How to maximise project-based learning in FE

It's when projects revolve around tough, real-world problems that students thrive, says Dawn Buzzard

Project-based learning: how to make it work in FE

Project-based learning (PBL) is catching on: its value to students is increasingly being recognised by both educators and employers.

It focuses on the development of a student’s critical thinking and problem-solving skills, rather than just their ability to retain knowledge. This type of "active learning" is central to the career colleges concept, which focuses on preparing young people for fulfilling employment.

But despite the will to implement PBL, many schools and colleges are still struggling to integrate it properly into the curriculum. Projects may be offered, but often as an extracurricular activities rather than an integral part of a course or qualification. And, in some cases, students working on large projects are still struggling to develop the skills needed to deliver successful outcomes.


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True PBL has to be based around a thorny, real-world problem. Ideally, this is presented by a real employer, who sets the issue out in the context of the wider industry. Students work in groups to devise a solution, which should then be peer-reviewed and critiqued by their peers, tutors and the employer. Work can then be revised, further developed and presented to a professional panel – hopefully, in a commercial or vocational environment, to mirror the world of work.

This is the ideal scenario, allowing students to identify the skills they need, self-assess their own abilities and work out how to build their own skills. Employer-led masterclasses are a great way to develop specialist skills of a group, as well as providing highly valued industry input into a project.

Employer mentors can also help at a more individual level, and site visits will inject realism and motivation. Digital technology can be used to effectively involve employers, reducing the time commitment they need to make – and reaching diverse groups of students in a range of locations.

What's going wrong?

So what’s going wrong with this seemingly straightforward but valuable concept?

Too often, we see students being set off on a project without being supported to understand the teaching, learning and assessment methods involved. This leads to participants failing to value the experience or get the most out of it.

Understandably, students can lack project management skill – as this is something they need to learn. They can also struggle with self-assessment and are not always prepared to interact with employers or accept feedback on how to improve.

Self-reflection is crucial for self-development, yet something that young people can consider a waste of time. Presentations can also lack professional flair, being poorly-thought-out and with nerves adversely affecting performance. These issues are inevitable when PBL is first introduced to young people, yet can lead to a well-thought-out project becoming a real waste of time.

How to implement PBL

So what can be done to ensure PBL is properly implemented and delivers the huge benefits it is capable of?

In our experience, the introduction of a short scaffold project can be key. Each element (presentation skills, group working and so on) is introduced, and the students are encouraged to explore and experiment in a supported environment. We then suggest introducing a second project, which offers less support and helps students to work more independently. By the time a third project is introduced, students can tackle the problem with minimal support, performing beyond their own, and their tutors', expectations – and impressing future employers.

Teachers need to be properly supported to deliver PBL. They need time to plan and develop project briefs, as well as help to contact and work with employers. Employers themselves need support to understand exactly what PBL is and how they can get involved with the design and delivery of such projects.

Employers of all sizes can be involved – small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) may have less resources to offer, but planned effectively they can be highly valuable to PBL. For example, if an employer has three hours, this can be divided up into an hour to introduce the project, an hour in the middle to provide feedback and an hour at the end for the presentations. It’s not about employers giving vast amounts of time to run a project – it’s about making the connection with an employer and using the time they have available in the best possible way.

SMEs make great partners for small pilot projects, and it can be a valuable activity for the business and its employees, helping to safeguard their future employee pipeline.

In a recent project we ran with our career colleges, we asked a marketing agency to deliver a webinar for students on how to support effective recruitment. This took about an hour of the agency’s time – which it used as a corporate social responsibility (CSR) opportunity and as CPD for its own staff. We then shared the recorded webinar across our whole career college network, proving a valuable resource for all our students.

At the other end of the scale, a large construction company worked with one of our career colleges on a two-year project. Students designed a 3D digital model of a building to a commercial design brief. These students were taken through the design brief by the employer and visited various sites at different stages of construction. They also had the opportunity to consult with the clients, research building regulations and design guidelines, meet with architects and basically manage their own projects.  

The above is an excellent example of a true PBL project. It requires teacher input in the planning and facilitation stages, as well as cooperation from support staff.  A first project shouldn’t be rushed – it’s worth taking the time to plan it well and build in time for a staff, student and employer debrief. 

The worth of PBL

Crucially, teaching staff should draw support from the professionals who are used to dealing with employers. Most colleges have an employer-facing team and these colleagues can be of great help. Employers expect professional interaction and will need to be supported when working with your students. They need to understand the timelines students will be working on, as these may well be longer than those of a commercial project.  

PBL is hugely valuable and has excellent outcomes for students. For the past three years, the Career Colleges Trust has worked with Amazon Web Services to deliver a large project to digital students from four separate colleges. This has resulted in the offer of apprenticeships for standout students – as well as developing the employability skills of every single participant.

We work with our colleges to integrate PBL into the curriculum, offering a half-day introductory workshop. We have also developed a three-week PBL induction project for colleges to use with their students, including a teacher support pack. As a result, teachers are able to build students’ skills and support them to interact with employers and professionals in a safe and controlled environment.

With T levels around the corner, schools and colleges need to recognise the importance of PBL – effectively supporting their students to integrate ‘knowing with doing’ – and help them solve real problems in an effective way.

Dawn Buzzard is the director of e-learning at the Career Colleges Trust

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