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Student researchers: For the love of developing knowledge

Written by: Jenny Clements
8 min read

At this early stage in my research on student experiences of project-based learning, I am yet to produce specific findings and implications for classroom practice, but instead offer aspects of my doctoral research proposal and my motivations for wanting to understand the experiences of a particular group of students embarking on project-based research qualifications. Through writing this article, I am reminded of the importance of remaining curious, valuing my practitioner perspective and being open to new possibilities in thinking. I hope that by outlining my case study, readers might be able to identify and draw some parallels with their own unique teaching contexts.


The terms used to describe learner-centred teaching – giving minimal guidance during learning – are varied, with definitions including ‘inquiry-based learning, peer collaboration, problem-based learning, work-based learning, cooperative learning and project-based learning’ (Lang, 2006, p. 24). There are differences between models of project-based learning offered to students, which can create confusion when programmes of delivery for project work are considered the same. Project-based learning shares many similarities with problem-based learning, but there are aspects separating the two approaches. Lang (2006) outlines that student reflection, self-monitoring and student-devised research questions are features of project-based learning. In contrast, problem-based learning offers students a specific problem to which to develop solutions, devised by the teacher; collaborative learning exists to find solutions to real-world contextual problems requiring problem-solving skills and knowledge. The programme of delivery and subject choices are likely to provide students with different experiences.

Models of project-based learning implemented in schools are varied. There appears to be little research on how lower-attaining students manage project-based learning offered specifically as enrichment opportunities or how, for students deciding on research questions for project-based learning, focusing more on hobbies and interests might affect overall experiences for students. In an article published by the Education Endowment Foundation, ‘Learning through REAL Projects’, focusing on a specific type of project-based learning (PBL), findings from a year-long pilot between 2013 and 2014 taken from a randomised control trial suggest that this particular PBL programme did not have an ‘impact either on the pupils’ literacy performance, engagement, or analysis’, but reported some positive results from the two case studies analysed, including the development of ‘oracy, communication, team work and research skills’, indicating some improvement (EEF, 2018).

Researchers such as Kirschner et al. (2010) criticise minimal guidance approaches to developing knowledge, suggesting that novice learners do not yet  have the necessary foundational knowledge to build on (Kirschner et al., 2010). The EEF also outlines that project-based learning does little to encourage student engagement in learning and ultimately concludes that PBL has minimal impact on learners and agreeing with Kirschner et al. that ‘students learn so little from a constructivist approach’ (2010, p. 79).

These reflections are perhaps appropriate when reflecting on developing novices’ subject knowledge, for example, but it should be recognised that project-based learning may be employed in a range of ways and for a range of purposes. The intervention at the heart of the EEF study was trialled with a range of mixed-attainment students as a whole-school approach to learning. How students experience project-based learning as an enrichment opportunity, through student selection, is also an area to explore. This particular cross-subject model of project-based learning placed teachers in the position of deciding the project focus, with all students taking part, as part of a whole school approach to learning in Year 7, raising questions such as whether or not offering project-based opportunities as enrichment opportunities may affect student experience in a different way. My interest is in what happens to students’ experiences of project-based learning when students devise individual research-based projects, based on personal interest, beyond what the school curriculum offers to students.

Practitioner perspective: Acknowledging bias

I coordinate project-based learning programmes across my school and have supervised students conducting research projects. Although I have shaped the project-based learning offered to students in my school, I am likely to be unaware of certain struggles experienced by students in the process of completing individual projects. I hold the view that students can develop a more informed and detailed understanding of specific research areas during individual project work; however, there are few opportunities as project coordinator to assess the ways in which students discuss the research process with individual staff supervisors and their peers. The mark scheme providers themselves, such as AQA, typically issue project-based learning mark schemes with the following weightings: managing (20 per cent), use of resources (20 per cent), develop and realise (40 per cent) and reviewing project performance (20 per cent) (AQA, 2015). Collectively, 60 per cent of the marks are awarded for how students navigate the research process, with 40 per cent to different perspectives and/or alternative views to show knowledge learnt in order to arrive at a conclusion. Project-based learning prioritises process over knowledge, which could result in students and staff spending less time on examining the quality of knowledge development.

A case-study approach

My interest in students’ experiences during project-based learning follows a qualitative case-study approach, based on constructivism as a theoretical stance. A case-study approach allows for different layers of interpretation to take place, based on a reality that is ‘constructed within historical and social contexts by individuals… multiple perspectives may lead to multiple meanings in data’ (Hamilton and Corbett-Whittier, 2013, p. 26).

