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ATD Blog

The Win-Win-Win of Project-Based Learning

Monday, October 18, 2021

Too much work and not enough staff to handle it? You’re not alone. Talent professionals know that there is a significant shortage of skilled labor in nearly every field and in nearly every industry. If you’re one of the many talent professionals being asked to do more and more with less and less help, project-based learning, a novel approach plucked from K-12 education, may offer a solution.

What Is Project-Based Learning?

Grounded in David Kolb’s work on experiential learning, project-based learning (PBL) takes advantage of real-world challenges that are all around us. The basic idea is simple—instead of building practice activities that require learners to apply their new skills within a designed activity, learners apply their new skills to solve a real-world problem. Projects are assigned or chosen by teams, who are given a limited time in which to produce a specific set of deliverables. For example, one team may be tasked with developing a new model of IT support for work-at-home customers.

Project-Based Learning Accelerates the Acquisition of New Skills

While originally used in the context of the K-12 learner, an extensive multiyear study shows that a project-based approach can have many measurable benefits for adult learners as well, including:

  • Immediate application of new and emerging skills, accelerating mastery and supporting long-term retention
  • Development of complex cognitive skills, such as critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, and project management
  • Increased confidence in professional settings
  • Greater engagement on the job
  • Documented success leading to a sharing of best practices with other learners

PBL Mitigates the Trap of “Busyness”

One of the greatest contributors to frustration and inefficiency that I see is the “myth of busyness.” Because we’re all on virtual conference calls for most of our day, answer emails and texts at all hours, and use large blocks of our weekend time to “catch up” on work tasks we just didn’t have time to complete, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking we’re highly productive. Yet, these actions often result in a lot of frenetic “work” for little work product. By linking a training program to a series of significant, measurable projects that have a clear impact on the business, you can set up learners for success and help your organization make progress against real issues.


PBL Also Benefits the Learning Professional

If you’re looking for a way to make your next learning experience meaningful and engaging, consider adding a project-based component. By challenging learners to focus on real-world situations that might not be getting the attention they deserve, you gain some key benefits for yourself and your learning team:
· Built-in performance metrics that directly link the effect of your program to business goals
· Greater learner motivation, engagement, and feedback ratings
· Higher visibility with business leaders
· Reduced time required to develop and deliver training

PBL Checklist

While project-based learning often requires less design work, because the basic information is built right into your existing situation, you still have some work to do to ensure a successful outcome. Make sure you plan for:

  • Clear learning objectives. This is still a learning experience, so identify exactly what learners will be able to do as they complete their project.
  • An open-ended problem or question. This should not be busywork or business-as-usual tasks. PBL is intended to address a significant question or problem for which you do not yet have a solution. It is exactly this ambiguity that makes the experience so powerful and the results so meaningful.
  • A sustained effort. While the setup is often included in a traditional classroom setting, the project should require substantial effort that takes place outside of training as a sustained effort for the teams involved.
  • Authenticity. Ensure the projects are meaningful and have direct application to the skills you are trying to develop.
  • Empowerment. Build in as much learner choice as possible. Even if projects must be assigned, give your teams plenty of latitude in how they approach their work and identify solutions.
  • Support. Assign mentors to answer questions, provide guidance, and stimulate conversation along the way. Ensure that at least one senior leader serves as an engaged sponsor, clearing roadblocks and engaging other members of the organization when needed.
  • Collaboration. Look to give your projects as much visibility as possible within your organization. This not only builds the reputation of your program, but it will also inspire others to offer help when they know what you’re trying to accomplish.
  • Reflection. Plan for multiple ways for individuals and teams to reflect on their process, their insights, and their accomplishments on a regular basis.

Getting Started

You’ll want to engage senior leaders as you develop a list of possible projects. Look for things like broken processes, quality issues, persistent sources of customer or employee dissatisfaction, or low-performing areas or departments. Make sure that you have the support of your organization to unleash your project teams on these
issues and line up the necessary resources the teams may need to succeed.

Project-Based Learning Is a Win-Win-Win Solution

When you implement PBL, you’re delivering a learning experience that can be a win for all:

  • Your learners get a highly engaging, effective experience.
  • Your organization gets solutions to real-world problems.
  • You get the chance to show how your efforts directly impact your organization.

Now that’s a win we can all use.

About the Author

Margie Meacham, “The Brain Lady,” is a scholar-practitioner in the field of education and learning and president of LearningToGo. She specializes in practical applications for neuroscience to enhance learning and performance. Meacham’s clients include businesses, schools, and universities. She writes a popular blog for the Association of Talent Development and has published two books, Brain Matters: How to Help Anyone Learn Anything Using Neuroscience and The Genius Button: Using Neuroscience to Bring Out Your Inner Genius.

She first became interested in the brain when she went with undiagnosed dyslexia as a child. Although she struggled in the early grades, she eventually taught herself how to overcome the challenge of a slight learning disability and became her high school valedictorian, graduated magna cum laude from Centenary University, and earned her master’s degree in education from Capella University with a 4.0.

Meacham started her professional career in high-tech sales, and when she was promoted to director of training, she discovered her passion for teaching and helping people learn. She became one of the first corporate trainers to use video conferencing and e-learning and started her own consulting company from there. Today she consults for many organizations, helping them design learning experiences that will form new neural connections and marry neuroscience theory with practice.

“I believe we are on the verge of so many wonderful discoveries about how we learn. Understanding what happens in the brain is making us better leaders, teachers, parents, and employees. We have no limits to what we can accomplish with our wonderful brains— the best survival machines ever built.”
—Margie Meacham

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Excellent tips and great timing, I'm currently building a development program using PBL concepts at my company.
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