Constructing Learning through Projects

At its heart, learning is defined by change; i.e. because of learning, the learner exhibits a change in behavior and/or performance (Gagne, 1965; Schunk, 1991; Ertmer & Newby, 1993; De Houwer, Barnes-Holmes, & Moores, 2013; Driscoll, 2004).  Of course, the methodology by which how this change is best accomplished has been a foundational concern of instructional design since its inception as a field of inquiry.  Professionals in the field of instructional design have traditionally sought the answer to this question within the theories of Behaviorism, Cognitivism, and Constructivism (Winn & Snyder, 1989, Ertmer & Newby, 1993, and Reiser, 2001).  A primary distinction between each theory is, at its core, how change is achieved through that theory’s approach to learner motivation.  Specifically, Behavioral theories tend to focus on extrinsic motivation (i.e. rewards) while Cognitive and Constructivist theories deal with intrinsic motivation (i.e. goals) (Weiner, 1990).

Savery and Duffy (2001) argue that Constructivist learning theory and principles can best guide instructional designers to design instruction and learning environments that support achievement of learning objectives.  As defined by Savery and Duffy (2001), Constructivism is characterized by three primary propositions: (1) understanding is in our interactions with the environment, (2) cognitive conflict or puzzlement is the stimulus for learning and determines the organization and nature of what is learned, and (3) knowledge evolves through social negotiation and through the evaluation of the viability of individual understandings.  From these propositions, instructional principles are derived which are in turn reflected in Howard Barrows (1985, 1992) problem-based learning model.  Problem-based learning (PBL) is an instructional model in which learners are “actively engaged in working at tasks and activities which are authentic to the environment in which they would be used” (Savery & Duffy, 2001, p. 14).  Furthermore, learners are “encouraged and expected to think both critically and creatively and to monitor their own understanding, i.e. function at a metacognitive level”, and to engage in social negotiation to problem solve and determine factual understanding.  (Savery & Duffy, 2001, p. 14).

The PBL approach to learning through exploration of authentic tasks and real-world application is reflected in current research into instructional design models that seek to teach students through technology-based projects and interactions.  For example, Vratulis and Morton (2011) explored the integration of digital learning technologies in a pre-service music teacher education program to foster an expanded understanding and pedagogical approach to music literacy. In the study, musical and peer learning was facilitated through use of Garageband Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software and discussion and presentation of work via an online forum.  Similarly, Mardini (2013) investigated the integration of projects, real-life experience, and learning through student-relevant activities and online social interaction as an alternative to traditional writing-intensive courses.  In both studies, Constructivism is evident (and explicitly referenced) as the applied learning theory, and PBL as the defining instructional model.

As designers seek to create technology-based learner-centered instruction that is relevant to an increasingly diverse student population, it is evident that PBL grounded in Constructivism offers a model which provides needed flexibility and adaptability.  However, questions arise as to how the PBL model might be applied in K-12 professional development (PD), in which training is traditionally limited to a session lasting a set (and usually short) period.  In the Vratulis & Morton (2011) study, for example, the researchers acknowledge that developing critical awareness and engaging in reflective thinking, as well as developing required technical skills, takes time.  Thus, an exploration of how PBL is, has been, or theoretically could be applied in K-12 PD is needed.


Barrows, H. (1986). A Taxonomy of Problem Based Learning Methods. Medical Education, 20, 481- 486.

Barrows, H. (1992). The Tutorial Process. Springfield, IL: Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.

De Houwer, J., Barnes-Holmes, D., & Moors, A. (2013). What is learning? On the nature and merits of a functional definition of learning. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review20(4), 631-642.

Driscoll, M. (2004). Psychology of learning for instruction (3rd ed.). Boston: Pearson.

Ertmer, P., & Newby, T. (1993). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly26(2), 43-71.

Gagné, R. (1965). The conditions of learning. New York, London: Holt, Rinehart & Winston

Mardini, J. (2013). Creating and evaluating an online and work-based instructional model. Higher Education, Skills and Work-based Learning, 3, 30-50, doi: 10.1108/20423891311294975

Reiser, R. (2001). A history of instructional design and technology: Part II: A history of instructional design. Educational Technology Research and Development49(2), 57-67.

Savery, J. & Duffy, T. (2001). Problem based learning: An instructional model and its constructivist framework.  Center for Research on Learning and Technology Technical Report No. 16-01, Retrieved from

Schunk, D. (1991). Learning theories. Boston: Pearson.

Vratulis, V. & Morton, C. (2011). A case study exploring the use of garageband and an electronic bulletin board in preservice music education.  Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 11(4), 398-419.

Weiner, B. (1990). History of motivational research in education. Journal of Educational Psychology82(4), 616-622.

Winn, W., & Snyder, D. (1996). Cognitive perspectives in psychology. In D. H. Jonassen (Ed.), Handbook of Research for Educational Communications and Technology (pp. 112-142). New York: Macmillan.

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