Student Motivation: Project Based Learning Versus Direct Instruction

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This literature review looks into Project-based learning and how it plays a role into increasing student motivation versus direct instruction. The guiding question for this literature review is, how is project-based learning increasing student motivation and engagement. This literature review covers the definition of project-based learning, student motivation, the teacher perceptions, and the challenges that project-based learning can bring. While doing my research I used the search databases, ERIC and ProQuest and the key words, project-based learning, active learning, student motivation, direct instruction, and secondary education. These search parameters brought up many articles about how students are affected by project-based learning and how the teachers perceive it as a way of instruction. I consistently found that when students are taught by project-based learning their motivation and their ability to self-regulate and I also found that teachers do struggle with trying to incorporate all their state standards into the a project-based learning instruction. They also find that time constraints make it hard to use this approach as well. The findings of this review of the literature found that student motivation was increased when project-based learning was use as the way of instruction. While not all of the studies came to this conclusion, the vast majority of them did. With these strong findings I was able to come to the conclusion that project-based learning is a useful way to teach students and increase their motivation.


Project-based learning (PBL) may look and feel like a 21st century idea, especially when infused with technology, but it’s actually built on a venerable foundation. Confucius and Aristotle were early advocates of learning by doing and Socrates modeled how to learn through questioning, inquiry, and critical thinking, all strategies that remain very relevant in todays PBL classrooms. PBL was adopted as a teaching strategy in early childhood in England in the 1920’s. John Dewey and William H. Kilpatrick ‘s philosophies help implemented PBL into the America’s.

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PBL is a dynamic classroom approach in which students actively explore real-world problems and challenges and acquire a deeper knowledge. According to Helle, Tynjala, and Olkinuora (2006), project based learning involves the solution of a problem, which often, but not required, is set by the student him or herself, it involves initiative by the student or group of students, and require a variety of educational activities, it also commonly results in an end project, takes a considerable amount of time and the teacher is more there as an advisory rather than an authoritarian. PBL provides opportunities for students to develop: problem-solving and critical-thinking skills; communication and collaboration skills; the ability to work independently, work effectively, and manage time; and, overall confidence and responsibility (MacMath, Sivia, Britton, 2017). PBL is often associated with the constructivist theory of learning, which posits learners to take an active part in generating meaning and constructing their own understanding (Carter, 2016).

Although PBL is becoming more popular these days with 21st century learners it does comes with some challenges, it is demanding of students and of teachers. It is especially challenging for teachers who have never experience PBL before. This type of learning requires lots of projects that require lots of planning and management skills that may be unfamiliar. PBL also puts teachers in the role of facilitator rather than classroom expert. It is not all about just doing projects as much as it is more than simple “real-life” experiential activity. “Implementing project-based learning involves a dramatic departure from traditional modes of teaching, thus, a teacher used to that style of teaching would undergo some degree of awareness of difference between their past teaching practices and the new approach with project-based learning” (Harris, 2014).

PBL projects are central, not peripheral to the curriculum, the projects are the curriculum and the central teaching strategy; students encounter and learn the central concepts of the discipline via the project (Thomas, 2000). Project based learning provides more real life instead of school like projects. This way learning incorporates real-life challenges where the focus is on authentic problems or questions and where solutions have the potential to be implemented. PBL allows the teacher to teach beyond the textbook and be able to incorporate engaging real-world activities and projects into lessons, and actively teach alongside students as they learn. It also further enables students to develop not only the knowledge, but also the skills necessary for success in school and in life.

The purpose of this literature review is to see how project based learning is increasing student motivation and engagement. Also how effective it is versus direct instruction. This study is important because like I said up above it has becoming a big part of teachers are teaching now because students are able to make decisions for themselves rather the teacher playing a huge roll in the decision making. Student motivation plays is a huge part in how well students will pay attention in class, with every generation comes a new way of teaching. Students have a smaller attention span compared to past generations and require new skills and techniques in order to be taught. In this literature review I am looking more on the side of how students are affected by PBL but I will also include some views of how teachers are affected by it as well. By including both I am able to cover both sides of how PBL works in the school system.


In response to the research question, How is project based learning increasing student motivation and engagement, EBSCEO, ERIC and ProQuest databases were searched using terms such as project based learning, active learning, student motivation, and influence in order to locate peer-reviewed or empirical research that is relevant to how project based learning engages and motivates students. Studies with secondary students as their samples were the only ones that were included.

