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April 2019

Ask A REL Question:

What does research say about the effectiveness of project-based learning for students with disabilities?


Thank you for the question you submitted to our REL Reference Desk regarding project-based learning for students with disabilities. We have prepared the following memo with research references to help answer your question. For each reference, we provide an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the study’s author or publisher. The references are selected from the most commonly used research resources and may not be comprehensive. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. Other relevant studies may exist. We have not evaluated the quality of these references, but provide them for your information only.

Research References

  1. Aydeniz, M., Cihak, D.F., Graham, S.C., & Retinger, L. (2012). Using inquiry-based instruction for teaching science to students with learning disabilities. International Journal of Special Education, 27(2), 189–206.
    Retrieved from:
    From the abstract: “The purpose of this study was to examine the effects of inquiry-based science instruction for five elementary students with learning disabilities (LD). Students participated in a series of inquiry-based activities targeting conceptual and application- based understanding of simple electric circuits, conductors and insulators, parallel circuits, and electricity and magnetism. Students' conceptual understanding of these concepts was measured through a test designed by the investigators. The students' attitudes towards science were measured through scientific attitudes inventory (SAI-II). The results indicated that all students acquired the science content covered during the intervention and maintained their performance six weeks later. In addition, students improved their attitudes towards science. Our discussion focuses on the ways in which we can make science learning accessible to students with learning disabilities by making changes in curriculum, instruction and assessment.”
  2. Belland, B.R., Ertmer, P.A., & Simons, K.D. (2006). Perceptions of the value of problem- based learning among students with special needs and their teachers. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 1(2).
    Retrieved from: Full text available at:
    From the abstract: “While problem-based learning (PBL) has been found to be effective with gifted and average students (Hmelo-Silver, 2004), little is known about its impact on students with special needs. This study examines the perceptions of middle-school students with mild, moderate, and severe disabilities and of their teachers regarding the value of participating in a PBL unit. The unit focused on the physical accessibility of a low-SES, rural community where the students' school was located. We used the constant comparative method (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) to analyze interview data, and used observation data and artifacts to triangulate interview comments. Among the noteworthy findings were (1) students manifested strong engagement, and (2) students with less severe disabilities developed compassion for students with more severe disabilities.”
  3. Belland, B.R., Glazewski, K.D., & Ertmer, P.A. (2009). Inclusion and problem-based learning: Roles of students in a mixed-ability group. RMLE Online: Research in Middle Level Education, 32(9), 1–19.
    Retrieved from:
    From the abstract: “The literature on the use of problem-based learning in K-12 settings has traditionally focused on gifted and average students. However, mainstreaming is placing increasing numbers of students with special needs in general education classrooms. This case study examined how members of a small group in a mainstreamed seventh grade science class interacted with and supported each other as they engaged in a problem-based learning (PBL) unit. The group included one mainstreamed and two average students. We used conversation analysis and coding to analyze interview and video data of all 10 class sessions. Results indicated that each group member filled a unique role--group manager, task guidance provider, and task performer--and helped each other overcome individual difficulties. Results suggest that mainstreamed groups have the potential to effectively engage in PBL, and that PBL may increase the motivation and social confidence of students with special needs. We suggest types of scaffolds that could support mainstreamed students during PBL units.”
  4. Easterly, R.G. & Myers, B.E. (2011). Inquiry-based instruction for students with special needs in school based agricultural education. Journal of Agricultural Education, 52(2), 36–46.
    Retrieved from:
    From the abstract: “Educating students with special needs in school based agricultural education (SBAE) is a problem that should be addressed. While many students in SBAE classes have special needs, contradicting research exists establishing the best method of instruction for students with special needs. Inquiry-based instruction shows some promise, but little is known about its effectiveness in SBAE settings for students with special needs. The purpose of this study was to determine if inquiry-based instruction impacts content knowledge achievement for students with special needs. A one-group pretest-posttest, design was used to determine if students with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) differed in content knowledge achievement from those students without IEPs. No difference in content knowledge achievement was found between students with IEPs and those without over seven pre and post tests using ANCOVA measures. Based on these findings inquiry-based instruction can be an effective method of instruction for students with special needs and should be used when appropriate.”
  5. Kincaid, S.S. & Jackson, S.E. (2006). Empowering students with special needs to help others: How problem based learning made it possible. TEACHING Exceptional Children Plus, 2(3), Article 3.
    Retrieved from:
    From the abstract: “This article describes a project that will make a positive impact in today's special education classroom. Teachers will learn how to use Problem Based Learning (PBL) units as a tool to empower students with special needs to become more confident, independent, successful students. It will also shatter the stereotype that students with special needs are not capable of being leaders in classrooms. Students flourish with the PBL classroom setting where many learning styles are actively used to engage all students. Students learn to become life-long learners and productive community members. This PBL unit gives students with special needs an opportunity to shine as classroom leaders. The unit also promotes character building skills that students will take with them throughout their academic careers and into adulthood.”
  6. Lambert, R. (2018). “Indefensible, illogical, and unsupported”; Countering deficit mythologies about the potential of students with learning disabilities in mathematics. Education Sciences, 8, Article 72.
    Retrieved from:
    From the abstract: “This paper describes two myths that circulate widely about the potential of students with Learning Disabilities to learn mathematics: (1) that students with Learning Disabilities cannot benefit from inquiry-based instruction in mathematics, and only from explicit instruction; and (2) that students with Learning Disabilities cannot construct their own mathematical strategies and do not benefit from engaging with multiple strategies. In this paper, I will describe how these myths have developed, and identify research that counters these myths. I argue that these myths are the unintended consequences of deficit constructions of students with Learning Disabilities in educational research. Using neurodiversity to frame disability as diversity rather than deficit, I assert that students with Learning Disabilities can learn mathematics to the highest levels, and that these limiting mythologies hold them back.”
  7. Rizzo, K.L. & Taylor, J.C. (2016). Effects of inquiry-based instruction on science achievement for students with disabilities: An analysis of the literature. Journal of Science Education for Students with Disabilities, 19(1), Article 2, 1–16.
    Retrieved from:
    From the abstract: “In comparison to the past, more students with disabilities are being included in the general education classroom for science instruction. Though inquiry-based instruction has not shown to be an effective practice for students with disabilities, it is vastly becoming the dominant practice in science education. The purpose of this review is to examine the effects of inquiry based instruction on science achievement for students with disabilities. The twelve studies, meeting selection criteria, report improvement in science achievement using inquiry practices. The participants and settings, variations of inquiry-based instruction, science achievement measures, and teacher training were addressed in this review. Two major contributions have resulted from analyzing the twelve studies. First, students with disabilities require supports to participate in an inquiry-based lesson and demonstrate progress on science achievement measures. Second, science achievement improves when components of explicit instruction are utilized in both the general and special education setting for students with disabilities.”
  8. Taylor, J.C., Tseng, C., Murillo, A., Therrien, W., & Hand, B. (2018). Using argument- based science inquiry to improve science achievement for students with disabilities in inclusive classrooms. Journal of Science Education for Students with Disabilities, 21(1), Article 2, 1–14.
    Retrieved from:
    From the abstract: “The increased emphasis on STEM related careers and the use of science in everyday life makes learning science content and concepts critical for all students especially for those with disabilities. As suggested by the National Resource Council (2012), more emphasis is being placed on being able to critically think about science concepts in and outside of the classroom. Additionally, the Next Generation Science Standards are asking teachers and students to better understand how science is connected to the everyday world through the use of inquiry-based methods. The manuscript focuses on the use of a structured argument-based inquiry approach to science instruction called the Science Writing Heuristic (SWH). The SWH approach has shown some initial success in improving science achievement for students with disabilities. The current study compares treatment and comparison groups of students with disabilities in the area of science achievement. Treatment group students were taught using the SWH approach, while the comparison groups were taught using traditional science teaching. The authors found that students in the SWH groups scored significantly better than the comparison groups on post-test science achievement scores. The authors also found stronger effect size results for SWH groups as well. Implications for teaching science to students with disabilities are discussed.”

