Using Project-Based Learning to Upskill Employees


Posted In: Workforce Insight

Jan • 25 • 2017

How to use project based learning to upskill a workforce

Applying project-based learning to the workforce

Project-based learning (PBL) is becoming an increasingly familiar practice in classrooms ranging from K-12 schools to traditional higher ed campuses. Its popularity is no surprise, considering PBL’s emphasis on a student-centered approach, active (rather than passive) learning, and real-world applications. PBL has been shown to produce a number of improved learning outcomes, including better retention and increased engagement, along with an overall more positive attitude toward school.


What’s most exciting for workforce development and training professionals, though, is that PBL may be even better suited to adult learners — particularly working adults striving to improve their career prospects. That’s because adults learn differently than young people.


For working learners to undertake any type of instruction, it must have a definitive connection to their everyday lives, says Kate Kazin, chief academic officer at College for America (CfA). “Working adults really need to know why they’re doing things,” Kazin explains. “They’ll reject any learning they perceive as a waste of time. They don’t want to muck around on material that is very abstract. It’s more meaningful to them if they can see the relevance of what they’re learning.”

A building block for competency-based learning

All those factors make PBL a great fit for working adults. Rather than expecting students to passively receive information, PBL has students demonstrate their knowledge by successfully completing a project or solving a problem. It’s a more active learning model proven to produce sustained knowledge and problem-solving skills.


“If you’ve learned something,” Kazin says, “it wasn’t typically because you sat in a classroom and listened to someone talk. It was because you needed to accomplish something and you learned the skills necessary to accomplish it.”


PBL underpins CfA’s competency-based education model. Instead of determining whether a student has learned specific instructional content or a certain skill by measuring “seat time” in a classroom or test results, a learner must demonstrate mastery of a competency through “authentic and workplace-relevant projects,” according to Dr. Heidi Wilkes, CfA senior director of curriculum and assessment development.


CfA’s instructional model grows from industry expertise informed by its corporate partners, Kazin says. Building upon that knowledge, CfA develops realistic, scenario-based PBL for employees, which is linked to overarching competencies.


For CfA’s bachelor of arts in communications, for example, one project requires students to conduct pre-marketing research for a coffee shop that wants to add new food items to its menu. Students are asked to do a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis, taking into account the shop’s resources, its customer base (detailed through customer surveys), and the owner’s vision for expansion. Using that data, students then craft a marketing plan that ensures the shop successfully launches and sells those new food items.


In another illustration of the real-world relevance of project-based learning, a CfA student created a program to streamline operations at a hospital, which the hospital system decided to pilot.


“The best way to tell whether somebody has competencies is to have them demonstrate those competencies,” Kazin says. “And a project is an ideal vehicle for evaluating that.”

Link project goals to workplace skills

For PBL to be successful, Kazin stresses, it must have a clear goal tied to a demonstrable workplace competency. By making the learning relevant, employees become more engaged in the process because they perceive the connection to their daily workflow. Rather than being given an abstract problem to ponder, employees solve a challenge they may confront on a regular basis.


“It’s more engaging than passive learning,” she says. “It requires them to be more active. They’re integrating and applying what they learn.”


Employees also gain knowledge that enables them to advance in the workplace. In a recent survey, 20 percent of CfA students reported that they received a promotion since beginning the program. More anecdotally, employers say CfA results in more confident employees with better communication skills.


These days, possessing specific competencies often rates higher for employers than holding a college degree. “Employers don’t say, ‘Oh, I need somebody who got a B+ in Sociology 101,’ ” Kazin says. “But they will say, ‘We really need somebody who can think through problems, research, or communicate well.’ ”


Mastery learning

Compared with traditional exams or multiple-choice assessments, projects are more complex. Students can go through multiple iterations before something is considered ‘mastered’ — and that’s a good thing.


“Our students have as many opportunities as they need to demonstrate the competencies,” Kazin says. “So if the first version of the project doesn’t hit the mark, we give them very specific and encouraging feedback. Then they try it again and resubmit it.”


Which, Kazin says, mirrors how employees actually learn in the workplace. “It’s more realistic than just handing in a paper, getting it rated, and that’s the end of it,” she says. “In the workplace, you revise your work. You get feedback. And if it’s not right yet, you learn from that and keep improving. Project-based learning looks a lot more like real life that way.”

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Maria Wood is a freelance business reporter and editor based in New Jersey.