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Effective collaboration with project-based learning

Project-based learning is more than just teamwork. Using this university teaching method, students can learn from the diversity of their group members and, at the same time, contribute their skills and ideas.

What is a project?

“Project” refers to a form of work in which students work independently on a complex problem within a certain period of time in order to present practical results (“products”) at the end. Projects are usually worked on in teams, so that not only the individual work process has to be organized but also the group work process. Learning and teaching in projects uses this form of work as a framework that addresses and develops a wide range of student skills. In this way, students acquire and refine essential project management skills. Project-oriented learning can be organized in a variety of ways. Projects can have different complex and technically demanding problems as their starting point, they can take different lengths of time to complete, and they can have different commissioners. There are projects that are initiated by the students themselves, those that are commissioned by external cooperation partners, and projects where the teachers specify the tasks and forms of cooperation. Projects can relate to completely different subjects – in addition to technical, economic, or social topics, students can also tackle learning itself in a project (cf. Gerber, Grünvögel & van Treeck, 2016).

What is project-based learning?

Project-based learning by Sprouts Germany. This video is also available in English.

Step by step: project-based learning

The starting point for the students is a complex problem or a specific task. With a well-formulated learning outcome, you can derive a project framework from the project’s purpose, within which a concrete complex action is to take place, which must be a (slight) reduction in the complexity of the framework to be achievable and assessable.

Students work independently on assignments and questions. They must also define learning objectives.

Students organize their team independently, for example, by leading discussions, assigning roles, writing protocols, formulating, distributing, and completing assignments. The students are responsible for planning the project. This means that they must independently define and develop milestones, project structure, and solutions to problems.

In this step, the students work in teams, bring together their different ways of thinking and working, and discuss and make decisions together. They monitor the project and reflect on the progress. Together, assignments are completed and results achieved.

The team presents the results of their work to an audience and documents them for further use if necessary. Finally, the students should reflect on the project together or individually, for example, in a portfolio.

What is the purpose of learning in projects?

Project-based learning is a didactic arrangement that initiates and promotes sustainable learning. In teamwork, students benefit from the diversity of the group and can contribute individual skills, learn as a team, and work on their own skills. Studies show that students improve numerous skills through project-based learning (cf. Chen & Yang, 2019; Efstratia, 2014; Lasauskiene & Rauduvaite 2015):

  • Decision-making competence
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Communication skills
  • Cooperation competence
  • Self-directed and self-regulated learning
  • Self-efficacy
  • Time management

However, project-based learning is also a challenge that must be well supported by the teacher.

Assessment with project-based learning

Project-based learning can refer to individual short-term sequences (for example, in a combination of lecture and project-based learning) or determine an entire module as a methodological principle. The performance assessments must be designed accordingly. In general, however, the examination has to relate both to the result (“product”) and the work process so that students have an incentive to get involved in the project and to work according to the intended learning outcomes.

Suitable forms of examination depend on the outcome:

  • Functional testing of the product: The usability of designed products can be tested together. For this purpose, it is useful for you as a teacher to formulate the minimum and maximum criteria of the learning outcome of the course that can be achieved for the product within the project.
  • Presentation with discussion: A final presentation allows students to present the results of their work and receive feedback. Both positive and critical feedback can boost self-confidence and promote further development. It is often the reflective treatment or, more specifically, the presentation of a result to a stakeholder (with advantages and disadvantages, science-based classification, involvement of the target group) that is the aim of a project-based approach.
  • (e-)Portfolio: A portfolio enables reflection on the entire work process by integrating artifacts/intermediate products created during the course and allows for an assessment of individual performance. This can be easily implemented with the THspaces tool. There, students can set up their own spaces in which they can document their reflections. ILU also has a portfolio function.

Designing a project-based course

A setting that requires students to work on problems independently and collaboratively to a high degree must be well organized. Preparation and implementation are a challenge for many teachers and can, therefore, be a deterrent (cf. Lasauskiene & Rauduvaite, 2015). But it doesn’t have to! The following checklist will help you prepare in no time at all.

  • Which relevant skills should the students be able to acquire in the project and why?
  • To what extent do I want to combine theory and practice in the project?
  • What is the context of the course in relation to the degree program?
  • How do I want to present the learning outcomes and assessment criteria to the students? (Transparency)
  • Do I assess the learning outcomes as a project result/product or as a learning process that leads to a result?
  • How do I design the assessment criteria so that the requirements are transparent and individual results can be assessed at the same time?
  • How do I formulate the task or problem at the beginning of the project in such a way that the students
    • can analyze it themselves,
    • derive work phases (milestones) and
    • plan action steps (methods)?
  • Do I introduce a certain methodology?
  • Have I encouraged a careful clarification and distribution of the roles within the project and have I considered how to communicate them to the students: commissioner, project manager, project staff, coach/supervisor, examiner?
  • What role do I play in supervising the projects? Do I answer questions, give feedback, provide materials (or not)?
  • How do I mediate conflicts?
  • Do I support the process in any other way?
  • Can I and do I want to work with student tutors?
  • What work and advice do I give the tutors?
  • How do I support the tutors – how and when am I available to them as a supervisor?
  • How do I ensure that the outcome remains open at the beginning of the project – since the challenge is mainly for the students to come up with their own solutions?
  • How do I moderate and organize the presentation (including mid-term presentations if necessary) of the project results and the testing of the product?

Experiences from teaching

Cologne University of Applied Sciences

The University’s Interdisciplinary Project Week (HIP) at TH Cologne is an established digital format for interdisciplinary collaboration beyond faculty and subject boundaries. Students learn to operate in heterogeneous teams and develop an understanding of methods from other disciplines.

Dresden University of Technology

In the podcast Trafohaus//Lehre by Hochschuldidaktik Sachsen, Katharina Porepp and Dr. Robert Fischer report on the implementation, lessons learned, and advantages of project-based learning in mechanical engineering.

Links & Literature

  • This article is based on the brochure “Project-based learning” by Susanne Gotzen from the Center for Academic Development (ZLE) at TH Cologne. The brochure is licensed under CC BY 4.0.
  • Chen, C.-H., Yang, Y.-C. (2019). Revisiting the Effects of Project-Based Learning on Student’s Academic Achievements: A Meta-Analysis Investigating Moderators. Educational Research Review, 26, p. 71–81.
  • Efstratia, D. (2014). Experiential Education through Project Based Learning. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 152, p. 1256–1260.
  • Gerber, Julia, Grünvogel, Stefan M., & Treeck, Timo van. (2016). Selbstmanagement in der Studieneingangsphase: Der Entwicklungsprozess eines Moduls. In: Neues Handbuch Hochschullehre. Berlin: DUZ Verlags- und Medienhaus. grip mark F 1.15.
  • Lasauskiene, J., Rauduvaite, A. (2015). Project-Based Learning at Universities: Teaching Experiences of Lecturers. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 197, p. 788–792.
  • Markowitsch, J., Messerer, K., Prokopp, M. (2004): Handbuch praxisorientierter Hochschulbildung, Wien.
  • Landwehr, N., Mueller, E. (2006): Begleitetes Selbststudium Didaktische Grundlagen und Umsetzungshilfen, Bern.
  • Reinmann, G.: Forschendes Lernen und wissenschaftliches Prüfen: Die potentielle und faktische Rolle der digitalen Medien (zu Forschendem Lernen 1970 und heute). Recorded lecture series (German).

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  • Michéle Seidel

    Michéle Seidel (M.A.) is a research assistant at the Center for Academic Development at the TH Köln University of Applied Sciences with a focus on hybrid/digital teaching, social online learning environments, science communication and research.

  • Susanne Gotzen

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