Chapter 4: The Case for PBL

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Moursund, D.G. (1999). Project-based learning using information technology (Selected Chapters) Eugene, OR: International Society for Technology in Education.

The materials that follow are from a next-to-final version of the above named book.

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Moursund, D.G. (1999). Project-based learning using information technology (Selected Chapters) Eugene, OR: International Society for Technology in Education.

The materials that follow are from a next-to-final version of the above named book.


Chapter 1: Introduction and a PBL Example

Chapter 2: Overview of IT-assisted PBL

Chapter 3: Some PBL Lesson Topic Ideas

Chapter 4: The Case for PBL

Chapter 7: Assessment in IT-assisted PBL

Appendix C: Overview of Problem Solving

References and Resources


Chapter 4: The Case for PBL

Project-based learning is a versatile approach to instruction that can readily be used in conjunction with other approaches. A huge number of articles have been written about PBL. Most, however, are specific examples and testimonials, rather than carefully conducted research studies.

This chapter discusses a number of different types of arguments that support use of PBL and IT-assisted PBL in the classroom.

Research Areas Supporting PBL

This section contains very brief summaries of some of the areas of educational research that underlie project-based learning.


It is now well understood that each student brings a unique set of knowledge, skills, and experiences to a new learning situation. Constructivism is a widely supported educational theory that rests on the idea that students create their own knowledge in the context of their own experiences (Fosnot, 1996). Constructivism focuses on students being actively engaged in "doing," rather than passively engaged in "receiving" knowledge. Project-based learning can be viewed as one approach to creating learning environments in which students construct personal knowledge.

Willis and Mehlinger (1996) contains an excellent discussion of three different forms of constructivism and their roles in teacher education. Cognitive, social, and political constructivism lead to somewhat different approaches to instruction--but all differ substantially from a didactic (behavioral) approach. Willis and Mehlinger indicate that constructivism is rapidly growing in acceptance.

The Presidents Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology.(1997) contains a careful analysis of the constructivist literature, especially as it relates to IT in education. It finds the case for constructivism to be compelling, but cautions that there is substantial need for additional research. The report recommends that constructivism should be the underlying theory guiding implementation of use of IT in education.

Seymour Papert (1980, 1993) studied for five years under Piaget at a post doctoral level. The Logo programming language that Papert later helped to develop was designed to create a computer-based constructivist learning environment. There is a huge amount of research literature on use of Logo in education. In brief summary, the literature suggest that the tool (Logo and the environments created from it) does not automatically guarantee educational success. The knowledge and skills of the teacher who is facilitating this learning environment tends to be the most powerful predictor of student success.

This Logo research supports an important message. While IT-assisted PBL is an excellent vehicle for implementing a constructivist theory of teaching and learning, a significant contributor to student success is the knowledge and skills of the teacher.

Motivation Theory

Blumenfeld et al. (1991) contains an extensive review of the research literature supporting project-based learning. This article is part of the on-going PBL research and implementation at the University of Michigan. For many years, Elliot Soloway has been heading up projects exploring use of computers and other information technology in PBL.

The article presents two major arguments for use of PBL: enhancing motivation and fostering cognitive engagement. The research literature supporting the values of enhancing student motivation and fostering cognitive development is strong. In essence, it says that if students are motivated and cognitively engaged, they will learn more and remember it better, as compared to didactic instruction or projects that students do not find motivating.

The article notes that it is not easy to develop and teach PBL lessons that students will find motivating and in which they will be cognitively engaged. It suggests a number of ideas to increase the likelihood of success. In brief summary, the problems being addressed need to be relevant to students, and students must play a major role both in the selection of specific projects and in how they will conduct their work on the projects. Staff development is a major factor in helping teachers learn to create successful IT-assisted PBL environments.

Inquiry-Based Learning

Project-based learning often makes use of inquiry-based teaching methods. Inquiry-based learning, or discovery-based learning, is a common tool in science education. In essence, it is an approach to help students learn about hypothesis generation and testing--the scientific method. The emphasis may be on discovering specific facts or on developing a higher-order understanding of the topic and ideas being explored. In either case, students are encouraged to develop curiosity as a habit of mind, and to approach all learning with a disposition toward questioning and systematic investigation.

