Research Publications

Explore published research and evidence about the impact of quality Project Based Learning.

School Leaders Play an Essential Role in Making High Quality PBL Happen for Students

School Leaders and PBL

The driving question for this brief is based on a common question that we are asked when schools and districts are planning for teacher Project Based Learning (PBL) professional learning. What role do school leaders play in PBL? Why should we invest in professional learning for school leaders?

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Citation: Wagner, K. and Kingston, S. (2022). School Leaders Play an Essential Role in Making High Quality PBL Happen for Students. Why should we invest in professional learning for school leaders? PBL Evidence Matters 2(2).
The Buck Institute for Education.

Organization: PBLWorks

PBL and ESSA Evidence Levels

ESSA Hill graphicThis brief is based on the most common question that teachers, principals, school leaders, coaches, and grant writers ask us at the Buck Institute for Education (BIE) about Project Based Learning (PBL): To what extent does PBL align to ESSA Evidence Levels 1 and 2? How do we know?

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Citation: Kingston, S., deMonsabert, J., and Wagner, K. (2022). Project Based Learning and Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Evidence Levels: Is PBL an evidence-based practice? PBL Evidence Matters 2(1). The Buck Institute for Education.

Organization: PBLWorks

Project-Based Learning Boosts Student Achievement in AP Courses

thumbnail of report coverKnowledge In Action Study: This study is a randomized controlled trial (RCT) of 3,645 students in five large urban districts engaged in both AP Environmental Science and AP U.S. Government and Politics PBL courses and traditional courses. Researchers from the University of Southern California (USC) found that students in AP PBL courses outperformed students in traditional AP courses by 8 percentage points. PBLWorks provided the professional development for this study.

Results for students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds were comparable to their peers from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. For teachers who taught AP PBL for a second year, students in the AP PBL courses outperformed peers in traditional classrooms by 10 percentage points. PBLWorks designed and facilitated professional development for this study.

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Citation: Saavedra, A.R., Liu Y., Haderlein, S.K., Rapaport, A., Garland, M., Hoepfner, D., Morgan, K.L., Hu, A., & Lucas Education Research. (2021). Project-Based Learning Boosts Student Achievement in AP Courses. Lucas Education Research.

Success Skills Literature Reviews

thumbnail of reportsIn partnership with PBLWorks, The National Center for Improvement of Educational Assessment (Center for Assessment), conducted comprehensive reviews of the literature for four success skills: critical thinking, collaboration, self-directed learning, and complex communication.

Research-based rubrics were developed based on these literature reviews. The rubrics are designed to provide useful, formative information that teachers can use to guide instruction and provide feedback to students and that they can use to reflect on their performance. Rubrics for each success skill are available by grade span: K-2, 3-5, and 6-12. (The K-2 rubric includes both a teacher version and a version for primary students or early readers.)

Learn more, and download the research-based rubrics here.

State of PBL White Paper & Infographic

thumbnail of report coverThe State of PBL white paper and infographic summarize the findings of the 2019-2020 Speak Up Research conducted by Project Tomorrow. The Speak Up Research Project is a national research to help educators, policymakers, and business leaders make better decisions about how to support new learning experiences for students.

Download the white paper (pdf)

Download the infographic (pdf)

BetterLesson & PBLWorks Professional Learning at Lindsay Unified School District

cover of Lindsay USD Research ReportThis comparison cohort study examines the impact of professional learning, including PBLWorks professional services, on K-12 learners in Lindsay Unified School District in Lindsay, California. The study found that students with teachers who participated in PBLWorks professional learning between 2017 and 2019 demonstrated statistically significant growth in reading, math, and history, when compared to peers whose teachers did not participate in professional learning.

View summary by PBLWorks (pdf)

Download full report (pdf)

Citation: Price, C., Mohammed, S., Rabbit, B., (2019). BetterLesson and PBLWorks professional learning at LUSD: Effects on instructional behaviors and learning outcomes. Prepared for: Lindsay Unified School District Teacher and School Leader Initiative (TSL). Retrieved from:

Source Organization: Lindsay Unified School District

Student Outcomes from High-Quality Project-Based Learning: A Case Study for PBLWorks

thumbnail of case study coverThis single case study examines one teacher’s PBL journey across a continuum of outcomes from PBL 101 through student outcomes, based on PBLWorks' teacher theory of action. Results show positive results for students in science, collaboration, self-direction.

Download the case study (pdf)

Citation: Evans, C. M. (2019). Student Outcomes from High-Quality Project-Based Learning: A Case Study for PBLWorks. Dover, NH: Center for Assessment.

Source Organization: National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment (Center for Assessment).

Project Based Learning & Student Achievement: What Does the Research Tell Us?

PBL Research Brief previewThis short research brief summarizes evidence of the impact of Project Based Learning on student learning in core content areas. The driving question for this brief is based on the most common question that teachers, principals, school leaders, coaches, and grant writers ask us at PBLWorks about Project Based Learning: What evidence exists that shows the impact of Project Based Learning on student learning in core content areas?

Download the brief (pdf)

Citation: Kingston, S. (2018). Project Based Learning & Student Achievement: What Does the Research Tell Us? PBL Evidence Matters. 1(1), 1-11.

Source Organization: PBLWorks

Additional Research Publications

  • Multiple-Literacies PBL (ML-PBL)

    thumbnail of report coverThis randomized controlled trial of 2,371 third-grade students in 46 schools engaged in interdisciplinary PBL units emphasizing science, mathematics, and literacy as well as social emotional learning (SEL) and traditional instruction. Of the schools in the study, 62% of students qualified for free and reduced-price lunch, and 58% were students of color. Researchers from Michigan State University and the University of Michigan found that students in the ML-PBL program significantly outperformed their peers in traditional instruction in science by 8 percentage points on average. Students engaged in ML-PBL units also reported the value of reflection and collaboration more frequently than their peers in traditional instruction. These results held across socioeconomic levels and reading levels.

