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Project-Based Learning for the Business Environment
A Cheat Sheet for Development, A Sample Lesson

By Joe Deegan / December 2009

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What is project-based learning, particularly as it's used in a corporate environment?

In this article, I explain what project-based learning is and provide one detailed example of a project-based assignment used by sales people who sell mattresses, pillows, and related goods.

What follows is essentially a cheat sheet for instructional designers who are getting started with project-based learning, although I do not go deeply into the details here (more thorough explanation is available on my blog).

What is Project-Based Learning, and Why Should I Care?
Based on the name, it's not so tough to figure out that project-based learning is all about learning through the development of a project. While the premise of project-based learning is simple, there's a lack of resources available, mostly because many instructional designers use it but don't realize there is a name and method to it.

The textbook definition given by the Buck Institute for Education is "a systematic teaching method that engages students in learning knowledge and skills through an extended inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed products and tasks."

In my opinion, it's a flexible term that boils down to scaffolding a lesson so that learners construct their own solutions through the development of projects rather than being told what the solution is through formal instruction.

Having learners construct their own solutions using available resources is what makes project-based learning ideal in the corporate world.

In the workplace, employees don't have a training facilitator on hand to lecture at them whenever they come across a problem they don't know how to solve. Instead, employees learn to use available resources to solve problems on their own.

Project-based learning achieves what a lecture cannot by providing the opportunity for learners to practice using the necessary resources, so that when they do come across a problem, they're prepared to solve it on their own.

Step 1: Dream up the Big Idea
Figure 1 Before instructional designers can begin constructing the driving question, they need to develop the "big idea" that the project will be based on. This is where you need to be creative and dream up an idea or theme for a project that's intriguing, complex, problematic, and most importantly requires the learner to demonstrate the outcomes of the instructional objectives being taught in the lesson. When it comes to project-based lessons in corporate environments, it's best to come up with a big idea or theme that represents problems the learners already face in the workplace. A big idea that matches what people do in their daily work makes it easy to design a lesson that will improve the their performance on the job.

A great way to stay focused on authentic concerns is to enroll the help of learners in the brainstorming process. Engaging the learners in the process of developing the big idea not only makes it easier to develop a "real world" concern, but it also ensures the learners' buy-in.

Step 2: Develop the Driving Question
Once you have a theme for the project, you're ready to develop the driving question. In this step, the big idea must be formed into a realistic scenario that requires the learner to demonstrate the performance described in the instructional objectives.

A great way to transform the theme into a problem worth solving is to present it as a realistic scenario that learners come across in the workplace. Think about what happens on the job that will trigger the performance being taught, and capture that in the form of a question or multiple questions. The driving question does not have to be told in a storyline, but a good story is a great way to engage the learner while communicating the driving question(s) and guidelines of the project.

Once you have an idea of what your driving question is going to be, ask yourself the questions below before committing to your final draft of the driving question(s):

  • Is it open-ended?
  • Is it challenging?
  • Is it realistic?
  • Is it complex?
  • Does it require a performance or project?
  • Is it consistent with instructional objectives?

If you can answer yes to all those questions, then your driving question may be ready to put into action.

Once you have polished your driving question, you are well on your way to a quality project-based lesson.

Step 3: Design the Assessment
The last step in designing a project-based lesson is to figure out how you will assess whether the learners can demonstrate that they have mastered the objectives you set for them. You could say that this step puts the "project" in project-based learning, as in most cases, you will simply evaluate their final project. I consider this to be the most important part of the design process because it's where you evaluate whether the lesson itself was successful.

Best Practices
The best practices described below will help you ensure a successful project-based learning assessment.

Demonstrates objectives. A great way of ensuring that the assessments demonstrate the objectives is to design an assessment where learners complete the actual task or project that they will be required to complete on the job.

Scaffolded assessments. Scaffolding the project so that it builds up to a final assessment that represents a blend of all the content covered in the project ensures that the learners have improved over time and achieved the instructional objectives.

Able to score. Some of the greatest assessments for project-based learning can also be the most difficult to assess. A great way to overcome this obstacle is to create a rubric to use as a scoring guide. In addition to helping the facilitator score the, a well-written rubric also helps the learners understand what is expected of them and serves as a guide for their projects.

An Example of Project-Based Learning in the Business Environment
Let's get down to the brass tacks and look at an example of a project-based learning lesson.

This example is titled "Selling Sleep Disorder Relief" and was designed to help bed and mattress sales reps improve their direct sales to customers. Most of the process is designed to be completed over the course of six days by groups of sales professionals within their store location during free time (between assisting customers).

The process begins with the facilitator communicating the guidelines via email and concludes with the participants meeting and delivering presentations. The email sent at the beginning outlines the guidelines of the project and gives the participants access to the project web site which serves as a resource to participants throughout the project.

The entire learning unit comprises seven steps over seven days, which are described below.

screen shot of training site

Day 1. Project Begins
The project facilitator sends out an initial email that 1) describes the assignment and project, 2) opens access to the project web site, and 3) assigns each participant to a group, and each group is assigned a sleeping disorder. The learners then begin working on the project, contacting the facilitator for assistance when needed.

Day 2. Research
On day two, the groups begin researching symptoms of their assigned sleep disorder using multiple internet resources. Links are available in the resources section of the project web site to help get them started. However, they are encouraged to extend their research beyond the given resources. Learners will develop a greater understanding for the information by conducting research on their own rather than being spoon-fed the information.

Day 3. Develop Outline
Groups develop an outline highlighting the key findings of their research and possible solutions for the customer's sleep disorder. The outline will be submitted to facilitator so he or she can provide formative feedback to the group before they potentially go too far down the wrong path.

Day 4. Develop Handout
After receiving feedback on their outline, the groups begin developing a handout, which summarizes the key points and will be distributed to other learners later when all the groups present their findings. The handouts allow all the participants to learn what the others have learned.

Day 5. Develop Presentation
Groups develop a presentation, which includes a sales role-playing scenario. Part of day 5 is spent practicing the presentation in front of the facilitator and listening to his or her comments. Practicing the presentation in front of the facilitator again provides an opportunity for formative feedback before the learners head down the wrong path. It also helps to ensure that they are grasping the instructional objectives of the lesson.

Day 6. Perform Presentation
The groups present their final work to the other groups and the facilitator, and circulate their handouts as supplemental learning material. Delivering the formal presentation is also a way for the learners to prove they have met the instructional objectives of the lesson.

Day 7. Debrief and Discuss
The facilitator debriefs and discusses the key points of each group's presentation using the handouts they created. These documents are then used as a reference or job aid to help them take advantage of what they learned. This and the final project grade are where summative feedback is given about the culminating project.


  • Fri, 11 Dec 2009
    Post by Joe Deegan

    Thanks Ed. Using Collab tools is a great suggestion. I also received a suggestion of using a wiki such as PB wiki rather than the handouts. I think the Wiki suggestion is along the lines of what you are suggesting.

  • Thu, 10 Dec 2009
    Post by Ed Martino (ermpd on Twiter)

    Hi Joe,

    This approach sounds very workable. My first thought would be to see about using collab tools like Google Wave and to support the development. Corp America is starting to get eLearning but too often they dumb it down.