Research indicates that hands-on, inquiry-based instruction is generally more effective than traditional didactic presentation in improving problem solving ability in particular subject domains (Helgeson, 1992, p. 53).

Math education has also moved in the direction of inquiry-based learning. Math educators use the terminology "problem posing" rather than hypothesis generation. Students learn to search for patterns, develop hypotheses about the patterns, and then test (prove) the hypotheses. Problem solving is a major theme in mathematics education and in every other academic discipline. Appendix C of this book provides more information about problem solving.

Cooperative Learning

IT-assisted PBL frequently makes use of teams of students who are addressing a complex problem or task. Typically, each student has individual learning and product development responsibilities, and the whole group has group goals. Peer instruction is a common and expected component of this learning environment. Project-based learning provides an authentic environment in which teachers can facilitate students increasing their skills in cooperative learning.

Cooperative learning has been extensively researched. In a typical cooperative learning environment, students are divided into teams of about three to four students. The students on a team work together to explore and learn a curriculum topic. Sometimes the learning task is split into pieces, with each student being responsible for mastering one component and then helping others in the team to learn about that component.

Cooperative learning has been shown to be effective in improving academic and social skills; however, successful cooperative learning requires careful organization, and sometimes explicit training in collaboration and communication (Johnson, 1986; Johnson & Johnson, 1989).

Problem Solving and Collaborative Problem Solving

In IT-assisted PBL, students focus on a challenging problem or task. There has been substantial research on the teaching of problem solving and how to help improve the higher-order thinking skills of students (Moursund, 1996; Perkins, 1992, 1995). A summary of key ideas about teaching problem solving is given in Appendix C: Overview of Problem Solving. In brief summary, students can get better at solving complex problems and accomplishing complex tasks through practice and explicit instruction. The practice needs to be in an environment of challenging problems and tasks. Students need to be intrinsically motivate.

All of these conditions can be satisfied in a PBL environment that is facilitated by a teacher who has good knowledge about key ideas of problem solving.

Research on problem solving indicates that in many cases, two heads are better than one. This has led to the development of a category of software called Groupware. Groupware is designed to facilitate two or more people who need not be located in the same place to work together on a problem or task.

With groupware, people at remote locations can be viewing the same screen, communicating with each other, and each contributing to making changes on the computer screen. This facilitates collaborative work.

Up until now, relatively few schools have made groupware available to their students. However, many schools facilitate their students engaging in PBL with other students located at remote sites. Eventually it will become commonplace for such groups of students to make use of groupware.

Problem-Based Learning

Problem-based learning can be considered as a type of project-based learning where students focus on a problem that has been specified for them. In some cases the same problem is addressed by teams of students throughout the country. Regional and national contests identify winners who are awarded prizes. For example, the problem might be to build a solar powered model car or to build a bridge out of balsa wood that reaches across a two foot span and can support a heavy load. In both cases, there are carefully stated restrictions on the resources that can be used in solving the problem. In bridge building, for example, only a specified amount of balsa wood, glue, and string are available.

An ERIC search on problem-based learning identifies a significant number of documents. However, most of these documents are case studies or testimonials. In brief summary, people who write such articles tend to be quite supportive of problem-based learning. They describe the enthusiasm of teams of students putting in long hours on their projects. They describe the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, and the fun that students have while working on such problems. Glasgow (1997) provides an excellent overview of problem-based learning from a secondary teacher point of view. Glasgow's book is an extended analysis of and testimonial for use of problem-based learning in education.

Other Arguments Supporting PBL

This section explores some types of arguments for IT-assisted PBL that are based on the observation that IT-assisted PBL is aligned with a variety of generally accepted educational goals.

Learning to Carry Out Interdisciplinary Projects

PBL is an excellent vehicle for helping students learn to work together to carry out complex, interdisciplinary projects. Daniel Goldman's 1995 book on emotional intelligence provides good insights emotional characteristics that support people being successful in working individually and in teams to carry out complex tasks.