    Download the brief (pdf)

    Citation: Krajcik, J., Schneider, B., Miller, E., Chen, I.C., Bradford, L., Bartz, K., Baker, Q., Palincsar, A., Peek-Brown, D., Codere, S., & Lucas Education Research. (2021). Project-Based Learning Increases Science Achievement in Elementary Schools and Improves Social and Emotional Learning. Lucas Education Research.

  • Putting PBL to the Test

    thumbnail of report coverThis study investigated the impact of PBL on social studies and literacy achievement and motivation of students in second grade in high poverty and low performing districts as part of a Project PLACE: A Project Approach to Literacy and Civic Engagement. PLACE is a second-grade Project Based Learning program that integrates social studies and content literacy. Researchers found that PBL can raise student achievement in high-poverty communities. Specifically, the gains made by the PBL group were 63% higher in social studies and 23% higher in informational reading than the control group.

    Download the brief (pdf)

    Citation: Duke, N.K., Halvorsen, A-L., Strachan, S.L., Kim, J., & Konstantopoulos, S. (June 2020). Putting PjBL to the Test: The Impact of Project-Based Learning on Second Graders’ Social Studies and Literacy Learning and Motivation in Low-SES School Settings. American Educational Research Journal.

  • Learning Through Performance (LTP) in Middle School Science

    thumbnail of report coverThe matched comparison group study of 6th-grade science students (139 LTP, 145 comparisons) showed that students in LTP classrooms demonstrated increased engagement and outperformed their peers from 8-28 percentage points on various academic assessments. The study was conducted in high-poverty, racially diverse schools and provides important evidence about the effects of PBL on traditionally underserved students, including English language learners.

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    Citation: Deutscher, R.R., Holthuis, N.C., Maldonado, S.I., Pecheone, R.L., Schultz, S.E., Wei, R.C., & Lucas Education Research. (2021). Project-Based Learning Leads to Gains in Science and Other Subjects in Middle School and Benefits All Learners. Lucas Education Research

  • Shifting to Project Based Learning in the Advanced Placement Context

    KIA Report preview

    This unpublished manuscript describes how experienced Advanced Placement (AP) Environmental Science and U.S. Government treatment teachers, participating in a large-scale randomized controlled trial, shifted their practice toward the Knowledge in Action (KIA) project-based learning approach. Results show that, under conditions of optimal support and compared to randomly-assigned, business-as-usual control teachers, treatment teachers shifted towards greater emphasis on deeper learning objectives, more student-centered pedagogy, more authenticity, and less lecture and explicit examination-preparation. Though the shift was challenging, students reported feeling prepared for the relevant AP examination, and over ninety percent of teachers recommended the approach.

    Download the report (pdf)

    Citation: Saavedra, A., Rapaport, A.,Marwah, E., Carle, J., Liu, Y., Johnson, S. J., Li, J., Hoepfner, D., Garland, M. (2019). Shifting to project-based learning in the Advanced Placement context. Unpublished manuscript.

    Source Organization: University of Southern California

  • Project Based Learning: A Literature Review 

    PBL Literature Review previewThis review primarily includes studies published from 2015 to 2017 focused on PBL implementation and its effects on student outcomes. This review suggests there are a growing number of studies that show a positive relationship between PBL and student learning outcomes, and this evidence is “promising, not proven.” Some studies show positive effects on students’ engagement, motivation, and self-efficacy. This review focuses on underlying PBL principles, PBL in K-12 settings, implementation challenges, enabling school and district factors, and evidence of effectiveness.

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    Citation: Condliffe, B., Quint, J., Visher, M.G., Bangser, M. R., Drohojowska, S. Saco, L., and Nelson, E. (2017). Project Based Learning: A Literature Review, 1-78. New York, NY: MDRC.

    Source Organization: MDRC/Lucas Education Research

  • A Review of the Research on Project-Based Learning 

    Review of PBL Research previewThis review covers research studies published between 1984 and 1999 conducted at the elementary and secondary levels that focus on project-based learning, problem-based learning, and Expeditionary Learning. This review focuses on research on PBL practices that meet five criteria: centrality, driving question, constructivist investigations, autonomy, and realism. Key topics in this review include definitions of Project-Based Learning, underpinnings of PBL research and practice, student characteristics and PBL, implementation challenges, and effectiveness research.

    Download the report (pdf)

    Citation: Thomas, J. W. (2000). A Review of the Research on Project-Based Learning, 1-45. San Rafael, CA: The Autodesk.

    Source Organization: The Autodesk Foundation

  • Research Briefs: What Can We Learn from John Hattie about Project Based Learning?

    Hattie Research book cover

    This four-part series highlights research by John Hattie that supports Project Based Teaching. John Hattie’s research is based on more than 1000 meta-analyses – a statistical method that combines the results of separate research studies – Hattie has drawn conclusions about the factors that make the most difference in student learning. He bases these conclusions on research that has involved more than 240 million students.

    Part 1 focuses on understanding Hattie’s research findings. Part 2 describes how Hattie’s findings support Project Based Teaching. Parts 3 and 4 describe what Hattie’s research says about effective feedback and practical guidance for applying the research in practice.

    Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4

    Citation: Mergendoller, J. R. (2016). What Can We Learn from John Hattie about Project Based Learning? Novato, CA: PBLWorks.

    Source Organization: PBLWorks