My curiosity in how students experience project-based learning aligns my research methodology with Stake’s interpretation that ‘we are interested in it, not because by studying it we learn about other cases or about some general problem, but because we want to learn about that particular case’ (Stake, 1995, p. 3). The challenges that project-based learning might present for students with struggling literacy skills, and the different ways in which students might manage these challenges, are best presented through a methodology that places student experiences and voices at the centre of the study (Merriam, 2010). This is an intrinsic case study for close understanding and interest in one particular case, focusing on a specific group of eight Year 9 students.

A case-study approach allows my position as both teacher and researcher to support the progression of my research. My involvement in the project-based programme provides access to data collection opportunities where I can be ‘immediately responsive and adaptive’ (Merriam, 2010, p.457) to the possibility of discovering data at any moment, from any student. Through observation, interviewing and document analysis (Merriam, 2010), I will systematically review the analysis of emerging themes and the ways in which students respond to different types of task to support the development of research projects. There are aspects to this research design that could link closely with action research, particularly as one of my aims includes exploring the experiences of students who may struggle in accessing project-based learning and wanting to improve this situation, but my research is not necessarily focused on improving students’ overall literacy through project-based learning across the curriculum.

Action research offers students the opportunity to take part in the research itself, creating a research process where ‘they and the researcher together decide the issues to be studied, the processes used to study them, and the results of the actions to be taken’ (Dick, 2014, p. 54), but I feel that this may compromise the research experience for students. I would like students to experience what I consider to be an authentic research experience, based on the programme run at my school. Students undertaking research programmes are not normally asked to comment on or construct resources issued during the taught skills programme or to reflect on the nature of project-based learning as a learning approach, so I plan to protect the sense of autonomy that this learning approach offers students. I would like to describe student experiences before considering how students might be involved in implementing possible changes, but I plan to document changes in my teaching approach as separate notes to be shared with readers, rather than sharing these changes with students.

Student participants

A purposive group of eight students in Year 9 will be offered the opportunity to participate in the Level 1 Foundation Qualification offered by AQA as an enrichment activity. For the purpose of my research, students will be offered two possible submission opportunities: an essay of approximately 1,000 words in length or an artefact accompanied by 250 words, alongside a chosen designed brief. Students conducting project-based qualifications typically have the opportunity to submit either an essay, field study, artefact or performance (AQA, 2015). I will select students from English sets, ranging from one to four, with particular focus on sets three and four, as these students are not typically offered the chance to participate in project-based enrichment opportunities at my school. English teachers will be asked to nominate based on one or all of the following: a) student demonstrates very good to excellent ability at meeting homework deadlines; b) student is working at a high standard and responds to targets set; c) student enjoys research-based homework; and d) student deserves praise for excellent overall effort. 

Methods: Use of audio

A data-collection process of using ‘interviewing, observations and document analysis’ will be implemented (Merriam, 2010, p. 459), involving both students and staff. Having selected a purposive group of students to take part in the research, data collection will start by using dictaphones to record students in groups of three discussing individual research interests and where these interests have come from. These first recordings will allow students to speak on areas that interest them at the start of the process and provide early themes to explore. From these recordings, different purposive groups will be created based on areas of interest arising from the recordings, allowing for interview approaches to be decided and observation guides and approaches to be agreed. This audio approach will be implemented based on the evaluation of a pilot study with my Year 11 English class. Students in this pilot reflected that playing recordings back helped with remembering ideas shared in class, which might support students in my case study during the research process.

Final purpose statement

The purpose of this study is to explore the experiences of a group of Year 9 students undertaking project-based research as an enrichment opportunity over a series of four months. This study seeks to develop a better understanding of how offering students the autonomy to research personal interests and hobbies, beyond the curriculum, might affect students’ perceptions of themselves as learners.


AQA Project Qualifications Level 1 Foundation Project (2015-2020) Available at: (Accessed 29th October 2018).

Dick R (2014) Action research. In: Mills J and Birks M (eds) Qualitative Methodology. London: Sage Publications, pp. 51–69.

Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) (2018) Project-based learning. Available at: (accessed 12 December 2018).

Hamilton L and Corbett-Whittier C (2013) Using Case Study in Education Research. London: Sage.

Kirschner P, Sweller J and Clark R (2010) Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experimental and inquiry-based teaching. Education Psychologist 41(2): 75–86. DOI:10.1207/s15326985ep41021.

Lang Q (2006) Engaging in Project Work. London: McGraw Hill.

Merriam SB (2010) Qualitative Case Studies. USA: Elsevier Ltd.

Stake R (1995) The Art of Case Study Research. London: Sage Publications.

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