017


What does the research say about project-based learning?


Following an established REL Central research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports as well as descriptive study articles to help answer the question. The resources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic databases, and general Internet search engines. (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response, and we offer them only for your reference. Also, we compiled the references from the most commonly used resources of research, but they are not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist.

Research References

Cervantes, B., Hemmer, L., & Kouzekanani, K. (2015). The impact of project-based learning on minority student achievement: Implications for school redesign. Education Leadership Review of Doctoral Research, 2(2), 50–66. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“Project-Based Learning (PBL) serves as an instructional approach to classroom teaching and learning that is designed to engage students in the investigation of real-world problems to create meaningful and relevant educational experiences. The causal-comparative study compared 7th and 8th students who had utilized the PBL with a comparison group in which PBL was nonexistent. Using outcome measures of academic achievement in mathematics and reading, multivariate and univariate analyses of the data showed that the PBL groups performed at a higher achievement level than did the non-PBL students. Theoretical and practical implications are discussed.”

Finkelstein, N., Hanson, T., Huang, C.-W., Hirschman, B., and Huang, M. (2010). Effects of Problem Based Economics on high school economics instruction. (NCEE 2010-4002). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“This study examines whether the Problem Based Economics curriculum developed by the Buck Institute for Education improves grade 12 students’ content knowledge as measured by the Test of Economic Literacy, a test refined by NCEE over decades. Students’ problem-solving skills in economics were also examined using a performance task assessment. In addition to the primary focus on student achievement outcomes, the study examined changes in teachers’ content knowledge in economics and their pedagogical practices, as well as their satisfaction with the curriculum.”

Halvorsen, A., Duke, N. K., Brugar, K., Block, M., Strachan, S., Berka, M., & Brown, J. (2014). Narrowing the achievement gap in second-grade social studies and content area literacy: The promise of a project-based approach. Lansing, MI: Michigan State University. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“This design experiment addresses the question: How can second-grade students from low-SES schools attain the same levels of achievement as students from high-SES schools on standards-based social studies and content area literacy assessments? Students from two high-SES school districts were assessed in order to establish target levels of achievement. Two project-based units focused on state standards in economics; civics and government; public discourse, decision making, and citizen involvement; and content area literacy were developed and implemented successively in four classrooms in low-SES school districts. Achievement of students in the low-SES districts was then compared to that of students in high-SES districts. Results show no statistically significant differences: following instruction, there was no SES achievement gap on these standards-based assessments. We describe the unit plans and strategies that the teachers used to implement these plans, and we discuss implications of the study for future research and practice.”

Hernandez-Ramos, P., & De La Paz, S. (2009). Learning history in middle school by designing multimedia in a project-based learning experience. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 42(2), 151–173. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“This article describes a study in which eighth grade students in one school learned to create multimedia mini-documentaries in a six-week history unit on early 19th-century U.S. history. The authors examined content knowledge tests, group projects, and attitude and opinion surveys to determine relative benefits for students who participated in a technology-assisted project-based learning experience, and contrasted their experiences to those of students who received a more traditional form of instruction. Results from content knowledge measures showed significant gains for students in the project-based learning condition as compared to students in the comparison school. Students’ work in the intervention condition also revealed growth in their historical thinking skills, as many were able to grasp a fundamental understanding that history is more than presenting facts. Implications and suggestions for technology-enhanced project-based learning experiences are indicated.”

Lokey-Vega, A., & Bondeson, K. (2017). Innovation in design of project-based learning for the k-12 online context. Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference 2017, 677–684. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“Research-based best practices that employ learning theories such as Project-Based Learning have not been thoroughly developed for the constraints of the K–12 online setting, nor have they been tested in this unique context. K–12 online teacher-developers face many constraints during the process of instructional design, and require additional supports to translate these learning theories into their lessons. The researchers of this study employed a design and development research method to co-develop three project-based lessons for a 9th grade literature course online. Resulting from documentation of a repetitive instructional design process, the researchers propose two models, the Project-Based Online Lesson Structure Model, which maps an order of content presentation to offer to learners, and the Project-Based Online Learning Instructional Design Model, which maps a step-by-step process for teacher-developers to follow in designing project-based online lessons for K–12 learners.”