I have two types of studies in my literature review, the two are empirical and peer reviewed scholarly journals. One journal that I found that wasn’t quite right for my literature review was written by Thomas Short (2011), the purpose of his student was to compare high school Math, Science, Social Studies, English, and Foreign Language teachers’ knowledge and implementation of teaching practices associated with Individual Instruction, Constructivist Learning, Project-Based Learning, and Differentiated Instruction in a one-to-one computing environment. This journal would work really well if I was only doing a literature review on the teachers point of view of PBL.


In this review of literature, nine peer-reviewed studies or publications met the requirements for inclusion and were reviewed. All but three studies were within five years of publication period; a long with one international research was also included. The literature review is organized by how well students are motivated by PBL, how teachers feel about PBL and the challenges of PBL. I have also included one review of research on project-based learning.

Student Motivation

Student engagement and motivation have the potential to increase when teachers use PBL in their classrooms. According to Carrabba and Farmer (2018), when teachers take the time to connect lessons to student interests, students can experience the connection between the lesson and their own lives, there is less apathy and more engagement. Students who showed above average motivation levels during school were high dedicated to school and had the confidence that they would be able to succeed. This idea of project-based learning gives the students a greater sense of autonomy regarding their learning; with this greater sense students then have more motivation when it comes to learning. With the traditional method of direct instruction, which can resemble of a cookie cutter method of teaching, the curriculum becomes a “one size fits all” approach to be able to teach all the information need in the small time frame that is allotted. With this type of method students tend to “tune out” rather than to “tune in” to the teacher.

PBL gives students the ability to set goals for him/herself and to become self-motivated to complete these goals. This type of instruction creates a classroom environment that supports the development of students’ self-regulatory behavior. Students in middle and high school are at the age where they are ready/ need to be able to set goals for themselves and to independently monitor and assess their own learning. Decreased motivation doesn’t have to involve all aspects of school it might even just only apply to one subject, such as math. In certain mathematics courses, especially honors math, teachers have tried to incorporate PBL into their instructional method to increase learning and motivation in their classes. In a study conducted by Carter (2016), had one research question was closely related to mine, where she wanted to know if there was a difference in the motivation of students instructed using project-based learning technique and the motivation of students instructed using traditional learning techniques, in an honors level math class. When it comes to students who do not possess a logical-mathematical intelligence or learning style, direct instruction can be difficult to learn from. PBL on the other hand actively engages students in deeper levels of comprehension and interpretation about what and how they study.

PBL put students at the center of the learning process and helps them develop the thinking and collaboration skills they will need to be successful in school and when they enter the workplace. When it comes to math a student’s motivation relies a lot on their perception of success, students need to be assigned problems that are difficult enough that they are kept engaged but not to difficult where they will get bored or get overwhelmed by their feelings of failure or helplessness. The study that more focused on how PBL motivated students in an honors math class found that there was no significant difference in the overall motivation between the students who were taught by PBL and the students who were taught with direct instruction. But even though their motivation scale showed no difference in the motivation between the two groups, the PBL group provided students with the opportunity to perform at a higher functional level than the direct instruction group. Students in the PBL group also expressed their satisfaction at successfully completing what some termed a complex project.

Students of the 21st century are a part of the most dynamic times in history, everything around them changed exponentially but they are still being taught in the classroom like all the generations before them. The purpose of the a study conducted by Scott Ragsdale (2014), was to see if PBL could be used as an strategy in the classroom to meet the 21st century needs of students, especially in the states that have adopted the Common Core State Standards. When students are able to set goals for themselves they have more self-motivation to complete it. PBL has proven to increase student’s motivation by allowing them to do the following: own the questions and explore their individual talents or interests; have a choice in their learning process; increase their ability to become self-directed learners; increase achievement by giving them the opportunity to practice higher levels of thinking; and accommodate different intelligences, learning preferences, and learning styles (Gerlach, 2008). PBL allows the student opportunity to establish self-motivational capabilities, maintain their own learning process, and to set goals fro their performance or task completion which eventually leads to a strong sense of self-efficacy. Being able to teach students to become engaged in learning strategies that are both challenging and motivating is one of the positive outcomes of PBL. When a teacher includes students’ experiences and interests into the curriculum, they are able to create a framework for a student to learn. Internal motivation inspires innate drives within students and develops students’ behavior into taking more responsibility for their work as opposed to external motivators which rely on rewards and punishments and, in reality, impede students’ learning (Gerlach, 2008).

