How Hands-On Learning Makes a Difference

Middle School students working with microscopes; Hands-on, Project-Based Learning; Private School in Houston

If you’re a person of a certain age, then your elementary educational experience was probably something like this:

Your elementary school teacher’s job was to impart all of her wisdom and knowledge, to be a sage on the stage. Maybe you took notes while sitting in nice, neat, quiet rows. Perhaps you completed worksheets with 100 problems on them where your job was to finish the even numbers. The only way to prove you learned was to pass a test full of more questions than logic would deem feasible.

As it turns out, that’s not the best way to learn! This method is far too passive, it fails to engage students in a meaningful way, and it encourages the short-term retention of information rather than the long-term internalizing of true knowledge. If you’re like most people, you don’t remember much from those lessons, and you probably forgot much of that info shortly after you finished the test.

What you probably remember, though, are the times you applied that knowledge to something other than a test. You remember having a hands-on experience, creating a model, conducting an experiment, or working collaboratively with your peers on a project. These lessons or concepts had greater sticking power. Now imagine that those projects were asking you to grapple with authentic challenges facing the world and respond to complex, nuanced questions that require careful thought and therefore challenge learners. Further imagine working on projects and challenges that connect academics and communication skills into a meaningful project.

That concept is called project-based learning (PBL) which the website PBL Works defines as “a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge.”


Students working on a collaborative hands-on project; The Branch School; Private School in Houston

Why Project-Based Learning?

PBL provides an avenue for learning that is deep and encourages retention. It inspires in students a love of learning and a personal connection to their academic experience so they internalize new knowledge in ways that a regular lesson can’t match. It helps them work to solve and process through real-world problems.

In simpler terms, if you want your students to learn something completely, to understand all aspects of a topic, and to remember what they’ve learned long after you’ve tested them over it, you need to give them a project that requires them to apply and process the knowledge they acquired in the classroom and beyond.

PBL combines meaningful work with content mastery, and the result is a personal connection and powerful learning experience. “Transformative” has become a buzzword in today’s educational landscape, but it certainly fits here. PBL gives students the opportunity to tackle new projects, overcome obstacles, and challenge themselves in ways that better prepare them for life after school. It’s not a stretch to say that the student you talk to at the end of the project is a different person than the one who began it.

Engaging in PBL is a new experience for students, one that lets them solve problems important to them and the community at large. Projects can often give them a chance to interact with adults, businesses, organizations, and community groups, which helps them develop social skills outside a school or family setting. Working with these groups, or attempting to solve real-world problems, gives students a sense of purpose and initiative so they feel in control of their own learning. Finally, PBL can incorporate a variety of technologies, from research and collaboration to product creation and presentation, so that students stay current on the creative tools and trends.


Middle school students participating in an archaeological dig; Project-Based Learning; Private School in Houston


Research has shown that PBL raises student achievement no matter the educational setting or the student’s socioeconomic status. More and more school districts are adopting PBL strategies across their systems to create students who are knowledgeable, critical thinkers, communicators, collaborators, creators, and ultimately contributors to the world. If you want more efficient instruction, if you want a more impactful education, and if you want to help prepare your child for the world that awaits them, then there’s simply no substitute for Project-Based Learning.