What Is Project Based Learning (And What Can It Do for University/College Counsellors)?

Project based learning is getting a lot of attention, but what exactly is it and why should you care? Does it have a place in careers and college guidance?

project based learning desk set up with paint brushes and other craft tools

You’ve probably been hearing a lot about project based learning recently. In the past few years, its popularity has soared.

But in the midst of all the chatter, there is some room for confusion. With standard projects and the similar-sounding problem based learning, things can get murky.

In this article, we delve into exactly what project based learning is - as well as what it isn’t - and how it could supercharge your guidance strategy. If you’re interested in learning more about project based learning for college and university counsellors, read on!

Free eBook: Helping Students Find Their University Match

For great activities that you can incorporate into your project based learning strategy, check out this free eBook! It's full of ideas, assessments and more to guide your students to the courses that best align with their strengths and ambitions. 

What is project based learning?

You’ll probably encounter a few different definitions of project based learning, but they’re almost bound to share some core aspects:

  • Centres around a single project.
  • Usually extended for a long period of time (like a full semester, academic year or more).
  • Projects are led by students themselves, often in groups.
  • Projects are usually quite hands-on.
  • Real-world problems and questions are the focus (often referred to as ‘driving questions’).
  • Flexibility in the final product (e.g. one group might come up with an interactive presentation, while another might choose to create a film series).
  • Often involves communities outside of the classroom.

The Buck Institute of Education carried out extensive research on project based learning and initially identified seven (now eight) elements which represent the Gold Standard of project based learning:

  1. A challenging problem or question
  2. Sustained inquiry
  3. Authenticity
  4. Student voice and choice
  5. Reflection
  6. Critique and revision
  7. Public product
  8. Key knowledge and understanding

To some people, project based learning seems a little intimidating and new - an impression that’s heightened by it being all the rage right now. And project based learning certainly feels quite progressive.

But actually, it’s not such a new idea. In fact, it has its basis all the way back in the sixteenth century. So if tradition and tried and tested methods matter to you, don’t dismiss project based learning out of hand.

Benefits of project based learning

A wealth of research has found project based learning has lots of really valuable benefits. Here are some of the main ones.

Project based learning develops important soft skills

Having to work on a long-term project as a team, tackling real-life problems, conducting independent research, evaluating and self-evaluating… These are all incredibly useful tasks for students preparing to embark on higher education and begin their careers.

In fact, project based learning develops exactly the characteristics that educators, employers, parents and other stakeholders look for in their ideal high school graduate.

Essentially, that means the very act of doing the project will strengthen students’ university applications. Even if they were to work on something completely unrelated to careers or admissions, it would be a worthwhile experience.

Some of the skills that project based learning have been shown to impart include:

  • Integration of diverse knowledge areas
  • Independent thought and learning
  • Teamwork
  • Self-evaluation
  • Research
  • Time management and planning

Project based learning motivates and engages students

When you think about it, it’s not altogether surprising that students would feel more engaged with this style of teaching. After all, they get to run the show much more!

In fact, studies show that project based learning increases not just student engagement, but twenty-first century learning, school culture, and community partnerships, too.

Plus, project based learning centres real-world problems, particularly those that are relevant and interesting to students’ own lives. And the promise of having a real impact is naturally a strong motivator.

Project based learning improves student outcomes

It’s fitting that more engaged and motivated students would perform better. And, according to two recent studies, that’s exactly what students taught through project based learning do.

In other classes, it was lectures, readings, tests, but [when] we worked on projects with other students, discussed our ideas, considered different perspectives— I learned so much more.

Leal: Project based learning student

Is project based learning right for university and careers guidance?

Project based learning is all about ensuring the material is relevant and the students are taking the lead and making important choices for themselves. Isn’t that just what a well-crafted guidance strategy does?

Project based learning also encourages students to bring different factors and areas of learning together as they make these choices. This fits in perfectly with college and careers guidance: as you know, students have to make their own decisions about their futures, and have all kinds of different criteria to take into account. Project based learning allows them to consider all these different criteria, research thoroughly and think critically.

The fact that it often spans an entire academic year - or more! - makes it a great approach to students’ university application journeys, which often begin as early as Year 9/10th Grade with university research.

One particularly relevant point is the fact that, as we mentioned, project based learning usually happens outside of the classroom just as much - if not more - as in the classroom. That gives students a great chance to connect with institutions, older students and employers in meaningful ways.

Its focus on independent study and exploration around the wider community, as well as the much higher levels of engagement it fosters, mean that students tend to work on their project outside of school hours enthusiastically. That makes it a great fit for university and careers guidance, which often isn’t given as much dedicated school time as other subjects.

Current concerns with college and career readiness… have caused educators to take another look at project based learning and recognize its ability to not only help students develop deep content understanding, but also to help students learn and practice the skills they will need for college, career, and life success.

John Larmer, John Megendolier and Suzie Boss: Educational specialists

How to incorporate project based learning into university and careers guidance

It's easy to see the potential of project based learning when it comes to college and careers guidance... but, like with most things, it's a little trickier to implement. So, how can you go about it?

There’s a lot of advice, plenty of examples and several useful frameworks out there. But the heart of your implementation strategy is neatly captured in this sentiment: design projects with your students, not for them.

