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Project-based learning

Last updated on 6 April 2023
For Project-based learning (PBL), small groups of students are assigned to solve authentic (business or social) problems. For example, students make designs or give advice for products, services, business, communication plans or a general strategy.

As an HRM executive, how do you achieve a more inclusive recruitment and selection process? How do you sustainably deal with corporate waste like orange peels from the supermarket's juicer? Or: how can Microsoft compete with providers of free software such as Google or Facebook? These are some examples of authentic business assignments in which students search for a solution through PBL.

PBL can be part of a regular education program with lectures and work groups. The projects can be short-term (for example, one week) or long-term (for example, six months). They are interdisciplinary in nature and require different creative methods to reach insights, solutions, or decisions. They involve a realistic business, organizational or societal problem for which a solution is needed. The underlying idea of PBL is that authentic cases, collaboration and interaction, motivate students to actively learn.

Project-based education is more specifically defined than, say, Challenge-based learning, but less so than Problem-based learning or Case-based learning. In any case, it is not an optional form of education. As with creating, for instance, a thesis or doing research, it is important to plan clear phases and timelines. Conceptually, these phases are often based on the empirical cycle and include steps such as:

  • the problem analysis;
  • determining the solution approach;
  • devising the conceptual solutions (execution of research itself);
  • selecting the most promising solutions;
  • working out the solution (obtaining results);
  • evaluating (drawing conclusions).  

A good project requires a lot of preparation and good planning, with all those involved (teachers and students) informed of what needs to be done. There is a lot of room for feedback by supervisors to guide a project in terms of content and process, including group dynamics. Consider, among other things, a concern such as free-riding.

The end product is important, but so is the process and the presentation

The end product plays a significant role in PBL because it makes learning visible. By making something, students show that they have gained the knowledge and skills needed to do so. But for a project, students also write a report in which they describe the process they went through (the steps of the project), the choices they made and the reasons behind them. In addition, they describe how their group has worked together, evaluate how that went (for example by performing a Group Member Evaluation) and what they are going to improve on the next time (on an individual level). Finally, the presentation of the final product to fellow students is an integral part of a project, preferably with the presence of external clients or experts.

Differences between project-based, problem-based, and case-based education

A related teaching form of Project based learning  is Problem-based learning (PBL). In PBL, students are often given more problems to deal with, the groups are larger, and the method of analysis and solution is much more structured than in Project Based Learning. In Case-based learning, the emphasis is more on the academic analysis of problems than the outcome.

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