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Hacking Project-Based Learning: 10 Easy Steps to PBL and Inquiry in the Classroom (review)

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Perhaps one of the greatest challenges facing proponents of PBL is demonstrating that it may not actually be more work, it may just be different work.


The posting below is a review by Lena Ficco, an assistant professor of Psychological Science at Fitchburg State University, of the book, Hacking Project-Based Learning: 10 Easy Steps to PBL and Inquiry in the Classroom by Ross Copper and Erin Murphy. (NOTE: “Hack Learning is a series of books, brought to you by Times 10 Publications. All of these books help you solve big problems with simple ideas. HACK LEARNING: It’s What You Can Do Tomorrow.” See for further information.

The review is from Currents in Teaching and Learning, Vol.20, No. 2, October 2018. Currents in Teaching and Learning [ ] is a peer-reviewed electronic journal that fosters exchanges among reflective teacher-scholars across the disciplines. It is a publication of the Center for Teaching and Learning of Worcester State University, Worcester, Massachusetts, U.S.A. Copyright © 2018 WSU, 486 Chandler Street, Worcester, MA 01602.  All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis
UP NEXT: Student Populations - Veterans

Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Hacking Project-Based Learning: 10 Easy Steps to PBL and Inquiry in the Classroom (review)


Cooper and Murphy’s Hacking Project Based Learning: 10 Easy Steps to PBL and Inquiry in the Classroom (2016) is a concise guide to effective implementation of project-based learning. Cooper and Murphy’s hacks sparked my mind with ideas for and arguments against a teaching delivery method unlike my own educational experience and well out of my instructional comfort zone. Clearly I am not alone in this reaction as each hack includes an “Overcoming Pushback” section that addresses the best arguments against project-based learning. One issue facing post-secondary educators interested in project-based learning is the issue of contact hours. Typical undergraduate courses are approximately fifteen weeks in length and meet for about three hours per week. Compare this with primary and secondary education classes that meet up to five hours per week for potentially twice as many weeks. Despite the unaddressed issue of contact hours Cooper and Murphy’s hacks constitute the most generalizable, from primary/secondary to higher education, enjoyable, and easily digestible guide to project-based learning I have found.

As described by Cooper and Murphy, well–implemented project-based learning (PBL) experiences require a good deal of work prior to rollout, as well as potentially unanticipated work that arises throughout the project. This latter point is enough to cause anxiety for many instructors, but then again, effective lectures often require a good deal of work upfront as well as updating and spontaneous explanation if questions are encouraged. Perhaps one of the greatest challenges facing proponents of PBL is demonstrating that it may not actually be more work, it may just be different work--work that is arguably more rewarding for students and instructors as it “not only [satisfies] what is needed for ‘the test,’ but [digs] significantly deeper ... [providing] your students with opportunities to uncover [knowledge] ... through exploration ....” (p. 26).

One of the best aspects of Cooper and Murphy’s PBL guide is its format. I read Cooper and Murphy’s hacks cover to cover; however, I easily image instructors successfully jumping in around hack 6, especially if they are familiar with “course goals” and “learning outcomes,” which roughly translate to Cooper and Murphy’s “high impact content” and “high impact takeaways.” Additionally, each hack is organized in the same way: 1) a problem is introduced, 2) the hack is presented as a solution to this problem, and then my favorite sections, 3) “What You Can Do Tomorrow,” 4) “A Blue Print for Full Implementation,” 5) “Overcoming Pushback,” and 6) “The Hack in Action,” address potential questions and concerns that may arise while implementing PBL.

The first five hacks introduce readers to the concept of PBL and the pedagogic principles behind PBL strategies. At the worst of moments these hacks felt like slogging through a sales pitch; however, this may be due to my familiarity with PBL and eagerness for the actionable “hacks” that followed. The conceptual background knowledge presented in the first few hacks may be necessary for PBL novices to not only embrace the concept of PBL but to fully understand the nuances of the actionable hacks. There is also a sense, in the first hack in particular, that Cooper and Murphy outsourced discussion of several topics by referencing multiple books as the source for additional details. As a result, several conversations felt unfinished. The last thing instructors need is a short book that requires several additional books to be of any use. Fortunately this was not the case with the remaining five hacks.

