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Why Project-Based Learning Motivates Students

How Project-Based Learning Motivates Students

How can we motivate our students? Rewards? Punishments? Brownie points? Rules? What works for one student may not work for another. That's why teacher-centered strategies often fail to create student engagement.

Not surprisingly, student-centered classrooms tend to have greater engagement. One method we can use to build a student-centered classroom is project-based learning (PBL). Research provides seven reasons that PBL helps motivate learners.

Reason 1: Students gain autonomy.

In an exploration of more than 50 years of research, Daniel Pink found that autonomy of work is a greater driver of motivation than rewards (grades) or punishments (88). Conversely, rote instruction with little student interaction or project work is a leading cause of apathy. Our students need to have a “sense of control over the work” in order to be engaged and motivated (Headden and McKay 4).

Project-based learning gives our students control of their work in both a literal and figurative sense. In a PBL classroom, students are involved in the entire process of school projects, from conception to completion. They ask original questions, research topics that interest them, and complete projects of their own choosing. We teachers function as facilitators throughout the process, giving tips and advice more often than giving answers. Such autonomy provides our students a strong sense of independence, ownership, and self-worth.

Reason 2: Classrooms become collaborative communities.

In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Pink concludes that in school or at work, true motivation stems from doing interesting work with supportive colleagues. To feel supported, our students must feel included and needed in a classroom of peers. Students who connect with highly engaged peers become more highly engaged themselves (Headden and McKay 17).

This sense of community is instilled in project-based classrooms. Group work is common, with teams of students asking questions and working through complex problems. The best results come from giving our students equal opportunities to contribute. Sarah Rodriguez’s fourth grade PBL class used group work to raise community awareness of invasive species. She found that peer-to-peer collaboration developed a feeling of belonging in students, especially ESL students.

Reason 3: Students work on real-world projects.

Researchers point to real-world applicability as another driver of student engagement. In a study of 262 high school students, researcher Chris Hulleman found that students who wrote about the usefulness of the course material to their lives reported a higher interest in science than students who simply wrote summaries of the material (1410). Meanwhile, ASCD’s The Motivated Brain notes that “offering students choices of problems and issues to address in math, science, and social studies that affect or will affect their world in the future can be more motivating than traditional textbook work” (Gregory and Kaufeldt).

In a PBL classroom, we encourage our students to connect their projects to their lives and communities. As a result, our students take greater ownership of their learning, and engagement increases. Instead of simply presenting a civics unit prior to an election, we can get students to create a non-partisan Web site that explores key political issues and separates facts from spin. Instead of expecting our students simply to be consumers of information, we can inspire them to be producers of it.

Reason 4: Instructors provide constructive feedback.

The feedback we give our students can drive or stall motivation. We must craft feedback to avoid alienating our students and perpetuating fixed mindsets. For example, feedback focused solely on rewards (grades, stickers, money) or punishment (criticism) actually inhibits motivation (Kohn 17). Research shows that strategic positive encouragement and feedback is a better approach. To motivate students, our feedback should be constructive, targeting individuals' sense of self-worth, belonging, and competency. Our feedback is most motivating when we show a genuine desire to help and we avoid any gender or racial bias (Yeager et al. 806).

In a project-based classroom, we strive to facilitate rather than lecture. Instead of being the "sage on the stage," we try to function as a "guide on the side." We collaborate with our students, pointing them to sources of information and processes needed for learning and discovery. Above all else, we try to provide frequent and constructive feedback. We attend to our students’ varying personalities, backgrounds, and competencies.

Reason 5: Students get up and move.

The word motivate derives from the Latin movere, meaning “to move.” Research shows that moving is good for the brain. It increases blood flow and releases endorphins and hormones. When we provide an environment that creates more movement, students learn more easily and have greater motivation. Conversely, if we make our kids sit still for long stretches, blood flow to their brains decreases, and they become tired and sleepy.

Successful PBL is active, even playful. In a PBL classroom, our students get up and move. We arrange the classroom so that our students can interact, collaborate, experiment, build, design, draw, brainstorm, problem-solve, and fully engage the topics we are teaching. All of those activities promote movement.

Reason 6: Projects present rigor.

Students are motivated by challenges, but not challenges that they think are too difficult. The Motivated Brain cites the Yerkes-Dodson Law of Arousal, which explains that as stress and pressure rise, performance usually improves, but only to a certain point: Too much stress is defeating, while too little stress is boring (Gregory and Kaufeldt). We constantly have to strike a balance by creating challenges that motivate our students.

In PBL classrooms, our students collaborate with us in setting up expectations for projects. They review the standards and think about the content they need to learn, and then they help build a project plan right alongside us. They create rubrics along with us as well and take ownership in setting rigorous goals. All through the project, we help our students realize when they aren't trying to accomplish enough, or when they are trying to accomplish too much. Therefore, our students learn that they are responsible for their own motivation. They gain flexibility and initiative, two critical life skills.

Reason 7: Students are given space to fail.

Perseverance in the face of failure is a mark of motivation. This ability doesn’t come easily. Psychology professor Angela Duckworth points to grit—the perseverance and passion for pursuing long-term goals—as a determining factor in student success. To develop grit, our students must commit to and pursue goals. Our students also must be given the opportunity for “multiple rehearsals” with content or skills to achieve success and develop mastery (Duckworth et al. 1087). Failure is a big part of this process. We need to show students how to deal with and learn from failure. We need to help them persist to achieve success.

In PBL classrooms, our students are encouraged to test, tinker, and create prototypes of ideas in pursuit of their goals and objectives. Often, these initial attempts will fail, just like initial prototypes in any area of engineering or design. Experimentation drives innovation, and experimentation sometimes involves failure. We can teach our students that failure is okay as long as it promotes learning. With PBL, we give our students the time, space, and support they need to persevere, learn, and succeed. They in turn develop passion and grit as lifelong learners.


Duckworth, Angela L., Christopher Peterson, Michael D. Matthews, and Dennis R. Kelly. “Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 92.6 (2007): 1087-101.

Gregory, Gayle, and Martha Kaufeldt. The Motivated Brain: Improving Student Attention, Engagement, and Perseverance. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2015.

Headden, Susan, and Sarah McKay. “Motivation Matters: How New Research Can Help Teachers Boost Student Engagement.” Carnegie Foundation for Advancement of Teaching (2015): 2 October 2015.

Hulleman, Chris S. and Judith M. Harackiewicz, “Promoting Interest and Performance in High School Science 
Class.” Science 326, no. 5958 (2009): 1410-12.

Kohn, Alfie. Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1993.

Pink, Daniel. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York: Riverhead Books, 2009.

Yeager, David S., et al. “Breaking the Cycle of Mistrust: Wise Interventions to Provide Critical Feedback Across the Racial Divide.” The Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 143.2 (2014): 804-24.

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