Shideler, A. (2016). A case study of data use, project-based learning, and language development for ELLs. Journal for Leadership and Instruction, 15(2), 22–27. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“Teachers, both mainstream and English as a New Language (ENL), are cognizant of the many languages and learning ability levels of ELLs. They struggle to address the challenges presented by this population of students. Districts with large or small ELL populations face similar challenges: how can mainstream content be made comprehensible to ELLs to develop core content concepts; language skills; and empower students to learn the tools of technology? In this case analysis, Shideler’s approach had been to use data to create intentional curriculum. The intentional approach had teachers analyze data, identify the specific performance indicators (PI) proven to be difficult, and isolate the linguistic demands to design a project-based learning (PBL) unit that exemplified four strands (PBL be based on mainstream content area curriculum; focus on the academic skills required for the identified PI; focus on the language development needed; and it integrates technology to enhance learning). Shideler concludes that the experiences with the ELL teachers proved that they can develop successful, intentional syllabi, and the result was that the ELL student performance levels had repeatedly shown to significantly increase as a result of these strategic learning experiences.”

Strobel, J., & van Barneveld, A. (2009). When is PBL more effective? A meta-synthesis of meta-analyses comparing PBL to conventional classrooms. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 3(1), 44–58. Retrieved from
Full text available

From the abstract:

“Problem-based learning (PBL) has been utilized for over 40 years in a variety of different disciplines. Although extensively researched, there is heated debate about the effectiveness of PBL. Several meta-analyses were conducted that provided a synthesis of the effects of PBL in comparison to traditional forms of instruction. This study used a qualitative meta-synthesis approach to compare and contrast the assumptions and findings of the meta-analytical research on the effectiveness of PBL. Findings indicated that PBL was superior when it comes to long-term retention, skill development and satisfaction of students and teachers, while traditional approaches were more effective for short-term retention as measured by standardized board exams. Implications are discussed.”

Wirkala, C., & Kuhn, D. (2011). Problem-based learning in k-12 education: Is it effective and how does it achieve its effects? American Educational Research Journal, 48(5), 1157–1186. Retrieved from
Full text available

From the abstract:

“Enthusiasm for problem-based learning (PBL) is widespread, yet there exists little rigorous experimental evidence of its effectiveness, especially in K–12 populations. Reported here is a highly controlled experimental study of PBL in a middle school population. Between and within subject comparisons are made of students learning the same material under three instructional conditions: lecture/discussion, characteristic small-group PBL, and solitary PBL. Assessments of compr ehension and application of concepts in a new context 9 weeks after instruction showed superior mastery in both PBL conditions, relative to the lecture condition, and equivalent perfor- mance in the two PBL conditions, the latter indicating that the social component of PBL is not a critical feature of its effectiveness.”

Yew, E.H.J., & Goh, K. (2016). Problem-based learning: An overview of its process and impact on learning. Health Professions Education 2, 75–79. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“In this review, we provide an overview of the process of problem-based learning (PBL) and the studies examining the effectiveness of PBL. We also discuss a number of naturalistic and empirical studies that have examined the process of PBL and how its various components impact students’ learning. We conclude that the studies comparing the relative effectiveness of PBL are generally consistent in demonstrating its superior efficacy for longer-term knowledge retention and in the application of knowledge. Studies on the process of PBL, however, are still inconclusive as to which component(s) of PBL most significantly impact students’ learning, although causal studies have demonstrated that all the phases of PBL are necessary in influencing students’ learning outcomes.”

Additional Organizations to Consult

Buck Institute for Education (BIE):

From the website:

“At the Buck Institute for Education (BIE), our highest priority is to help teachers prepare students for successful lives. We do this by showing teachers how to use Project based Learning in all grade levels and subject areas. As a mission-driven nonprofit organization, BIE creates, gathers, and shares high-quality PBL instructional practices and products and provides highly effective services to teachers, schools, and districts.”


Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • Project-based learning and K-12 education

Databases and Resources

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences. Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and Google.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the Publication: References and resources published between 2006 and 2017 were included in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority was given to ERIC, followed by Google Scholar and Google.
  • Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were used in the review and selection of the references: (a) currency of available data; (b) study types–randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, etc.; (c) target population, samples (representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected samples, etc.), study duration, and so forth.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Central Region (Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory Central at Marzano Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Central under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0005, administered by Marzano Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.