Teacher presenting to studentsThis research brief is a four-part series – Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

In my last post, I described John Hattie’s great project: analyzing nearly one thousand meta-analyses to better understand the factors linked with student learning. I summarized my major takeaways:

  • Good teachers select, mix and match, and combine teacher-centered and student centered instructional techniques
  • Good teachers are “activators” rather than “facilitators” of learning
  • Good teachers see learning through the eyes of their students and help students to become their own teachers
  • Good teachers seek out and analyze evidence of their impact on students

At the conclusion of his analyses, Hattie describes a vision of good teaching that fits with our own way of thinking. Good teaching, by and large, is good teaching, whether you are working with students to help them manage a project, or are leading a whole-class lecture-discussion. Specific instructional techniques, and the context in which students learn vary, but the active role of teaching, helping students to reach challenging but attainable goals, does not.

This is the big story, but there are a number of short stories it brings together. Visible Learning for Teachers, describes 67 factors that have a greater than average impact on student achievement. (You can find a similar list on this website.) A number of these factors echo our ideas about Project Based Teaching. This is not to say there is a direct relationship between Hattie’s calculations and BIE’s world of Project Based Teaching, but there are intriguing overlaps, despite some terminological and conceptual differences.

The table below is organized around five Project Based Teaching Practices. These appear on the left side of the table (in blue): Build the Culture, Manage Activities, Scaffold Student Learning, Assess Student Learning, and Engage & Coach. With these elements as a lens, I reviewed Hattie’s list of teacher and classroom factors that make a greater than average difference in student learning. I then matched Project Based Teaching Practices with individual factors Hattie discusses (in green), to produce the “crosswalk” table below. The numbers next to the factor name represent effect sizes, and are not necessary for the following discussion, but may be of interest to more wonky readers.

Chart comparing Hattie's research with PBL


Build the Culture

Like all learning, Project Based Learning occurs most effectively in a trusting and caring environment. Two components create this environment: 1) Student – teacher relationships; and 2) Student – student relationships. In most classrooms, teachers’ actions first set the tone and expectations for student behavior. Trust is built through teacher modeling, through interactions with students, and by making explicit the expectations for everyone’s behavior. Classroom cohesion – or the attraction classroom members feel for each other and the class as a whole – and positive peer relationships can support a learning-focused PBL culture, where students are willing to try and persevere in new and difficult tasks. Hattie has shown empirically that the emotional dimensions and tone of classrooms matter: students learn more in classrooms characterized by trust, caring, and support. We have found that they are also able to do PBL more effectively.

Manage Activities

The verb, manage, has been interpreted by some to mean “keep students quiet while sitting demurely at their desks.” This is not its meaning within Project Based Teaching. Here, we use manage in the sense setting up a system so that classroom interactions and tasks (launching projects, collecting assignments, moving from small group project work to full class discussion) run smoothly, so that students can participate in learning without distraction or disturbance. One of the challenges of Project Based Teaching is to develop a management system that allows for student movement and activity without impeding concentration and thinking.

Scaffold Student Learning

The metaphor of a learning scaffold is well known: a temporary support enabling a student to achieve a learning goal or complete a learning task. A scaffold exists to be removed – but only after students have developed the skills needed to learn without the scaffold. As Hattie has written, the goal is to “help students to become their own teachers.” Texts, computers, videos, teachers, or students can provide learning scaffolds, and different types of scaffolds are appropriate at different times during Project Based Teaching. Hattie’s analysis highlights the effectiveness of different types of scaffolds including structured classroom discussion, cooperative learning and peer tutoring, direct instruction, learning and thinking strategies, and success examples.

Students learn a great many things from talking to one another, but such talk may or may not be focused toward teachers’ learning goals. Class discussions are more productive (in terms of learning) when they are not just random talk, but talk where the purpose, goal, rules and procedures are understood and enacted by students. This can take place in a small project team or a whole class format.

Project teams lend themselves to cooperative learning, a learning scaffold found effective by Hattie and many others. Most cooperative learning approaches rely on student division of labor – assigning different learning tasks to different students, and then sharing among the entire team what has been learned by individuals. BIE discourages team grades because different team members generally contribute differentially to the final product, but we encourage accountability systems that specifically acknowledge the entire team when every group member does well. Such systems encourage team members to support each other.

Like cooperative learning peer tutoring provides another way that students can scaffold other students’ learning. The most effective peer tutoring strategies do more than simply pair students together. They prepare the tutors for the act of tutoring, by helping the tutor build or sharpen both listening and explaining skills, and by providing the tutor with success examples or other tutoring aids.

Some readers may be surprised to find Direct Instruction included as a scaffolding technique. However, its effectiveness as a way of building student understanding is well-established, and sometimes a lecture (or, more true to exemplary Project Based Teaching, a lecturette), accompanied by guided and individual practice, may be the best way to clarify an important concept, or help students develop the background knowledge they need to succeed in project work. Remember: A project is an envelope in which to organize the learning scaffolds and resources students need to answer a driving question.

