Connecting Differentiation & Project-Based Learning

I often hear from my students (and from adults) how much they disliked group projects in school (or at work); the unmet need for differentiation and the disparity in roles and responsibilities within the group often takes away from the experience. What do students say about the projects they did enjoy?  Maybe, that it was fun, but hard, but worth it.

Project-based learning (PBL) can be used for any subject (content), in a variety of formats (process), to create an intended result (product); it makes sense that PBL would be an ideal tool for differentiation.  For students, their interests, learning intelligences or styles, and readiness can be woven effectively into a project-based learning experience.  Using PBL for differentiation can also reflect a teacher’s own perspective about what learning is and how it should take place.

In their study of students’ reflections about their own experience in PBL, Brammar and Morton (2014) identified several themes that were important to students in learning about and participating in civic engagement – research, collaboration, effort, passion, and responsibility (p. 4).  These themes make the case for using PBL in differentiation because they highlight what students take with them from the experience, not just the knowledge and skills but a transformative change to how they view themselves and their impact on others around them.  The process (course design) of working on their projects taught the students to experience civic engagement rather than learning “about” it.

Each step in the process (research, networking, discussions, etc.) was performed in the context of their chosen issue and had relevance in a personal and meaningful way.  Students were empowered and motivated to see their projects through and even in the “failed” or incomplete projects, they learned valuable skills and gained a deeper understanding and appreciation for the process (if not the concept of civic engagement).  What makes PBL even more powerful is the potential for the acquired skills, knowledge, and understandings to carry over (transferability) to the next project or learning experience.  The lasting impact or significance of PBL is demonstrated when the project or learning experience “ends” and students extend the experience with what they learned and continue to build on their new skills, knowledge and understandings.

PBL was an effective tool for differentiating the content and process, in the study on the biology course for students taking it as a general education requirement with limited or no background knowledge in science (Tawfik, Trueman, and Lorz, 2014).  By learning about a complex subject through a real-world problem or situation, the students were able to connect the technical terms and concepts in a context that was relatable.  Student could then apply their own prior knowledge, skills, and experiences in this new context with which they had little expertise or even interest prior to taking the course.

If PBL allows students to gain an appreciation for the process of learning and motivates them to learn about content they have little to no prior knowledge or interest in, then it is an ideal tool for differentiation in the classroom.  PBL is effective in the classroom, if formal education is tasked with preparing our students to understand how and when they learn best, to be successful in the workplace, and to be contributing members of their respective communities.  As Brown and Adler put it, gaining knowledge is also about “learning to be” (p. 19); describing or hearing about how to “be” is not as effective as participating in how to “be”.  Students need multiple opportunities to practice and apply this in a variety of contexts and content, with the support of their peers and the guidance of their teachers.  Isn’t this the essence of education?  For me, the process has more lasting impact than the content; but the content can also inspire the product and inform the process as well.  After all, I’d like to start hearing that students love group projects as much as I do!

I have used PBL quite frequently in my youth development programs and connecting PBL to 21st Century competencies is an important part of my work.  This is a great resources if you are interested in a quick reference on what research studies support PBL (also on impacting academic achievement, equity, motivation, and teacher satisfaction).

I also thought about Tyler’s twitter question about what advice we would give to someone trying PBL for the first time; I found a cool guide to PBL that walks you through an overview and the main steps for designing a project based learning experience with real examples from teachers.  This is an awesome planning guide with document templates and resources too!  I recognized some Understanding by Design (UbD) strategies and loved the emphasis on building a culture of project based learning in the classroom!


Brammer, L. R., & Morton, A. (2014). Course-Based Civic Engagement: Understanding Student Perspectives and Outcomes. International Journal for the scholarship of teaching and learning, 8(1). Retrieved from:

Brown, J.S. & Adler, R.P. (2008). Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.0. Retrieved from:

Buck Institute for Education.  (2013).  Research Summary on the Benefits of PBL.  Retrieved from:

Patton, A.  (2012).  Work that matters The teacher’s guide to project-based learning.  Paul Hamlyn Foundation; London.  Retrieved from:

Tawfik, A., Trueman, R. J., & Lorz, M. M. (2014). Engaging non-scientists in STEM through problem-based learning and service learning. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 8(2). Retrieved from:

4 thoughts on “Connecting Differentiation & Project-Based Learning

  1. Mia,

    Thank you for the guide. I thought of Tyler’s question this week and wondered how I was going to present project based learning to my parents if ever asked. The guide helps outline the project and will help in answering parents questions or concerns. I think projects are great. They let the students work on an individual goal, but also allow them to work with a group and learn from each other.


  2. Mia, thanks for the site to the innovation unit. What a wonderful resource. I also loved this quote, “If PBL allows students to gain an appreciation for the process of learning and motivates them to learn about content they have little to no prior knowledge or interest in, then it is an ideal tool for differentiation in the classroom.” That is always the stipulation isn’t it. We can’t just delve out projects and call it PBL, otherwise we defeat the whole idea of this model. I thought you put it succinctly. Teachers need to be guides, monitoring the students through their exploration, not designing it for them through to the end.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I was one of those students and still am one of those adults that hates group projects with a passion. For me, I think it may be my personality, I’m really shy, so speaking up about something isn’t necessarily something I will do. I also am one that strives for good grades, so if someone is doing part of the project and to me it just doesn’t seem like they are trying, I would get really stressed out about my grade. Since I personally feel this way, group projects aren’t something I have my students do normally. Although since learning about differentiation, project-based-learning, and technology integration since August, I keep thinking to myself that group projects in the way that are described in the books and journal articles seem fun and maybe kids would enjoy them. We are doing a project-based-learning project on the Oregon Trail in 9th grade US History after we get back from spring break and I’m hoping it gets students more excited about school and isn’t just another thing they have to do to get to summer.


  4. Mia,
    That wasn’t long! You did a very nice job of getting right to the point of the essential question. Be aware of the ramblings on my blog! It is always interesting reading how everyone answers the question in a different way. I find that using projects in an elementary setting can be very fun, but difficult. Some students lack the ability to be assertive and are easily led off task. It also takes a lot more time to complete a group project and time is something we don’t have in excess.


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