From the Blog

Proficiency-Based Learning & Project-Based Learning: Better Together?

by Dan Liebert and Courtney Jacobs 

dan and courtney

Both proficiency-based learning and project-based learning have gained much attention over the years for the potential they offer to improve the educational experiences of students. This is a critical moment to pause and consider the ways in which each of these approaches might offer both pitfalls and possibilities for improving student engagement and performance. Now is the moment to consider how proficiency-based learning and project-based learning can be combined to improve outcomes for all students in our attempt to achieve educational equity.

Benefits and Pitfalls of Proficiency

Proficiency-based learning generally refers to a system of teaching and learning in which outcomes are clearly stated, shared, and worked toward. Assignments and assessments are aligned to these clear outcomes and a set of criteria is used to score student work against these outcomes. In a well implemented proficiency system, students understand clearly what the outcomes are for the work they are doing and understand how they are being assessed on that work. Ultimately, students internalize (that is, “own”) the learning outcomes. They use those outcomes to prompt self reflection and ownership of their learning. This results in students being highly engaged in the work they are doing in school.

At times, however, an attempt to move toward proficiency-based learning can look like schools and classrooms focusing on packets of worksheets or online modules that ask students to move through sets of questions aligned to standards, usually at their own pace. This approach may not offer students an opportunity to collaborate or to have authentic voice or choice and does not offer the opportunity for students to make connections with things they care about most. Not surprisingly, this approach can also lead to low student engagement or “box-checking” by more compliant students.

Benefits and Pitfalls of Projects

Project-based learning generally refers to a system of teaching and learning that starts with engagement in a real-world problem or question and culminates in a piece (or pieces) of student work that are related to answering this question or addressing the problem. Authentic, real-world projects start with high engagement of students in their work. In a well run project-based system, students rarely ask “Why are we learning this?” because the work begins with answering that question. Projects also give natural opportunities to collaborate and engage in critical thinking about highly relevant questions.

At times, however, project-based learning can look like teachers assigning group projects without a clear sense of how to elicit evidence of individual skills or development. At other times, it can look like projects that are highly engaging or relevant to students but do not result in evidence or strong student learning or growth. For example: students working together to clean up a neighborhood or organize an event. While organizing an event could offer the opportunity for students to develop critical skills, without a clear sense ahead of time of what those skills are and how they will be practiced and demonstrated, teachers run the risk of students enjoying a project but not learning much from it.

Why and How are the Components of Proficiency- and Project-Based Learning Better Together?

A thoughtful combination of project- and proficiency-based learning can result in resolving some of the pitfalls of each approach. When students are clear about the outcomes they are trying to achieve, as well as the criteria for success in their work (proficiency) and are engaged in authentic, meaningful questions and work (projects), they get the best of both worlds. 

One of the first principles of proficiency-based learning is to be crystal clear about outcomes. What are the proficiencies that projects are aligned to? A good project is aligned to outcomes that are clear to the teacher and the student. In fact, this is the first element of effective instruction: “…learning outcomes are shared and internalized by teachers and students. Outcomes are understood and used by students to set goals, guide learning, and prompt self-reflection.”

This is at the heart of what good projects do: They are clearly aligned to standards and indicators. See, for example, the project Change We Can See: Making the Invisible Visible. It begins with a crystal clear explanation about the transferable skills and English language arts indicators that will be addressed during the work of the project. 

Another component of proficiency-based learning that blends well with project-based learning is the student centered-ness of the work. In the components of a project, all of the formative assessments are designed to give feedback and practice so the student can track their own growth in achieving the knowledge and skills necessary to complete the project. When students can see the connection between the work they are doing, and self assess against success criteria, they can begin to internalize the outcomes. 

While engagement can be created by devising meaningful and authentic work for students to grapple with, without alignment to standards and indicators, project-based learning can sometimes miss the mark in terms of producing evidence of work that students can use to assess their own growth. See, for example, this article: How can you tell the difference between projects and project-based learning? The opening line says it all: “Turns out, even though they both might involve snazzy projects, they are quite different.” A good project is more than engaging; it is aligned to outcomes that are clearly needed for students to succeed.

Without a proficiency approach to student work, we risk providing engaging work that lacks the focus and alignment to standards. Without project-based approach, we risk creating teacher-centered assessments that are not meaningful or engaging to students. The solution lies in bringing proficiency and projects together.