By: Ashlee M. C. Foster MSEd, Instructional Design Specialist | Oregon State University Ecampus

Did you know a pedagogical approach exists that positively impacts student academic achievement and engages them as active participants in learning? Great news…there is! Let me introduce you to the world of Project Based Learning (PBL). 

What is PBL?

PBL is a student-centered pedagogical approach where students, both individually and within small groups, engage with meaningful, relevant, and authentic projects which result in a product. Oftentimes, PBL is commonly associated and/or thought to be interchangeable with Problem Based Learning. However, there is a distinction between the two. The principal focus of PBL is on the active construction of knowledge. Additionally, student autonomy, beliefs, values, and motivations are situated as a fundamental driving force of the instructional approach.

What are the characteristics of PBL?

The essence of PBL is anchored in attributes, which foster high-quality learning experiences. Direct instruction is no longer the principal mechanism for delivery. Negotiation of knowledge between the educator and the students occurs through an exchange of ideas, questioning, inquiry, considerations, and perspectives. PBL often engages students in an ongoing process consisting of investigation, collection, analysis, prototyping, testing, peer/instructor feedback, revisions, and reflection. Learner autonomy is key in that students make their own decisions about various aspects of the projects (i.e., line of inquiry, collaborative processes, application of feedback, types of revisions, solutions).

Is it effective? Prove it!

As reported by Chen and Yang (2019), a positive impact on student achievement has been observed across 20 years (i.e. 1998-2017) of PBL peer-reviewed literature. The researcher’s principal investigation was to compare traditional instruction with that of PBL. Traditional instructional delivery was found to prompt students to apply low-level cognitive processes (e.g., understand, remember). Whereas, PBL can encourage the development of (HOTS) Higher Order Thinking Skills (i.e., analysis synthesis) and metacognitive skills (i.e., regulation, monitoring, self-directed learning, evaluation, assessment). According to the meta-analysis, the aforementioned benefits were found not to be impacted by academic discipline, educational stage (undergraduate, post-baccalaureate, graduate), or geographic location. This is great news for our distance and hybrid learners!

How do I get started?

When considering PBL there are a few questions to reflect on before implementing this practice. First, ask yourself, is this a best-fit approach? Consider the academic discipline, subject content, course learning outcomes, your instructional style, student attributes, and the intended goals to answer this foundational question. A word of caution is to use PBL in a way that is relevant, authentic, and collaborative in nature. Steel clear of using projects as a shiny solution. Lastly, contextualize the project. Doing so will help students connect the project to their academic career, professional development, and personal growth. Remember to share the ‘why’!

Project Examples

Here are a few project examples to spark some ideas: 

  • solve a problem (e.g., uninformed voting) 
  • generate a plan (e.g., foster sustainability)
  • create a product (e.g., computer/mobile application, oral history interviews)
  • seek valid answers and recommend solutions (e.g., electing national officials) 
  • engage with a persistent issue in a tangible way (e.g., advocating, protesting, public speech) 

Do you have an example to share?

Respond in the comments if you currently use, have used, or intend to incorporate PBL in your course. Do you have any tried and true strategies for effective projects? Have you experienced any wins or challenges? Share with the community and join the discussion. Make sure to return to read Project-Based Learning (Part 2) – Mindful Design for practical implementation tips! 


Many educators have contemplated the use of games as way to engage learners, or maybe thought about using some elements found in games to engage learners. A big hurdle for integrating games into a course is the amount of work it takes to build them to use in a course, even if you have the skill-set. Of course, you could always take the easier route and try to integrate an existing game into a course. The hurdles there involve cost and finding a game that supports the content specific to your course. There is another approach to bring game concepts into the learning environment that does not necessitate a huge investment of time, combining game design with problem-based learning.

Create activities in your course that have learners design and contextualize the content of a game. You set the rules and mechanics of how the game will work, your students design how the content fits into that game. No one has to actually program or build a game. The idea is to use game mechanics as a tool to get learners to think about instructional material and how concepts inter-relate.

So where do you begin? Start with what you know. What are your favorite games? These don’t have to be a computer or video game. Think about puzzles, board games, or card games that you have enjoyed. Are there elements of how the game works (mechanics) that can be applied to your course content? Do some ‘research’ (this is the fun part). There is something of a board game renaissance going on right now offering a boggling variety of board and card games. These cover a range of concepts, from pandemics to book collecting. The board game Chronology offers a simple mechanic that can lend itself to a variety of topics. The game works as the name implies.

Remember, you don’t have to provide the rules for an entire game. Keep the activity focused on one element of a game that you can apply to content appropriate for your course and that supports the given learning objectives. Keep the rules simple.

One of my favorite games is Sid Meier’s Civilization V. The purpose of the game is to build a ‘historical’ civilization from the ground up. A key element of the game is researching and building technology. In order to be successful at building technology and move your civilization forward, you have to understand how technologies are inter-related and build on each other. You can’t just research gun powder, for example, but have to first research and develop all of the underlying technologies to get there.

Sample of the technology tree from the game Civiliztion V
You can’t research Horseback Riding before you develop Trapping and Animal Husbandry. (Image from STEAM community workshop)

The above image should be familiar to anyone who has used timelines, production trees or flowcharts. You may already be using something like this in your course. Game design can simply be a way to engage learners in developing these tools.

A big strength of using Project-Based Learning in this way is that it doesn’t require a lot of time to set up and the project can easily be managed with tools that already exist in your LMS, using student Groups, or something as simple as shared Google docs. How far you want to push learner creativity in the design is up to you and the needs of your course.

Here at Ecampus, we are lucky to have a marvelously creative Media Development Team who would be able to help build supporting material for your ideas. Depending on the complexity of the game you propose, it may even be possible to put your learners’ work into a game ‘shell’ that would result in a working version of the game. This, in turn, could be used as a study tool.