Learning how to carry out complex, interdisciplinary projects is an explicit educational goal in many school systems. Indeed, some colleges organize their curriculum along interdisciplinary lines. The reasoning behind this is that real-world problems are almost always interdisciplinary. Thus, students should learn the various disciplines using an interdisciplinary approach.

One of the challenges of interdisciplinary problems is that often a single person lacks the knowledge, skills, and time needed to solve the problem. It takes a team of experts, representing the various disciplines, to address the problem in a timely manner. This team approach to problem solving is common in the world of business and industry.

It is not easy to learn to work in a collaborative team environment. How does a team member provide constructive feedback to other team members without antagonizing them? How can the overall task be divided into equitable pieces? How does the team deal with team members who do not carry their weight? How are disputes resolved?

The interdisciplinary nature of most IT-assisted PBL lessons is a challenge to students whose education has been highly compartmentalized. In our traditional compartmentalized education system, students often experience trouble in transferring knowledge from one subject area domain to solving a problem in another domain. For example, students may learn about the metric system in a math class, and then be unable to apply this knowledge in a science class. PBL provides an excellent environment for working on transfer of learning. More information about transfer of learning is given in Appendix C.

Focusing on Higher-Order Skills

One of the defining characteristics of PBL is a focus on students addressing challenging problems and tasks, and improving their higher-order thinking skills. Perkins (1992) summarizes the research literature in support of emphasizing higher-order skills. He argues that students who learn their lower-order knowledge and skills in a higher-order skills environment will retain them better than students who are taught in an environment that specifically focuses on lower-order knowledge and skills.

Perkins(1992) contains an excellent overview of education and a wide variety of attempts to improve our educational system. He analyzes these attempted improvements in terms of how well they contribute to accomplishing the following three major goals of education:

  1. Acquisition and retention of knowledge and skills.
  2. Understanding of one's acquired knowledge and skills.
  3. Active use of one's acquired knowledge and skills. (Ability to apply one's learning to new settings. Ability to analyze and solve novel problems.)

In some sense, these three goals form a continuum, from lower-order to middle-order to higher-order knowledge and skills. Every educational system faces the problem of deciding how much emphasis to place on lower-order versus middle-order versus-higher-order knowledge and skills. It often happens that a particular educational system tends to cycle its emphasis over a period of years. There will be a "back to basics" movement, followed by a major emphasis on helping students to improve their higher-order cognitive processes, and then another back to basics movement.

While the back to basics movement remains strong throughout the world, there is increasing research evidence that supports the contention that a good education requires a substantial emphasis on higher-order knowledge and skills. This presents educators with the task of developing curriculum, instruction, and assessment that is appropriately balanced between lower-order and higher-order knowledge and skills.

Parallels With Process Writing

Process writing has been thoroughly researched and widely implemented (Boone, 1991). Many teachers--even those who do not teach writing--are familiar with writing as a process. The steps of process writing are: 1. brainstorming; 2. organizing the brainstormed ideas; 3. developing a draft; 4. obtaining feedback; 5. revising; and 6. publishing. One of the most important ideas in writing is summarized by the statement, "Revise, revise, revise." Computers have proven to be a useful tool in process writing. Computers are especially useful in the revision stage of process writing.

One can draw a parallel between project-based learning and process writing. Of course, a PBL lesson often requires writing. But, one can consider process of carrying out a project. The steps of process writing are similar to the process steps of carrying out a project. The basic nature of producing a product, presentation, or performance is supportive of a "revise, revise, revise" approach.

Communication and other Goals for IT in Education

Many states have explicit goals for IT in education, or have incorporated such goals within the goals for the non-IT curriculum domains. The International Society for Technology in Education has developed National Educational Technology Standards for students at the PreK-12 level (1998b). Appendix B: Goals for IT in Education, contains a summary of this ISTE document.

Communication is a recurring theme in the various state standards and in the ISTE standards Students need to gain skills in communication both in a print (hard copy) environment and in an interactive digital environment.

