PBL is Making Headway in Higher Education


A number of years ago I visited Minnesota New Country School in Henderson, Minnesota for the first time and was amazed at how passionate and motivated students were about their learning. One student explained the intricacies of a smart board and showed me his progress on the project and another had sheet metal laid out on the floor and was in the process of making a water fountain for the school.  Students were eager to explain their projects to me and were happy to give me a tour of the school and answer my questions. The students seemed more mature and self confident than other schools I had visited. What is it about project-based learning that seems to create such an electric environment in these schools?

My experiences working with this school and Avalon school in St Paul (another PBL school), as well as conducting research on these schools, prompted me to develop a graduate level course titled Project-Based Learning. What became quite apparent to me shortly after beginning to teach my first course entirely focused on PBL was that this approach is extremely effective at inspiring students to learn, no matter what the age level.

Students that have taken this course have created sophisticated in-depth projects that in many cases were essential in helping them develop their career paths. For instance, one student wrote a lengthy application to start a charter school in Alaska and is still in the process of developing this school. Other examples include developing curricula for Science Museums and Nature Centers, developing an honors program for a university, and developing a healthy snack shop for a middle school. Some of the individuals that created these projects are now running these programs.

Colleges and Universities Using PBL
My interest in PBL was sparked through my experiences with secondary schools using PBL, however recently it appears that more colleges and universities are beginning to use it as well.  Last year I was invited to be a speaker on PBL at an Academic Impressions Conference in Salt Lake City and was surprised to learn how many well-known higher education institutions were implementing PBL. The conference theme was competency-based education (CBE), which is not based on the typical university format of seat-based courses for credit, but instead focuses on acquiring the necessary competencies of a profession through real world experiences. Prior experiences may be used to achieve the necessary competencies, and the student earns a degree by demonstrating proficiency in all these competencies. 

What I discovered at this conference was that many of these schools use PBL as the primary vehicle to demonstrate the competencies in their profession. Institutions that have CBE programs that incorporate PBL include: University of Wisconsin-Madison, Purdue, Lipscomb, University of Michigan, DePaul, Western Governors, Brandman, Northern Arizona, Alverno, Excelsior, Olin, Southern New Hampshire, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and Westminster. 

After attending this conference I interviewed some of the university administrators of these institutions where PBL is being implemented, and discovered that there are numerous disciplines such as Business, Engineering, Communications, Psychology, Tourism, and Nursing that are using PBL as a primary teaching approach. 

Why PBL is Being Used
Higher education institutions are using PBL because they are coming to realize that it works. One of my recent research studies published in Innovative Higher Education focused on life skill development of students enrolled in the Project Based Learning graduate course I taught, and found that there was a significant increase in eight different skills over the duration of this 16-week course. With the help of a doctoral student, Kimberly Meyer, a 34-question survey was created. Each question was associated with one of these eight life skills: time management, responsibility, problem solving, self-direction, collaboration, communication, creativity, and work ethic. The survey was given the first day of the course without any explanation, and then again on the last day to determine if there were any differences in life skill development. All eight skills increased over the 16-week course. The graph shows the changes in scores. 


The Extent to Which PBL is Used
In an attempt to find out just how many higher education faculty are using PBL, I sent out a survey to 3400 individuals across the country and received 294 back thus far. One of the questions asks participants to check all the teaching methods they use in their courses and 77 percent said they use some form of PBL when teaching their courses, however when asked what percent of the time they use PBL in their courses, as compared to other methods, the percentages were much lower. Forty-three percent use it less than 25 percent of the time, twenty-six percent said they use it 25-50 percent of the time, and ten percent said they use it 50-75 percent of the time. This data is encouraging in that a large percentage of faculty are using PBL to some degree, however most appear to be using it in small doses in their classes. 

Higher education faculty across the country continue to use lecture as their primary teaching method. My current survey shows that ninety one percent use lecture with about fifty percent using it 50-75 percent of the time. This however, may begin to slowly change. The research on PBL is currently much richer with secondary schools, but the growing interest in CBE programs will encourage further research on this topic in higher education, and research is what can help change the way we educate students in our classes. PBL is more time consuming and requires effort to switch over to this approach, but the rewards are worth it. Nothing is more enjoyable as an educator than to observe a student’s burning passion over a project!

Scott Wurdinger is a professor of experiential education and leadership studies at Minnesota State University in Mankato, and currently serves as the coordinator of the Educational Leadership Doctoral Program. His research interests focus on the use of various approaches to experiential learning and how they develop life skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity. He is the author of a new book on PBL in high school and post-secondary education, The Power of Project Based Learning.


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