To be fair some of my issue with hacks one through five may have more to do with my own sense of impotence and frustration with inspiring students to want to learn. Luckily, hack 1 identifies the necessity and challenges of inspiring “a culture of inquiry and creativity” (p. 19) and student buy–in is addressed throughout the hacks. Additionally, this first hack introduces readers to several themes repeated throughout the guide, such as prioritization of knowledge and skills necessary for professional success in a nation where manufacturing jobs, requiring memorization and duplication, seem to be diminishing ( ). Furthermore, at a recent conference symposium highlighting “STEM Workforce Development for a Modern Massachusetts” (Warner, Soares, & Wesley, 2017) a panel of Massachusetts STEM industry leaders conveyed a hiring preference for critical thinkers and innovators who, as Cooper and Murphy describe, ask “good questions” (p. 19). In terms of student learning and academic success, Cooper and Murphy astutely stress the importance of fostering student relationships with each other, instructors, and broader learning networks that include experts. PBL experiences incorporate networking and relationship building in a way that lecture–style classrooms simply cannot or, at least in my experiences as a student and instructor, have not.

Shared classrooms traditionally designed for lecture-style instruction pose an additional challenge to PBL in higher education. Nevertheless, instructors are encouraged in the first hack to organize classrooms, ideally with input from students, away from lecture-style rows of individual seats toward collaborative, grouped seating. Instructors are also encouraged to fill classrooms with materials that stimulate inquiry, a suggestion that resonates with developmental psychology theories of effective learning through “dynamic” interaction with one’s environment (Piaget, 1961, p. 275). Lastly is the theme of learner–, rather than teacher–, centered environments, activities, assessments, and feedback that promote learning through creation, iteration, and “productive struggle” (p. 19). My favorite Cooper and Murphy suggestion relating to this last theme is the creation of a “failure board” designed to destigmatize failure (p. 20) and promote productive struggle, which allows students to discover important content on their own. I am again reminded of Piagetian theory, which suggests “every new problem provokes a disequilibrium ... the solution of which consists in a re-equilibration” (Piaget, 1961, p. 281). Setting the tone and creating a space for disequilibrium and re– equilibration may be paramount to successful PBL experiences and may be critical for the success of at–risk and lower–income students (Sisk, Burgoyne, Sun, Butler, & Macnamara, 2018) who, being less familiar with growth mind–sets, may not see “struggles as learning opportunities” (Sisk et al., p. 2).

One of the more challenging hacks to apply to higher education is hack 3, which emphasizes the selection of “High Impact Content” that “lends itself to PBL” (p. 39). Read this as “slash and burn” your content, something higher ed faculty often are reluctant to do. It may be less painful to part with a unit or two, when one really considers which content a) “is essential to learn,” b) “offers opportunities for exploration and creativity,” (p. 40), and c) “promotes learning through transfer” (p. 48). Considering these points I am again reminded of Piaget, who may have been a PBL advocate before PBL was coined, when he wrote:
From a developmental point of view, the essential in the act of thinking is not contemplation ... but the action of the dynamics ... for instance, to disconnect a motor in order to understand its functioning, to disassociate and vary a ... phenomenon, to understand its causalities. (p. 275)

Instructor anxiety surrounding content removal may be lessened when they realize that in PBL “essential” refers to content that students, who have successfully completed a course, should know and understand. It does not refer to basic facts necessary to understand more complex content. Or as Cooper and Murphy ask, “[is] everything you are teaching worth your class time?” (p. 41). Cooper and Murphy implicitly encourage instructors, whom I easily imagine to be those of us in the sciences (myself included), who have said “but there are so many facts to cover,” to trust students to learn basic facts and vocabulary on their own. This basic content is acquirable through familiar teaching methods such as assigned reading and multiple–choice quizzes.

Cooper and Murphy argue that instructors who get to know students and tap into their knowledge of students will be able to anticipate which concepts students can learn on their own and which require direct–instruction. For example, in my biological psychology class we study the concept of epigenetics, which describes how experience and the physical environment influence biology. I consider this concept essential, in the vital knowledge sense, for psychological science students to learn. In order to grasp epigenetic mechanisms students need to understand basic neuroanatomy and neurophysiology, which are essential processes, in the basic knowledge sense of the word, that typically require direct–instruction. Major and minor divisions of the nervous system, on the other hand, are basic knowledge that students could extract via textbook reading and self–quizzing. I currently include all three topics in my lectures and in doing so spend too much time on basic knowledge while vital knowledge, such as epigenetics, receives only passing mention. In short, class time should be reserved for essential, not basic, content that requires direct instruction. If you are not convinced, spend some time with hack 4 in which Cooper and Murphy explicitly encourage instructors to trust that students will learn basic content on their own. You may realize, as did I, that your efforts to meet students where they are with difficult to grasp essential content have lowered your overall expectations. In other words, we may have been expecting too little of students in all content areas, including basic content, instead of just those content areas that are appropriately difficult considering grade level.