Some schools have developed explicit courses for writing in a desktop publication environment and for developing effective hypermedia stacks and Web pages. Such courses may be taught by an IT specialist--perhaps with students going to a computer lab to receive the instruction.

The trend, however, is for such instruction to occur in the "regular" classroom, taught by the regular classroom teacher. This helps the instruction to be more aligned with the rest of the curriculum. IT-assisted PBL can be an excellent vehicle to support such instruction. Moreover, this environment usually requires that teams of students work together on a complex project. As noted earlier in this chapter, learning to work in such a team environment is an important goal in education.

As noted earlier in this book, the typical classroom teacher has had little formal instruction and practice in desktop publication or in the development of interactive hypermedia documents. While staff development is sorely needed, other approaches are also essential. IT-assisted PBL creates an environment in which teachers can learn alongside their students.

Learning to Use Your Intelligence

This section contains arguments for PBL that are based on research into human intelligence. The general flavor of the arguments is that we want students to develop their higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills. We want them to learn to make effective use of their brains. PBL can be used to create learning environments that will help students learn to make more effective use of their brains.

Solving problems and carrying out complex tasks requires having the necessary resources available and then making effective use of these resources. One resource that every person has is their own intelligence. Actually, it is much more accurate to speak of one's intelligences. Each person has varying levels of intelligence in different areas. For example, a person may have a high level of musical intelligence but a relatively low level of logical/mathematical intelligence.

Howard Gardner, Robert Sternberg, and David Perkins are three current researchers and writers who have all made significant contributions to our understanding of intelligence. Some of their ideas are covered in this section. This section poses a definition of intelligence and then explores a variety of intelligences that people have. Effective PBL helps students to develop and to make use of their various intelligences.

A Definition of Intelligence

The study and measurement of intelligence has been an important research topic for nearly 100 years IQ is a complex concept, and researchers in this field argue with each other about the various theories that have been developed. There is no clear agreement as to what constitutes IQ or how to measure it. There is an extensive and continually growing collection of research papers on the topic. Howard Gardner (1983, 1993), Robert Sternberg (1988, 1997), and David Perkins (1995) have written widely sold books that summarize the literature and present their own specific points of view.

The following definition is a composite from various authors. Intelligence is a combination of the ability to:

  1. Learn. This includes all kinds of informal and formal learning via any combination of experience, education, and training.
  2. Pose problems. This includes recognizing problem situations and transforming them into more clearly defined problems.
  3. Solve problems. This includes solving problems, accomplishing tasks, fashioning products, and doing complex projects.

This definition of intelligence is a very optimistic one. It says that each of us can become more intelligent. We can become more intelligent through study and practice, through access to appropriate tools, and through learning to make effective use of these tools (Perkins, 1995).

PBL can be used as a vehicle in which students can use and improve their intelligence. More detail on the work of Gardner, Sternberg, and Perkins is given in the next three subsections.

Howard Gardner

Some researchers in the field of intelligence have long argued that people have a variety of different intelligences. A person may be good at learning languages and terrible at learning music--or vice versa. A single number (a score on an IQ test) cannot adequately represent the complex and diverse capabilities of a human being.

Howard Gardner has proposed a theory of multiple intelligences. He originally identified seven components of intelligence (Gardner, 1983). He argues that these intelligences are relatively distinct from each other and that each person has some level of each of these seven intelligences. More recently, he has added an eighth intelligence to his list (Educational Leadership, 1997).

Many PBL-using teachers have studied the work of Howard Gardner and use some of his ideas in their teaching. For example, in creating a team of students to do a particular project, a teacher may select a team whose collective "highest" talents encompass most of the eight areas of intelligence identified by Gardner. The teacher may encourage a team to divide up specific tasks in line with specific high levels of talents found on a team. Alternatively, a teacher may encourage or require that team members not be allowed to work in their areas of highest ability in order to encourage their development of knowledge and skills in other areas.

The following table lists the eight intelligences identified by Howard Gardner. It provides some examples of the types of professionals who exhibit a high level of an intelligence. The eight intelligences are listed in alphabetical order.



