A group of high school students sit on the floor participating in a team-building exercise.

Orbis innovators engage in a team-building activity where they apply their understanding of their DiSC Profiles.

Interest in career and technical education has been soaring in districts and schools across the country, including in project-based and work-based learning. Helping students discover career pathways during their secondary education journey and offering them opportunities to connect with their community are popular with both families and industry leaders. Beyond gaining knowledge about a specific job or career, these learning experiences help students learn important life skills, including self-direction, role awareness, and self-belief.

A study released in December by the Science Publishing Group’s Education Journal, “Project-Based Learning Influence on Self-Awareness of High School Students” provides insights on how project-based learning can help students grow in these crucial life skills.

According to the study, “higher order thinking skills that academics promote rarely overlap with the domain of building self-knowledge. In fact, in today’s academic environment, the effort to imbibe self-awareness practices in our classrooms are often met with fear, frustration, and pushback.”

I am one of the coauthors of the study, which looks at Iowa’s Ankeny Community School District’s Orbis Project-Based Experience. Orbis is a work-based, project-based high school elective course where students engage in authentic projects in partnership with businesses, nonprofits, and community members. Orbis is the Latin word for compass. The study uses qualitative data from Orbis exit interviews with students and quantitative data from student profile assessments.


In the context of employment, self-direction is the ability to initiate or look for ways to help and accomplish tasks without being told to by someone else. Does a student’s ability to self-direct change as the result of participating in project-based learning? In the study, 26 of 68 participants increased their assessments of self-direction. Additionally, eight of those participants understood more clearly where they were at, where they are going, and their path to get there. This is certainly a shift from traditional school settings where students often feel they don’t understand why they need to do certain assignments or tasks, and therefore disengage.

The ability to self-direct is growing more important as work environments are changing to remote and hybrid environments. Industry leaders and college professors expect that students understand their own learning gaps and to figure out a pathway to get the work and/or job done. This skill is critical in the current workforce, but many traditional settings are teacher led, even at the secondary level. Students need agency over their learning, but to do that, they must first be certain about what they do and do not know. Project-based learning has potential to set students on the trajectory they need to be successful after they leave high school.

One student stated during an interview that “project-based learning changed my view of myself as a young professional with strengths to contribute,” and went on to say that they now know how to better manage time and make positive connections and relationships. Another student shared that they appreciated that they were trusted to work as a team and learn as they went, different from their classroom experiences. Some students improved up to two years on self-direction skills on the profile assessment by participating in one year of a project-based learning program.

Role awareness

Does a student’s role-awareness change due to a project-based learning experience? Students also increased their score on assessments in this area. Role awareness is the ability to be informed of your role in a given environment as well as to understand the expectations placed on a position and to see how they are met. On the survey, 38% of students showed growth.

One student stated that they “learned how to find a balance of others’ opinions with my own. It doesn’t have to be my way or the highway OR allowing others to walk all over me. It’s a balance of figuring out what works best and what the best decision is in any given situation.” Another student said, “I was surprised at what I learned about my peers, who I thought I knew before. In this program, I see them differently. I see more depth and dimensions to them because they are young professionals making an impact on our community.” Authentic project-based learning requires collaboration and common goals, which creates a sense of community that can often be lacking in high school. These students start to really understand empathy.

Students have control in project-based learning. Other soft skills that students saw growth in were time management and the value of planning. One student stated that “I thought this was going to be a class where projects are like assignments teachers give you. This was totally different, and I learned more by prioritizing my time and working with my team to meet deadlines.” These students felt they had great purpose in their work, rather than just completing another assignment for their teacher.

Students in project-based learning environments are also encouraged to embrace failure. As in any career, our failures are what spur us to make something even better, but in our long-standing traditional system, students must show they can pass exams to be successful. Project-based learning is turning students’ assumptions about themselves and school on their heads, and the future of this country will be better for it.


Does a student’s self-belief change due to a project-based learning experience? In the study, 34% of students increase their belief in themselves. Self-belief bias scores also changed for 19% of the students. The bias change means that students were more confident in being able to achieve their goals. Students offered insights on the subject by saying that looking for strengths in others helped influence their own self-belief. One student stated that, “seeking strengths in others to learn and grow was a value to me. I know if I didn’t have the answers, I could turn to others who did.”

Self-belief is a tool we can equip students with to combat mental health issues. Project-based learning allows
students to create deep relationships and connections with students with whom they might never have otherwise interacted. When students build collaboration, empathy, and communication skills, their self-belief and their feeling of worth grow. Project-based learning now has data to show that students participating in real-world learning grow in connection with themselves, their teammates, and ultimately their community.

Leadership skills

Although students were not assessed on leadership skills, they made several statements worth noting. One participant said, “I now believe that everyone can be a leader, and that leaders exist formally and informally.” Students also reported how some of their relationships changed in their traditional school setting. Students were confident in their learning, and it transferred to their work by taking on new challenges and not being intimidated by their superiors.

Project-based learning allows these students to find their passions, and they praised the opportunity to learn this way. One student stated, “The freedom we feel coming here is the freedom of being treated like an adult. As seniors, it’s easy to get senioritis, and project-based learning keeps us interested in coming to school, keeps us engaged in our learning, and we’re motivated by the impact our work makes for the community versus turning in an assignment.”

Work ahead

Anecdotes and now data show the benefits of authentic project-based learning opportunities. Unfortunately, barriers exist to allowing every student to have access to these types of learning experiences. These barriers are with culture, technology, and policy.

As educators, we frequently hear: “Teachers are the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.” I have seen audiences of educators nod their heads in agreement when they hear this phrase. When it comes to giving up some of the stage in the classroom, it’s easier said than done. If an educator is interested in creating authentic project-based learning experiences, they must understand how their role will shift. At Iowa Big, a collaborative project-based high school program operating among several school districts in Cedar Rapids, pods of teachers (four: science, math, English, social studies) huddle together every morning to identify if students have met standards through any of the other subjects. It is truly cross-curricular, and truly messy.

Other schools (like the one in our study) have a program where students are enrolled in a program for part of the day and return to their traditional schools. During this class period, students may not even report to the program building, but instead to the community project partner. Every district is going to look different in how they create these opportunities for students, but they will all require a very different role for the educator.

Another challenge is with how our current systems report grades. Project-based learning is truly mastery-based. Until students get their projects done correctly, there is no grade. Learning management systems today are not prepared for cross-curricular learning and can pose a big challenge when it comes to tracking a student’s progress through their projects. The technology needs to adapt to new learning models.

The biggest barriers to a project-based learning immersion model are seat-time requirements and funding mechanisms. Schools with project-based learning models can be penalized for moving students through faster. Depending on how a state does its funding (average daily attendance, average daily membership, etc.), the school will not receive funding if a student graduates early. If the student does not show up or log in (because they have graduated) the school will not receive funding. This mechanism discourages schools from graduating students early or moving them through faster than a traditional cohort model. Seat-time requirements and funding mechanisms are closely tied together. Requiring a time-based system based on a head count at various times throughout the year is an antiquated way to fund students.

Additionally, when the Every Student Succeeds Act went into effect, districts were allowed to implement new accountability measures. This was great, but it was a challenge to identify new requirements that could be measured. The skills in this study would be great new accountability metrics to consider.

If we want to see students truly grow in these skills, we must stop thinking about school in scheduled hours and days. Now is the time to scale these models and bring forth students who are entering their careers with direction, awareness, and belief.

Susan Gentz (sgentz@bsgstrategy.com) is the founder of BSG Strategies, LLC (www.bsgstrategies.com).


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