Project-based learning gives students so many tools including, the ability to learn independently, this new skill aids in the developing of self-motivation. When students are able to utilize these new learning skills in the classroom they are motivated to learn and to be more engaged. PBL lets the students have choices when it comes to their learning and when the teacher lets them have more choices it creates another way to stimulate a student’s motivation. There are three goals that can be placed in the classroom that can help increase a student’s motivation, these goals are to involve students in the classroom, motivate students to improve their cognitive engagement in the content, and aid students in developing autonomous motivation so that they will become lifelong learners. Many of these goals can be met when they are paired with PBL because it engages them in the learning process and requires a complex, authentic task, one that is of real interest to the students. The study conducted by Carrabba and Farmer (2018) found that motivation levels and engagement levels of students were higher with PBL than with direct instruction. With those results in mind, when students are given the opportunity to participate in PBL, it might provide effective and beneficial results in the classroom, especially regarding increased engagement and intrinsic motivation.

Teachers Perceptions

In education, the teacher is the enabler, the inspiration, and inevitably, the constraint. This can be reflected by the numerous studies that have linked teacher attitudes to student achievement and PBL have been met with intense scrutiny as a result of teacher attitudes towards the approach (Ott, 2015). Teachers are the key to implementing change in an education organization; specific interventions used in the classroom make the greatest difference in determining student outcomes. Teachers’ attitudes towards PBL are positive but they find the views of education policy make PBL difficult to implement in the classroom. PBL was a vehicle for some teachers to encourage student motivation and to provide a different means for demonstrating and explaining what they have learned. PBL provided critical thinking, collaboration, and communication. Teachers are also finding that students have more of a positive attitude when they are able to take ownership of their work. Some teachers also found that it was difficult to meet all the state standards that are not particularly relevant to the real world. Teachers were finding PBL beneficial for students putting in extra effort to accomplish their goals, engaging them, and getting them excited about the final topic. Teachers found that PBL created an avenue for school and family partnerships while building students’ academic achievement and cultural identity. They also found that students were so self-motivated that it removed the need for them to constantly manage the classroom for negative behaviors that result from boredom. For PBL to truly work it would have to interdisciplinary, it demonstrates how contents such as math, ELA, and social studies are all interconnected. Because of this reason some teachers found it difficult to collaborate with other teachers since their views or beliefs about education and PBL might not be the same. Some of the negative attitudes towards PBL were all related to education policy or working with other teachers.

A study conducted by MacMath, Sivia, and Britton (2017), found that were some key ways to implement PBL into the classroom, which were start planning early and that a majority of the bulk work should be done before the unit starts, make sure to have strong driving question that is open-ended and that can’t be googled, make sure to plan regular checkpoints to formally assess student work, work with other teachers and to keep connected with them regularly, be prepared to let go of past content or activities, be able to recognize that the teacher role changes and don’t wait, just start and expect the first PBL unit to have some challenges. Teachers have thought very positive of PBL because the fact of how well it motivated students, encouraged critical thinking, and help students become more responsible for their own learning.

Challenges of Project-Based Learning

Challenges related to PBL implementation fall into three broad categories: teacher beliefs, teacher practice, and context (MacMath et al., (2017). PBL requires a significant shift in the practice for most teachers and that must be done effectively for effective implementation. Teachers must reconsider their role in the classroom, rethink their beliefs about teaching and learning, and reevaluate their evaluation of their students’ potential.

Implementing PBL involves a dramatic departure from traditional modes of teaching therefore teacher used to a more direct style of teaching would endure some degree of awareness of how different the past teaching style is compared to the new approach. One challenge that comes up a lot when talking about PBL is how they play a role in standardized tests. One study (Harris, 2014), found that PBL is not the most effective means of addressing student learning as measured by standardized tests especially when the tests are designed to assess skill obtained through rote memorization. It is found to be quite hard to incorporate PBL full scale in the classroom when dealing with standardized testing because the two cannot be combined very well. Time became a big challenge when trying to implement PBL because it can take time for students to complete the projects or to get a good grasp on what the project or problem is about. There are state pacing guides that come into play and sometimes teachers need to stay on track in order to cover everything before the state testing. There can be a pressure on teachers that makes them personally responsible for the performance of students on those standardized tests.

Along with time being a concerning for teachers using project -based learning they also worry about the funding of it. Where some schools have strong support systems with project-based learning others do not. So when it comes to getting creative and finding the money to fund the projects some teachers may struggle with it. That means you would have to limit how creative and intense you could get with the projects. It would also require some teachers to use cheaper material that would be make the project not turn out how it was suppose to.


