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Editor’s Note: These concepts and their implementation are, 50 years later, an extension or variation of John Dewey’s “Learning by Doing”. Here the Dewey principle is supported by innovative and flexible modern technology.


Incorporate Project-Based Learning in Daily Instruction: Has Self-Direction Changed?

Y.X. Zhou, F.L. Lee


Self-direction is vital for life-long learning, and the challenge of fostering self-direction is to facilitate students’ self-directed learning by tackling authentic problems similar to those faced by students in formally registered schools and training classes. This was facilitated through Project-Based Learning (PBL). This study, integrating qualitative with quantitative methods, was conducted to explore the impact of self-direction when Project-Based Learning was added to traditional instruction. The result showed a significant difference for the experimental group; that is to say, introducing Project Based Learning into daily instruction will benefit students by enhancing their self-direction skills.

Keywords: Self-direction, Project-Based Learning, Responsibility for Learning


Self-directed learning is critical since lifelong learning is becoming so important (Hiemstra, 1991). Instead of merely solving a problem given in a classroom setting, a lifelong learning perspective implies that schools and universities need to prepare learners to engage in self-directed learning processes because this is what they will have to do in their professional and private lives outside of the classroom.

The challenge for methods supporting self-directed learning is to allow learners to work on authentic problems and tasks of their own choosing, and yet still provide them with learning support contextualized to their chosen problem. Project-based learning (PBL) is an approach to open-ended learning that encourages meaningful learning through student-directed investigation (Blumenfeld, Soloway, Marx, Krajcik, Guzdial, & Palincsar, 1991), negotiation and exploration in real-world project. However, there are only few studies on self-direction in PBL (Thomas 2000). Therefore, this study will conduct an experiment to explore whether self-direction level is improved by use of PBL comparing with traditional instruction.

Theory Framework

Definitions of Project-based learning, self-direction in learning, and relationship between them will be explored as follows:.

Project-based learning

According to the definitions found in project learning handbooks (BIE 2002), “PBL 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.” This definition encompasses a spectrum ranging from brief projects of one to two weeks based on a single subject in one classroom to yearlong, interdisciplinary projects that involve community participation and adults outside the school.

Self-Direction in Learning

Self-direction in learning is a term including both external factors that facilitate the learner taking primary responsibility for planning, implementing, and evaluating learning, and internal factors or personality characteristics that predispose one toward accepting responsibility for one's thoughts and actions as a learner (Hiemstra, 1991). In this study, more emphasis will be put on the internal factors.

Self-Direction(SD) and PROJECT Based Learning (PBL)

Self-directed learning has long been associated with preferred learning styles of adults (Cross, 1981). Unfortunately, this preference is not always realized. This may be because students in a formal educational environment have come to expect teacher-directed approaches or they may not have developed adequate skills for self-direction. In order to enhance the ability of learners to function as self-directed learners, Mezirow (1991) offers dozens of guidelines, one of which is project-based learning.

Why choose PBL rather than traditional instruction model to foster self-direction? It can be clarified from two aspects. In the first place, PBL can supply a real-world environment for nurturing learner self-direction, which is collaborative rather than competitive. In the second place, on the part of process, PBL involves the same activities as self-directed learning (Hammond & Collins, 1991; Knowles, 1975).

This study will analyze how eight factors of self-direction can be applied in the context of PBL.

Literature Review

There is no special research on SD and PBL except an incidental statement in which SD “increased self-direction and motivation” through PBL (Diane Curtis, 2001). This conclusion is deduced from several researches on effectiveness of PBL, but no there are no details or reasons to support these assertions. The review puts emphasis on the effectiveness of PBL since these studies were, more or less, related to SD.

The most extensive research on the effectiveness of PBL, Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound (ELOB), reported significant improvement in academic test scores, school climate, student motivation, attendance, and structured changes in schools (Thomas, 2000).

A recent study, conducted by SRI International, reports on a five-year evaluation of the Challenge 2000 Multimedia Project in California's Silicon Valley. Students who had taken part in the Multimedia Project outperformed comparison students on all three measures associated with the brochure task: content mastery, sensitivity to the audience, and coherent design (integrating multiple graphical and textual elements). However, students in the Multimedia Project made the same progress as did students in the comparison classes on standardized tests of basic skills (Thomas, 2000).