Dancers, athletes, surgeons, crafts people

The ability to use one's physical body well.


Sales people, teachers, clinicians, politicians, religious leaders

The ability to sense other's feelings and be in tune with others.


People who have good insight into themselves and make effective use of their other intelligences

Self-awareness. The ability to know your own body and mind.


Poets, writers, orators, communicators

The ability to communicate well, perhaps both orally and in writing, perhaps in several languages.


Mathematicians, logicians

The ability to learn higher mathematics. The ability to handle complex logical arguments.


Musicians, composers

The ability to learn, perform, and compose music.


Biologists, naturalists

The ability to understand different species, recognize patterns in nature, classify natural objects.


Sailors navigating without modern navigational aids, surgeons, sculptors, painters

The ability to know where you are relative to fixed locations. The ability to accomplish tasks requiring three-dimensional visualization and placement of your hands or other parts of your body.

Table 4.1 Examples for each of the eight intelligences.

You might want to do some introspection. For each of the eight intelligences in the Howard Gardner list, think about your own level of talents and performance. For each intelligence, decide if you have an area of expertise that makes substantial use of the intelligence. For example, perhaps you are good at music. If so, is music the basis of your vocation?

Students can also do this type of introspection, and it can become a routine component of PBL lessons. Students can come to understand that they are more naturally gifted in some areas than in others, but that they have some talent in all of the eight areas identified by Howard Gardner. Curriculum and instruction can be developed to help all students make progress in enhancing their talents in each of these eight areas of intelligence.

Robert Sternberg

Many teachers have provided testimonial evidence that PBL encourages participation on the part of their students who do not have a high level of "school smarts." They report that some of their students who were not doing well in school have become actively engaged and experienced a high level of success in working on projects. These observations are consistent with and supportive of the research of Robert Sternberg.

As noted earlier in this chapter, different researchers have identified different components of intelligence. Sternberg (1988, 1997) focuses on just three main components:

  1. Practical intelligence--the ability to do well in informal and formal educational settings; adapting to and shaping one's environment; street smarts.
  2. Experiential intelligence--the ability to deal with novel situations; the ability to effectively automate ways of dealing with novel situations so they are easily handled in the future; the ability to think in novel ways.
  3. Componential intelligence--the ability to process information effectively. This includes metacognitive, executive, performance, and knowledge-acquisition components that help to steer cognitive processes.

Sternberg provides examples of people who are quite talented in one of these areas but not so talented in the other two. In that sense, his approach to the field of intelligence is somewhat like Howard Gardner's. However, you can see that Sternberg does not focus on specific components of intelligence that are aligned with various academic disciplines. He is far more concerned with helping people develop components of intelligence that will help them to perform well in whatever they chose to do.

Sternberg strongly believes that intelligence can be increased by study and practice. Quite a bit of his research focuses on such endeavors. Some of Sternberg's work focuses specifically on "street smarts" versus "school smarts." He notes that some people are particularly talented in one of these two areas, and not in the other. This observation is consistent with the work of Lev Vygotsky (Fosnot, 1996) who argues that the type of learning that goes on outside of school is distinctly different than the type of learning that goes on in school. While some students are talented in both informal and formal education, others are much more successful in one rather than the other. A teacher who is skillful in developing PBL can help students to design projects that are consistent with their learning abilities and interests.

David Perkins

In his 1992 book, Smart Schools, David Perkins analyzes a number of different educational theories and approaches to education. His analysis is strongly supportive of Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences. Perkins' book contains extensive research-based evidence that education can be considerably improved by more explicit and appropriate teaching for transfer, focusing on higher-order cognitive skills, and the use of project-based learning.

Perkins (1995) examines a large number of research studies both on the measurement of IQ and of programs of study designed to increase IQ. He presents detailed arguments that IQ has three major components or dimensions.

