One of the greatest challenges of instructional design is finding the right practical activities that allow learners to use the new knowledge in relevant, day-to-day situations. However, even when the learning infrastructure allows for immersive experiences, they are not quite the same as reality. The bottom line is, one of the most effective ways to learn something is by doing it.

Based on David Kolb’s theory of experiential learning, project-based learning (PBL) advocates learning by doing — actually seeing projects through. The idea is that instead of engaging in various practice situations and activities, learners apply the new knowledge and skills to solve a problem or make progress on an actual project. There has to be a set time for completion and specific details about the desired outcomes.


Read more: Adult learning theories for instructional designers: Experiential learning


PBL is less time consuming

One of the most frequent objections to corporate learning programs is that they take precious time out of the workday. While it’s clear that no time spent learning is ever wasted, regardless of what short-term oriented managers have to say, deploying training as PBL has the advantage of not taking hours away from the business.

Employees engaged in PBL will be working on something relevant to their team and their effort will be directed towards solving a current issue. This will make things a lot smoother with the team leaders while also demonstrating the usefulness of the intervention. It’s always good to show participants how new knowledge or a set of skills can positively impact their performance. 

PBL leads to higher retention rates

Generally, people remember and internalize what they find useful to them – whether in a professional capacity or their personal lives. Since PBL is all about working on what they would be tackling anyway at some point, employees find it more engaging and relevant than content that might or might not be of use to them sometime in the future.

With PBL, learners can immediately start to apply emerging skills and start the journey towards proficiency. Furthermore, learning in the context of ample projects helps develop complex cognitive skills, such as problem-solving, collaboration, lateral thinking, and project management. PBL is also excellent for giving learners the confidence to apply the new skills successfully once the learning intervention ends.


Read more: 8 Practical skills remote employees need to develop right now


PBL is great for L&D

There are many advantages to this approach to learning. L&D professionals are aware of the constant challenge of demonstrating quantifiable results and calculating the ROI of learning. Taking the PBL route ensures that the results are immediate and perfectly tailored to help reach the organizational objectives.

Participant engagement is also significantly improved because completing the learning projects means doing the job in a safer environment, where mistakes are allowed, and there is constant support and collaboration.

PBL does not take as long to design as traditional courses and has the great advantage of increasing L&D visibility and reputation in the organization. 

Tips for doing PBL right

  • Find real challenges. PBL has to be more than simply doing “business as usual” with a critical eye for possible improvements; an open-ended problem or question is best for this type of learning intervention;
  • Make learning objectives very clear, so people know what they are learning and practicing;
  • Choose projects that are meaningful and relevant; otherwise, they won’t be more successful than role-playing or simulations;
  • Offer continuous support, whether it takes the form of a facilitator, a coach a senior leader, or an important sponsor. Depending on the project’s complexity, you might need several people to fulfill these roles; 
  • Allow time for reflection. Even if employees are working on projects essential for their jobs, it’s still a learning experience, and they will need time to reflect on it and draw their own conclusions.
  • Build an environment that encourages collaboration and offers visibility in the organization. This way, the program will gain much attention and possibly more resources than you initially anticipated. 

Read more: 5 Tips on sustaining collaboration in remote teams


Possible downsides of PBL 

As a means of learning, PBL is all-around great. However, if you don’t promote it properly and get the buy-in from stakeholders and decision-makers, there’s a chance it won’t have an impact. 

If employees are stuck working on regular projects instead of meaningful, open-ended situations for learning purposes (albeit with extra support and maybe coaching), there won’t be much progress where new information and skills are concerned.

It’s important to advertise PBL for what it is so that everyone understands it needs time and space for trial and error. Experiential learning is only valuable if genuine experimenting is encouraged.


Read more: How to market your digital training programs within the organization


Wrapping up

PBL has several advantages. Not only is it highly engaging for participants, but it allows the organization to find innovative solutions to existing issues. The impact of learning is immediate and visible, giving L&D the chance to shine and learners enough reasons to feel good about their progress and achievements. 

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