Criticism of Project Learning

Olin’s goal is “to be an important and constant contributor to the advancement of engineering education in America and throughout the world,” which requires constant innovation and a willingness to spread said innovation. One of the key beliefs many people seem to hold about the advancement of engineering education is that project-based learning is essential, innovative, and even superior to traditional learning. However, I must disagree. In the course of my time here, I have found that all of my favorite classes, the ones I remember the most from, were traditional classes.

As you probably know, there are many different types of learning styles. Not just how the information is best received, auditory, visual, kinesthetic, but how it is mentally organized and which concepts are mentally emphasized. One model has two components – abstract versus concrete, which means either focused on concepts or facts, sequential or random, which means either learning linearly or in chunks. I am abstract sequential – I focus on concepts, and like my learning to be orderly. This combination means that traditional learning is much more effective for me than project-based learning as project-based learning inherently focuses less on concepts and is not as linear. I’m certainly not the only one who learns in this fashion, making universal project-based learning an imperfect proposition.

Project-based learning is definitely good for teaching some things – flexibility, planning, teamwork, and processes among them. But there are some things that I believe are difficult, even impossible, to learn from a project-based class. Any kind of equation or constant will be difficult to learn that way – while experimentation could be used to derive it, experiments are prone to error. In my own experience, I’ve had results that are less than half of the expected value, and calculated the value of gravity to be 9 m/s. Better experimental setups or more time allowed for multiple trials would reduce the error, to be sure, but it’s less efficient from both a time and money perspective. Furthermore, some equations and values just need to be memorized, best done through repetition – not something project-based learning lends itself to.

One argument that I often hear in support of project-based learning is that it is more engaging for the students. In my experience, that’s not necessarily true. While projects may give some people the opportunity to engage with topics they are interested in, that’s not true for everyone. Part of the engagement of students for projects may be a desire to not let teammates down.

Something I have learned from taking classes these past two and a half years is that it’s much easier for project-based classes to crash and burn than more traditional classes. A class with a couple lectures and a homework set each week does not necessarily need to be planned more than a week in advance. Yes, doing that can make the connections more apparent, which helps in learning. But the lectures and homework will still be effective. However, trying to do the same with projects tends to not go very well.

For a long-term project, any supplemental lectures or readings need to be timed appropriately, else they’ll not have the intended effect. Similarly, if the project depends on knowing something, that piece of knowledge can’t be one of the last ones taught. The best projects tend to have regular, well-defined deliverables, which requires quite a bit of planning ahead.

In the end, Olin’s goal is to stimulate innovation in engineering education, with the goal of producing effective engineering education, not just here, but everywhere. Making a project-based class may not be innovative if it has already been tried – as it has been for the past ten years – and in some cases, project-based learning may not be the most effective approach. Furthermore, changing engineering education outside of Olin will require an appreciation for how the circumstances in other places differ.

Olin students know coming in that they will have many project-based classes, and applicants self-select based on that. This makes Olin’s student body different than that of more typical universities. Also, Olin’s curriculum is limited to only a few types of engineering. It’s worth asking whether what we do here can be applied to other disciplines.