This brings us to hacks 7–10, which give instructors permission to directly instruct students on difficult concepts (the comforting reassurance of lecture slides!). Hacks 7 and 8 illustrate the usefulness of regular check-ins, or “conferences” (p. 97), and guidance through individualized mini-lessons that may be pre-planned “‘just–in– time’ instruction ... that can serve as benchmarks to help keep the class on pace,” (p. 101) or spontaneous direct instruction for one or more students as they work through difficult concepts. These hacks envision a learning experience in which instructors no longer “simply react to finished projects” with “end–of–the–road feedback” that students may not be able to transfer to future learning or work (p.87). Instead, Cooper and Murphy advise “[making] feedback everyone’s business” (p. 87). Effective peer–feedback and self–reflection, like many skills, may require a bit of upfront discussion, modeling, and reminders for students and quality “feedback should articulate how [students] are doing and help [them] to decide what [they] should do next” (p. 91). It should then be very clear to students and their instructors a) if students are learning, b) what they are learning, and c) if they are demonstrating what they are learning. One thing I have noticed is that students do not always know how or when to ask for help. A potential bonus to learning about and practicing quality feedback is that students may learn to ask effectively for timely help rather than not asking at all or waiting until mid– or end of semester when they may have fallen too far behind.

Hack 7 further challenged me to consider myself teaching exclusively through mini-lessons. I am already using 60–80% of the tips and practices discussed by Cooper & Murphy, yet I struggled to visualize myself teaching a class of thirty thorough mini-lessons and supervision of small group work. At some point in the previous eighty-seven pages, however, my thinking shifted and I stopped doubting the applicability of PBL to my classes. Instead, I envisioned myself using class time for conferencing, individualized peer– and instructor–feedback, and lecturing only when absolutely necessary. Letting students struggle productively and turn to each other and provided materials (i.e., the textbook, lectures slides) for explanations: an active and engaging pedagogic experience that places students at the helm and me, their guide, on the side stepping in with direct instruction for only the most elusive of topics. Now a mentor, who does not need to lecture every class, I am able to focus on providing feedback and guidance while learning unfolds naturally. This is a tantalizing prospect that Cooper and Murphy, thankfully, offer clear advice: keep mini-lessons short, ten to fifteen minutes, which is feasible when one does not try to review all possible content but instead focuses on one to two “vital  [concepts] students need to know to work more productively on their own ....” (p. 99).

Shifting responsibility for learning from teachers to students, PBL experiences have the potential to teach autonomy and collaboration. Consequently, PBL courses can seem like more work, at least initially, than lecture and exam preparation. When, however, was the last time you truly enjoyed grading exams or had the sense students understood and would retain course content based on exam performance? PBL by no means teaches to a test, and tests are rarely included in well–implemented PBL experiences, which may be the hardest sell of all for undergraduates who are increasingly preoccupied with “what’s going to be on the test.” These students seem simultaneously under– and overconfident in their academic and intellectual abilities. PBL experiences provide students opportunities to test their own knowledge and abilities and to practice and demonstrate scholarship and critical thinking. For these reasons alone PBL is a tool worth considering for higher education. If you do consider implementing PBL in your classes, take it from someone who has experienced both success and failure with well– and poorly–implemented PBL in her classes and read Cooper and Murphy’s hacks, particularly 4 and 5, which differentiate projects from PBL experiences, or as I fondly call them “My First Mistakes in PBL.”


Piaget, J. (1961). The genetic approach to the psychology of thought. Journal of Educational Psychology, 52(6), 275–281.

Sisk, V.F., Burgoyne, A.P, Sun, J., Butler, J.L., & Macnamara, B.N. (2018). To what extent and under which circumstances are growth mind–sets important to academic achievement?
Two meta–analyses. Psychological Science, 1–23.

United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics (2018). Employment, hours, and earnings from the current employment statistics survey (national) [Data file extracted on: March 15, 2018 (11:17:10 AM). Available from 

Warner, J., Soares, A., Wesley, T. (2017, June). STEM Workforce Development for a Modern Massachusetts. Symposium conducted at the Massachusetts PKAL Network Summer Meeting, Fitchburg, MA.