Additional Organizations to Consult

  • Buck Institute for Education:
    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.”
  • Center for Exceptional Children:
    From the website: “The Council for Exceptional Children is a professional association of educators dedicated to advancing the success of children with exceptionalities. We accomplish our mission through advocacy, standards, and professional development.”


Search Strings. Project based learning students with disabilities OR PBL students with disabilities OR PjBL students with disabilities OR inquiry-based learning students with disabilities OR problem based learning students with disabilities OR discovery learning students with disabilities OR project based learning special needs OR PBL special needs OR PjBL special needs OR inquiry-based learning special needs OR problem based learning special needs OR discovery learning special needs

Searched Databases and Resources.

  • ERIC
  • Academic Databases (e.g., EBSCO databases, JSTOR database, ProQuest, Google Scholar)
  • Commercial search engines (e.g., Google)
  • Institute of Education Sciences Resources

Reference Search and Selection Criteria. The following factors are considered when selecting references:

  • Date of Publication: Priority is given to references published in the past 10 years.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: ERIC, other academic databases, Institute of Education Sciences Resources, and other resources including general internet searches
  • Methodology: Priority is given to the most rigorous study types, such as randomized controlled trials and quasi-experimental designs, as well as to correlational designs, descriptive analyses, mixed methods and literature reviews. Other considerations include the target population and sample, including their relevance to the question, generalizability, and general quality.

REL Mid-Atlantic serves the education needs of Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

This Ask A REL was prepared under Contract ED-IES-17-C-0006 by Regional Educational Laboratory Mid-Atlantic administered by Mathematica Policy Research. The 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.