Learning and thinking strategies include study skills, metacognitive training where students become aware of their own learning processes, or develop problem solving strategies and algorithms. These scaffolds emphasize student thinking and self-management processes, and complement teacher-initiated learning approaches such as Direct Instruction. Both are effective, and both can be overused. Good Project Based Teaching makes decisions about which approach is better to deal with the learning challenge at hand.

Finally, success examples – which show how others have answered the driving question or created a product – have been shown to be extremely effective in promoting student learning, often more so than explanation by the teacher. Figuring out how other students (or professionals) have solved a problem, the steps they took, the decisions they made, and the results they achieved can prepare students for solving similar problems on their own or in teams. BIE recommends that teachers keep examples of exemplary projects so that they can be used the following year to show students what excellent work looks like and provide insight into how project teams went about answering the driving question.

Assess Student Learning

Assessment is the process of comparing “what is” against “what should be.” Such judgments allow advice to be given, from teachers to students, from students to students, or by individual students to themselves, about how to improve performance, process, or product. Good assessment requires clear goals – a well-defined vision of what should be. If students are to accomplish something, they need to understand and envision what is to be accomplished. Creating and communicating that vision is the first step in assessing student learning.

The second step in assessment is to help students achieve project goals by providing feedback, one of Hattie’s most highly ranked “influences on achievement.” We will dive deeper into feedback in the next post, but right now, consider two important aspects from the student point of view: 1) How feedback is perceived; and 2) How usable it is.

Students must understand feedback as something intended to help them improve, not a judgment of their competency or worth. The underlying message must be, “I have confidence in you that you can do better. Here’s a suggestion I think will help you to do so.” If students understand the feedback process as an opportunity for improvement (and they want to improve), then they are open to trying out the feedback, and determining whether it helps. Effective feedback is useful, timely, understandable, and clear in pointing out the things students can do better. It is also presented in a way that students do not find disparaging.

Feedback, as pointed out above, does not move only from teachers to students. It also can move from students to students and from students to teachers. This enables Project Based Teachers to change their own practices and project design to better help students attain learning goals. Within Project Based Teaching, Hattie’s mantra, “Know thy impact”, might be paraphrased as “Know the project’s impact, then make changes as needed to heighten it.”

Engage & Coach

An important aspect of Project Based Teaching is coaching students toward both project and individual learning goals. For coaching to be successful, students must believe that the coach is competent, is working to help them succeed with new tasks or improve performance on old ones, and has their interests at heart. A coach improves performance through encouragement, analysis, and feedback. A coach is more than a friend, or someone to be enjoyed. I enjoy my friends, but they are not going to be able to help me improve my singing. For that I need a competent vocal coach, and students need the monitoring, guidance and suggestions of a teacher working toward the same learning goals.

Visible Project Based Learning?

I’m not sure how John Hattie, the author of Visible Learning, would react to this post, but I think he would be sympathetic, if not in actual agreement. He is far from a PBL advocate, and yet many of the factors he found that had a “greater than average” impact on learning are at the heart of Project Based Teaching. I conjecture that he has not considered the project, structured according to BIE’s Essential Project Design Elements, and “activated” using BIE’s Project Based Teaching Practices, as a productive context for student learning.

Consider one of his conclusions at the end of Visible Learning:

It is less the “methods” per se, than the principles of effective teaching and learning that matter . . . the aim is to help students to develop explicit cognitive schemas to thence self-regulate and teach themselves the knowledge and understanding, to realize why they need to invest deliberate practice, and then for teachers to evaluate the success of their chosen textbooks, favored lessons, methods, and activities to achieve these goals. The aim is to get students to learn the skills of teaching themselves – to self-regulate their learning.

This is a mouthful of educational psychology jargon, but it outlines the same aims we advocate with Project Based Learning and Teaching. Let me try a paraphrase:

It is less Project Based Learning per se, than the principles of effective teaching and learning that matter . . . the aim is to help students to develop explicit cognitive strategies they can control and can use at their discretion to teach themselves facts, ideas and concepts. Another aim is for students to understand the importance of what they are asked to learn, and the necessity for the deliberate practice of skills, inquiry and problem solving. Teachers play an essential role by evaluating students’ successes and analyzing where and why their performance is wanting. Teachers can then modify projects by adding scaffolds or showing students how to analyze and improve their own learning. They can also supplement projects with skill building activities to develop needed background knowledge or skills. The aim is to get students to learn the skills of teaching themselves – to self-regulate their learning.

These are my words, not Hattie’s, but I believe the spirit is similar. Teachers still count in PBL. The goal of Project Based Learning is for students to learn the skills of teaching themselves. Project Based Teaching Practices play a major role in causing this to happen.

This research brief is a four-part series. Read more in Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

John Mergendoller, Former Executive Director
John worked on special projects for the Buck Institute for Education as the first recipient of the annual Mergendoller Fellowship. He was Executive Director of BIE from 2000 to 2015, guiding its growth and building its reputation for high-quality work.