  1. Neural intelligence. This refers to the efficiency and precision of one's neurological system.
  2. Experiential intelligence. This refers to one's accumulated knowledge and experience in different areas. It can be thought of as the accumulation of all of one's expertises.
  3. Reflective intelligence. This refers to one's broad-based strategies for attacking problems, for learning, and for approaching intellectually challenging tasks. It includes attitudes that support persistence, systemization, and imagination. It includes self-monitoring and self-management.

There is substantial evidence to support the belief that a child's neural intelligence can be adversely affected by the mother's use of drugs such as alcohol and cocaine during pregnancy. Lead (such as from lead-based paint) can do severe neural damage to a person. Vitamins, or the lack thereof, can affect neural intelligence.

Moreover, there is general agreement that neural intelligence has a "use it or lose it" characteristic. It is clear that neural intelligence can be maintained and, indeed, increased, by use.

Experiential intelligence is based on years and years of accumulating knowledge and experience in both informal and formal learning environments. Such knowledge and experience can lead to a high level of expertise in one or more fields. People who live in "rich" learning environments have a significant intelligence advantage over people who grow up in less stimulating environments. Experiential intelligence can be increased by such environments.

Reflexive intelligence can be thought of as a control system that helps to make effective use of neural intelligence and experiential intelligence. A person can learn strategies that help to make more effective use of neural intelligence and experiential intelligence. The habits of mind included under reflexive intelligence can be learned and improved. Metacognition and other approaches to reflecting about one's cognitive processes can help.


A search of the literature identifies a large number of articles on classroom projects. Most of these reports can be considered testimonials--teachers telling how they make use of projects in their teaching and their perceptions of how successful this has been. Benefits attributed to project-based learning include:

Increased motivation: Accounts of projects often report that students willingly devote extra time or effort to the project or that previously hard-to-reach students begin to participate in class. Teachers often report improvements in attendance and decreases in tardiness. Students often report that projects are more fun and more engaging than other components of the curriculum.

Increased problem-solving ability: Research on improving students' higher order cognitive skills emphasizes the need for students to engage in problem-solving tasks and the need for specific instruction on how to attack and solve problems (Moursund, 1995; Perkins, 1992). Many articles describe project-based learning environments in which students become actively and successfully engaged in posing and solving complex problems.

Improved library research skills: Most projects require students to move beyond easily available printed information sources such as textbooks, encyclopedias, and dictionaries. Information technologies include excellent additional sources of information on computer disk, CD-ROM, and the Internet. The project-based learning emphasis on independent research is in keeping with the American Library Association's (ALA) call for "information literacy" as a fundamental goal. The ALA defines information literacy as the ability to know when there is a need for information, identify and find the needed information, evaluate and organize the information, and use the information effectively to address the problem or issue at hand (Breivik & Senn, 1994). Project-based learning can provide an authentic and motivating context in which to gain increased information literacy.

Increased collaboration: The necessity for group work in many projects requires students to develop and practice communication skills (Johnson & Johnson, 1989). Peer teaching, student evaluation, online information sharing, and cooperative learning groups are all aspects of the collaborative nature of projects. Current cognitive theories suggest that learning is a social phenomenon and that students will learn more in a collaborative environment (Wiburg, 1994).

Increased resource-management skills: Part of becoming an independent learner is taking responsibility for completing complex tasks. Well-implemented project-based learning gives students instruction and practice in organizing projects, and in allocating time and other resources such as equipment to complete tasks on schedule.

Final Remarks

This chapter briefly summarizes many different types of arguments supporting the use of IT-assisted PBL in education. Education is a very complex field and there are many different successful approaches to teaching and to helping students learn. At the current state of educational research, we should not expect that researchers will produce unassailable evidence that one particular approach is superior to all others. The evidence presented in this chapter is strongly suggestive that IT-assisted PBL should be part of the teaching repertoire of most teachers.


  1. Select an IT-assisted PBL lesson. Analyze it from the point of view of Gardner, Perkins, and Sternberg in terms of how the lesson makes use of and helps to improve student intelligence.
  2. Make a list of arguments against increased use of IT-assisted PBL in your own teaching. Analyze which of these arguments are countered by the ideas presented in this chapter.

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