In Hong Kong, Chan (1992) and Chik (1995) examined the contributions and limitations of PBL from a teaching perspective. PBL can be considered as an effective educational technique for enhancing the student’s ability in analysis and in problem-solving (Chan, 1992). Learners had greater responsibility for their own learning instead of deriving information from a transmission model of teaching. PBL is also strongly advocated on Taiwan and Mainland China. It is known as inquiry learning in the Mainland China. Fok and Cheung (2001) stated that the role of PBL is to provide means for stimulating students through trial and error. Products and results are not key concerns.

It is concluded from above studies that PBL seems to be equivalent or slightly better than other instructional models for producing gains in general academic achievement and for developing lower-level cognitive skills in traditional subject areas. PBL, in comparison to other instructional methods, has value for enhancing the quality of students’ learning in many subject areas, improving students’ responsibility for learning, and prompting them to apply learning results in novel, problem-solving contexts.

However, above studies of effectiveness of PBL are mostly related to achievements and problem-solving skills, and slightly associated with social and emotional perspective, such as attitude toward future learning, self-reliance and collaborative skills. Despite discovery of a variety of factors about self-direction, such as self-responsibility, improved attitude and setting own goals,  factors that make up self-direction have not been a topic for research.

This study, through qualitative and quantitative methods, will explore the changes of eight factors of SD respectively resulted from PBL and discover in-depth reasons and further advice for PBL. The two methods could complement each other to produce both specific and general results.

Research design

Research questions

The research questions are as follows:

  • What, if any, are the differences in self-direction readiness before and after PBL?

  • How did PBL change each of the eight factors of self-direction?

The benefits expected from this research can be articulated in terms of theory and practice.

In theory, this research will fill the gap of self-direction research in the context and process of PBL, because current research is limited.

In practice, the benefits are concerned primarily with teacher training and student learning. Incorporation of PBL models into courses early in the computer science curriculum can facilitate the process of creating self-directed learners who move toward self-actualization and are better prepared for their future careers. Their achievements will encourage teachers to adopt PBL, which in turn, will prompt teachers to face real-world challenges and build a broad and convincing knowledge structure.


A teacher and one hundred of sophomores majoring in computer science from Guangzhou University were involved in this study. The age of students ranged from 17 to 20 years old. Ten percent of the participants were female, and the mean age was 18.7 (SD = 1.1). Before the experiment, subjects had been informed that they could choose to quit anytime. The teachers in Guangzhou University had a common level of teaching experience according to peer and student evaluations.

Method and Procedure

A quasi-experimental pretest/posttest design was used for this study. The controlled group took part in a traditional lecture and the experimental group took part in project-based learning.

The questionnaire, a diagnostic tool, embracing eight factors, was used for for assessing readiness for self-directed learning before and after experiment. A revised self-directed learning readiness scale (SDLRS) designed by Lucy M. Guglielmino in 1977 set the criterion. Brockett (1985c) noted that the SDLRS contains 58 items assessing self-directed learning readiness on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from 1 “almost never true of me” to 5 “almost always true of me.” The 58 items are summed to ascertain the participant’s SDLRS score. Overall, the SDRLS is a global measure of self-directed learning readiness. Prior researchers have reported high internal consistency for this instrument (Reio & Leitsch, 2003).

Questionnaires and semi-structured interviews were tools to collect data. The former was employed to investigate the improved self-direction readiness of both groups and factors of self-direction, and the latter for deeply investigating the attitude of experimental subjects toward PBL.


Results from this study focused on performance in a self-direction test given as both a pretest and posttest. Gains between the pretest and posttest for the 50 students in the experimental group were compared to those for the 50 students in the comparison group that did not participate in the PBL course. Forty-nine questionnaires were taken in the experiment group.

