How PBL works
Traditionally, students were taught facts and concepts. They would then be tested on how well they could recall them. Some time later, if they needed to put that knowledge into practice, many students may have forgotten almost everything they learned on the subject.
Why is that?
The brain is constantly bombarded with information. One model of cognitive science says that if your brain processes some new information, it will be stored in short-term working memory. (That is why cramming for tests is popular - in the short-term, the information can be quickly retrieved.)
If that new knowledge is focussed on, thought about in different ways, from different angles and thought through carefully, the brain regards it as important and puts it into long-term memory. The concepts are deeply understood and recalling them can become almost automatic.
Another important consideration is that students often don't see how what they are learning is relevant to real life. Schools usually teach via distinct disciplines. Traditionally, schools teach maths concepts separately to chemistry, physics, english, technology and art, etc.
Enter Project Based Learning...
Imagine if students were asked to work in small groups to build a model submarine and then to explain how it worked. To achieve this, students would need to discover and put into practice:
- Science concepts such as buoyancy and density
- Maths to understand how much ballast and air is required to raise and lower the submarine
- Engineering & Design concepts to design an efficient hull
- Technology to use appropriate graphics software and 3D printer to produce a prototype
- Presentation skills to present the model and the findings
We could teach each of these concepts in specialised classes. However, if the goal is to create a deep understanding, what better way than for the students to research the concepts, discuss them, massage them and put them into practice in a real-life project. These students won't simply be recalling facts for an exam. They will be able to discuss why these concepts work in practice because they will have experienced them first hand.
Through Project Based Learning, they are gaining a deeper understanding of the concepts and committing their knowledge to long-term memory that will be able to be recalled long after the project is completed.