Understanding how students learn in project-based courses: A review of literature

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    Project-based learning is a key ingredient in most engineering education programs. Trained instructors that use traditional classroom teaching methods can often easily spot when students grasp key learning outcomes simply by observing students’ face and body language. However, in project-based courses instructors only interact occasionally with students (e.g. in supervision meetings, milestone meetings, and lab exercises). At exams, students demonstrate that they have indeed grasped the course’s key learning outcomes. But how? And why? That project-based courses result in deep learning with long retention is well documented in literature. However, under-researched is the question of which particular circumstances induce or facilitate the learning. The purpose of this study is to gain a better understanding of the causes for learning in project-based courses. To identify the learning-inducing causes in project-based courses, this study reviews extant literature. Three distinct categories of learning-inducing causes appear in the literature: instructor-directed learning, team-directed learning, and individual self-directed learning. The study presents results within each category. One distinct finding is how the team’s application of the project methodology facilitates several important means for learning. Examples are (a) breaking down a project into its components parts and (b) summarizing and presenting progress in status reports and pitches. Literature focuses (perhaps not surprisingly) on how instructors can facilitate learning. Missing in literature are learning-inducing causes related to the individual student and, in particular, the students relations to outsiders on and off campus.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationProceedings of the SEFI 47th Annual Conference
    PublisherEuropean Society for Engineering Education (SEFI)
    Publication date2019
    ISBN (Print)978-2-87352-018-2
    Publication statusPublished - 2019
    EventThe 47th SEFI Annual Conference: Varietas delectat… Complexity is the new normality - Budapest University of Technology and Economics, Budapest, Hungary
    Duration: 16 Sep 201919 Sep 2019
    Conference number: 47


    ConferenceThe 47th SEFI Annual Conference
    LocationBudapest University of Technology and Economics
    Internet address


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