Of course, a few more actionable tips can always be helpful. Here are some things to keep in mind as you incorporate project based learning.

  • Keep putting yourself in the students’ shoes, from planning all the way to final assessment. Actually include students as you’re designing the project - what do they want to learn, and how can that be aligned and combined with what they need to learn?
  • Work with your colleagues at school to see if you can make the project interdisciplinary, engaging and relevant.
  • Define your objectives and ultimate goals, but don’t map out step-by-step routes to get there.
  • Follow where your students lead! Project based learning is about flexibility, and as long as they stay within the parameters and work towards the ultimate objectives, you should be willing to deviate from what you imagined.
  • Remind students to keep all versions and drafts of their work so they can evaluate their progress and track their learning journeys.
  • Don’t forget to engage other communities (e.g. university students, younger pupils, parents, admissions tutors, employers, professionals).

Examples of university and careers project based learning

Ready to transform your guidance strategy into a project based one? To help get you started, here are just a few ideas for the all-important challenging questions or problems that you could propose to your students.

Strengths and skills focused projects (Grade 9)

Giving younger students the freedom and independence that project based learning provides is a really good way to get them engaged with the guidance process from early on. With its broad, open questions, project based learning lends itself perfectly to individualised, big-picture thinking.

For example, you could ask students: “What do I gain from extracurricular activities and hobbies?” This can give them the chance to try out different activities and speak to other (perhaps older) students about why they chose a certain pursuit and what they get out of it.

Most importantly, it will get them started in thinking about the strengths and experiences they have. This is great in that, firstly, it can help them to understand their interests and potential degrees or careers they might lead to. Secondly, it lays the foundations in gathering material they can include in university applications.

They might even be inspired to fill any gaps they notice in their extracurriculars. As group work and peer-assessment are integral to project based learning, they’ll get to hear about all the wonderful things their classmates are up to, and might decide to join in!

Careers-focused projects (Grade 10)

As students start to explore potential career pathways, this is a great opportunity to implement project based learning - either in the classroom or as an overarching task for them to complete in their own time. They’ll get to explore what their chosen career entails, and find out whether it might be a good fit for them.

For example, if you have a student who aspires to be a surgeon, you might ask them the question, “What does being a surgeon mean, and what do I need to do to get there?”

Part of project based learning is setting a series of goals and objectives for students to complete as part of their project. To use the surgeon example again, you might encourage students to do their own research online, to interview a surgeon or a medical student, and to undertake some work experience and write up their findings.

University research projects (Grade 11)

Once students have an idea of the industry they might want to target, it’s time to hone in on the best academic routes to get there. Here again, the extended, wide-ranging and multi-faceted nature of project based learning fits the bill perfectly.

A good driving question at this stage of students’ research journey might be: “If I could design a university and degree, what would it look like?” It will encourage them to consider all the criteria they’re looking for as they embark on higher education.

As part of the flexible rubric you give students on a project like this, you could require that every project considers:

  • The destination - its culture, weather, language and any other factors students value.
  • The degree subject.
  • How the degree is delivered. What teaching style do they want? How many contact hours? How would group work and individual work be balanced?
  • Assessment.
  • Fellow students. Is it a big university, or a smaller community? Is there a large international student population?
  • Extracurricular offerings.

University application projects (Grade 12)

Students who have decided on their top university choices can still benefit from project based learning! Because it foregrounds student voice and choice, it’s well-suited to the autonomy and individuality needed to create strong university applications.

Plus, this is an excellent moment for students to speak to people outside the school, including current university students and admissions officers.

One question which might encourage exploration both of themselves and of the wider world is “What makes a perfect application essay?” This is great for project based learning because it’s open-ended and has infinite right answers, but is still perfectly aligned with the curriculum and produces really relevant work.

Students will be able to think about what different essays might look like and how the ‘ideal’ shifts depending on the subject and university in question, as well as every student’s background and strengths.

Hopefully, they’ll seek out real-life examples from successful applicants, and get to talk to admissions tutors about what made the essays compelling and ultimately successful.

Making sure students do find the right resources and getting engaged and involved with the projects yourself are both key elements of project based learning. That means it might be a good idea for you to make contact with admissions officers, too, and maybe even organise for them to come into the school. These could definitely be interesting and helpful experiences for you as well as your students!

It’s also important to manage students’ activities, so don’t be afraid to set deadlines for external interviews, essay drafts or any other tasks you think would be valuable.

Help students reach their goals with project based learning

With a project based approach, you’re empowering students to take charge of planning their futures. They’ll carry out extensive research and learn about what they need to do to reach their goals. That way, they’ll be well-placed to find the universities and courses that will get them there!

Just keep in mind that the power of project based learning lies in being able to tailor experiences to each student's unique needs. Making projects relevant to your students is crucial, so keep their context front of mind as you design projects. What works for one school may not work for another - and remember that students will have to take into account lots of practical factors.

To help them organise their findings from the projects, and apply them to logical research and decision-making, download our free eBook, Helping Students Find their University Match. It’s packed with activities and assessments that guide students to create their perfectly tailored university shortlists.

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