Sarah Stanlick, Worcester Polytechnic Institute – Failing Forward with Project-Based Learning

Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Benefits of Project-Based Learning Week: Can a negative project experience still provide benefits to students?  And if so, how?

Sarah Stanlick, assistant professor in the department of integrative and global studies, answers these questions.

Sarah Stanlick, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Integrative and Global Studies and the Director of the Great Problems Seminar at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. She was the founding director of Lehigh University’s Center for Community Engagement and faculty member in Sociology and Anthropology. She previously taught at Centenary College of New Jersey and was a researcher at Harvard’s Kennedy School, assisting the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power. She has published in journals such as The Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, The Social Studies, and the Journal of Global Citizenship and Equity Education. She co-chairs the Imagining America Assessing Practices of Public Scholarship (APPS) collective, which focuses on democratically-engaged assessment practices to empower and transform systems, communities, and individuals. She is a member of SSSP and serves on the Steering Committee for the Community-Based Global Learning Collaborative (The Collaborative). Her priority for teaching, research, and service is to encourage and model engaged, active citizenship and help create conditions for all community members to be able engage similarly. Her current interests include global citizenship, health and human rights, transformative learning, and the internet’s impact on empowerment and capacity to build community.

Failing Forward with Project-Based Learning

There are many reasons why students may have a negative project experience. Difficulty feeling empowered to make decisions. A dysfunctional team. The assumption can be easy to make that students who have a negative project experience, regardless of the cause, will not learn much.

However, even projects that do not seem useful to students at the time can have lasting positive benefits. In 2021, our study gathered data from 2,236 alumni on how well their project experiences contributed to a range of outcomes. This included a group of 207 students who opted to take a first year, interdisciplinary, project-based course. Each of these alumni was matched with someone in the study who had not taken the course, yet was otherwise similar—same gender, same race, same pathway through other projects.

Analysis of these pairings suggested that those who had negative experiences in their initial project still benefitted from those experiences. We assessed whether students were better off having no first-year project experience than a poor one and found that, for communication, project management, and using information, students were not negatively impacted in the long run. Those who had a positive project experience after a negative one recouped lost learning gains. Furthermore, having a negative project experience in the first project still had a significant, positive influence on how prepared alumni felt for their current career—and at a size more than twice that of the courses in their major. 

Students who have experienced a majority of teacher-centered lecture-based classrooms might need time to adjust to student-centered, experiential learning. Initial struggles with project-based learning can still amplify the positive impact of subsequent project experiences. These findings shed light on the differences between satisfaction and learning—a distinction that is increasingly important amid competition for a shrinking student market.