Table 1
Group Statistics




Std. Deviation

Error Mean


Experimental group





Control group






Table 2
Independent Samples t-Test


Levene's Test for Equality of Variances

t-test for Equality of Means















95% Confidence Interval of the Difference




Equal variances assumed











Equal variances not assumed










Table 1 shows that the mean improved score of the experimental group was 5.33 and the mean of controlled group was 4.00. From Table 2, the t-value was 2.020, and degree of freedom = 97. The significant values that might be expected were .046<.05. The standard deviations in the original data set were very similar and the sample sizes were close, so using the unequal variances t-test gave very similar results to the t-test which assumed equal variances. Therefore, we could hold that the improved self-direction level in experimental group was significantly larger than that of controlled group, i.e., PBL is better than traditional didactic instruction for enhancing self-direction in students.

The final scholar examination scores showed a surprising result. In Figure 1, the level of self-direction showed a positive relation with academic achievement with a coefficient of 0.97, p<0.01. This result confirmed that students with high self-direction readiness make high scores in learning performance. Also, it proves the importance of nurturing self-direction in instruction.

Figure 1. Scattered plot of SDL and
final score (r=0.97) of experimental group

According to the interview with subjects, responsibility for their own learning and their self-confidence are obviously enhanced after PBL. Most students are more interested in PBL than traditional instruction model for reasons stated below:

From the aspect of individual communication, the subjects experienced the happiness of exchanging information with others in order to solve common problems rather than private matters. In addition, their skills for deeply communicating with others were improved..

About PBL, there are more opportunities for students to design the framework, develop a project, and analyze and solve a series of problems than in traditional instruction.

From the aspect of learning, students built up self-confidence. Most important, they grasped self-learning skills to develop plans, organize related resources, solve problems, and overcome difficulties. More than half of the subjects gained more positive attitudes to learning.

It is possible that there is a culture discrepancy in Chinese and English. The SDLRS questionnaire was designed by Lucy M. Guglielmino in 1977. Culture differences may affect the validity. In PBL, teacher skills and style may also affect results. There is a proverb saying, “No static method in teaching” that suggests teaching style will affect learning effectiveness in any kind of instruction model, not only in PBL. Observation is needed to collect data from classroom where PBL happens and evolves because an interview is not enough to objectively describe the complex interactions that promote learning..


PBL is preferred over traditional instruction by many students because of a sense of ownership, sharing knowledge, self-learning skills, improved communication, closer social relationships, and creativity. For SD, self-confidence and responsibility for learning are improved as noted ny students and teachers. Other factors such as love of learning, attitude, and tolerance of risk, remain about the same. Even self-consciousness has declined, because, as teachers suggest, students in PBL have more chances to introspect against the real-world background.

These findings necessitate further in-depth research so that our knowledge of all factors in SD will be enhanced.


Brockett, R.G., & Hiemstra, R. 1991. Self-direction in adult learning: Perspectives on theory, research, and practice. International, Pan American, and Universal Copyright Conventions.

Chan, H. 1992. A Study of the Implementation of the Certificate Level Design and Technology Curriculum in Hongkong Secondary Schools: A Case Study on Project Work Approach. M.Ed. Dissertation. The University of Hongkong

Chik M.L. 1995. An Evaluation of Project Assessment in Environmental Education. M.Ed. Dissertation. The University of Hongkong

Cross, K. P. 1981. Adults as learners. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Hammond, M., & Collins, R. 1991. Self-directed learning: Critical practice. London: Kogan Page, Ltd.

Fok, Y.P. & Cheung. Y.H. 2001. The Characteristics and Curriculum Orientation of Inquiry Learning , Chinese Journal.

Jack R. Fraenkel & Norman E. Wallen. 2003. How to Design And Evaluate Research In Education (pp. 195-262).  Huaxia Publisher.

Lucy Madsen Guglielmino, Huey B. Long. & Roger Hiemstra. 2004. Historical Perspectives Series: Self-Direction in Learning in the United States.  International Journal of Self-Directed Learning. Volume 1, Number 1.

Mezirow, J. 1991. Transformative dimensions of adult learning. San Francisco: jossey Bass.

Ralph G. Brockett & Roger Hiemstra. 1991. Self-Direction in Adult Learning: Perspectives on Theory, Research, and Practice. London and New York: Routledge.

Thomas, John W. 2000. A Review of Research on Project-Based Learning. Available from


About the Authors

Y.X. Zhou is a Post doctor in Faculty of Education, T
he Chinese University of Hong Kong.


F.L. Lee is an associate professor in Faculty of Education,
The Chinese University of Hong Kong.


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