In this review of the literature, a brief overview of the research relative to project-based learning was provided in response to the question “How is project-based learning increasing student motivation and engagement?” The research had been chosen to provide a representative sample that would demonstrate the how students are motivated and what motivates them more. I was able to take this research and break it down into three sections; student motivation, teacher perceptions, and the challenges that come from project-based learning. The first section included how I was able to find consistent data that student motivation is increased when project-based learning is used as a means to teach students. One study in particular (Carraba & Farmer, 2018), gave me great insight and provide great information on how students are effected by PBL, they stated that when teachers take the time to connect lessons to student interests, students can experience the connection between the lesson and their own lives, there is less apathy and more engagement. Another study conducted by Carter (2016) found that there was no difference in motivation between students who were taught by PBL and those who were taught by direct instruction. The implications from this could be that the study did not go on long for long and therefore might need to be done over a certain amount of time period. It could also be said that, that study was conducted on a honors level math class where students are already really motivated to complete their work.

The second section covers how teachers perceive project-based learning and if believe it plays a part in student motivation. When it comes to the classroom and student-learning teachers are the key to implementing the change and the use of specific interventions used in the classroom. One study in particular (Ott, 2015) stood out to me during this section because it was conducted entirely by seeing what teachers truly perceive of PBL. The findings of the section were consistently with the notation that teachers like the idea of implanting PBL in their classroom because they saw how students were affected by it. Their positive thoughts on PBL out numbered the negatives, but not out weigh, I will go into further detail about that in the next paragraph. These teachers found that PBL provides critical thinking, collaboration, communication, students have a more positive attitude, and beneficial for students putting in the extra effort to accomplish their goals, engaging them, and getting them excited about the topic in question.

The last important topic in this literature review is the challenges that can come from PBL. One study that was conducted by Harris (2014), found a few challenges when implementing PBL into instruction, those challenges are dealing with standardized tests, timing, state standards, and funding. Three out of the four challenges coexist together. PBL doesn’t work when it comes to standardize testing because they tend to assess skills obtained through rote memorization. Time is a challenge because it can take time to complete a PBL project and time isn’t always on your side when it comes to standardize test and trying to get all the curriculum covered in the years time span. Along with trying to use PBL to cover the curriculum not every aspect of the curriculum will work with trying to induce real world ideas into the projects. Funding plays apart in this because teachers want to get creative when it comes to the projects but without proper funding these creative projects might be hard to come by.

Based on all the research studies that I have read I find that PBL should be tested in a situation well it is a little bit harder to include a lot of projects that are relevant to the curriculum, which would be history and possibly English. I am not saying these studies didn’t cover these subjects but when in a history class it is hard to get past just teaching from the history book and I think that trying to implement PBL into those classrooms could raise student motivation and their interests. My research question would be is there a difference in students’ motivation when they are instructed using PBL versus direct instruction, in a social studies class. One hypothesis that could come from this is that there will be no significant difference on student motivation between PBL and direct instruction.


My problem and practice is, are student’s more motivated by project-based learning or by direct instruction. The purpose of this review is to see if students’ motivation increases if they are being taught by PBL or direct instruction. The overall evidence came out to be that there is a change in students’ motivation when they are being taught by PBL. When reading through all the research many of the studies had stated that they did see an increase in student motivation when that wasn’t even their main reason for doing the study in the first place. The overall conclusion from this literature review is that the students’ motivation is increased when they are taught by project-based learning versus direct instruction. Not only was motivation increased by the research also saw that students’ find that letting them be in charge of their own learning and goals helped with their autonomy and helped them gained the ability of independence. Project-based learning can be a great tool in the classroom that allows students to learn from each other and to get away from the idea of teachers standing in front of the classroom reading from a PowerPoint. When you add PBL into the classroom you are adding more creativity and more of a challenge that students see how they can grow and learn from being able to incorporate problems from the real world. Students of today are in the 21st century and its time they learn from a 21st century way of teaching.


  1. Carrabba, C., & Farmer, A. (2018). The impact of project-based learning and direct instruction on the motivation and engagement of middle school students. Language Teaching and Educational Research (LATER), 1(2), 163-174.
  2. Carter, S. (20160. Traditional vs. project-based learning: The effects on student performance and motivation in honors level mathematics courses. Retrieved from
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  5. MacMath, S., Sivia, A., & Britton, V. (2017). Teacher perceptions of project based learning in the secondary classroom. Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 63(2), 175-192. Retrieved April 5, 2019, from
  6. Harris, M. J. (2014). The challenges of implementing project-based learning in middle schools (Order No. 3690756). Available from Education Database. (1666828757). Retrieved from
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  8. Ragsdale, S. (2014). Project-based learning as a means for meeting the needs of 21st century students in common core states (Order No. 3682289). Available from Education Database. (1657428474). Retrieved from
  9. Short, T.K. (2011). High school teacher knowledge and implementation of individualized and differentiated instruction and constructivist and project-based learning in a one-to-one computing environment Retrieved from


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