Project-Based Learning: A Win for Students, Institutions Alike

Postsecondary institutions across Michigan continue to seek ways to better serve adult learners. One strategy is the use of project-based learning to promote experiential learning and apply concepts taught in the classroom.

Research shows project-based learning improves a number of life skills, including self-direction and self-motivation, two components essential for “time to degree” completion. However, with something as complex as project-based learning, it can seem overwhelming for faculty and staff to develop materials, programs, and services to implement these strategies.

One creative solution is to leverage the students themselves. This is a win for students and institutions alike.

Leaders who see students as an extension of the project team gain insights to create a meaningful educational experience. Students benefit by honing their skills — and they can cite their experience as they seek employment after graduation.

For two great examples, consider how Marymount University in Arlington, Va., and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are using this approach to address mental health needs of students.

At Marymount, credential-seeking graduate and postgraduate students provide free virtual counseling to students and the public in partnership with the university’s student counseling services. This provides Marymount students with practical experience they can carry forward in their professional and educational journey. It also fills a critical gap in mental health services for the university and their local community.

UNC Chapel Hill is piloting a wellness coaching program where graduate students provide one-on-one coaching to on-campus undergraduate students. This program allows the graduate students to fulfill their practicum requirements while providing needed services to their undergraduate colleagues.

Multiple opportunities

This model — tapping into the expertise of an institution’s students while providing them experiential learning opportunities — can be applied in many facets of the university operations.

Another example: Utilizing advertising, marketing and public relations students to support the institution’s attraction efforts. By engaging students in these majors either through their direct class work or by tapping student groups to recruit interested individuals, institutions can access the expertise they have instilled in their students, with mutual benefit to the student and the institution.

Project-based learning helps students become more connected to the college and their community, develop the skills that employers seek, and enhance their educational performance.

These experiences provide opportunities for students to hone their skills in a project-based learning format. Project-based and experiential learning is a promising evidence-based practice that has demonstrated significant benefits to student success.

Real experience, real benefits

Multiple studies, surveys and case studies have shown the advantages of project-based learning:

  • Providing opportunities for students to engage with fellow students or prospective students helps strengthen the sense of community. Research by the American Council on Education has demonstrated that peer-run support programs are effective at reducing depressive symptoms.
  • Despite a national debate over postsecondary education’s return on investment, a 2023 national survey by the American Association of Colleges and Universities found that employers remain consistent supporters of higher education. At the same time, the survey found employers place importance on the types of skills developed through project-based learning, such as oral communication, adaptability and flexibility, and working effectively in teams.
  • The AACU survey reinforces the findings of a 2014 study published by Innovative Higher Education, when authors Scott Wurdinger and Mariam Qureshi found project-based learning improved life skills, particularly responsibility, problem solving, self-direction, communication and creativity.
  • A 2014 case study published in the Community College Journal of Research and Practice tracked a project-based learning pilot at Portland Community College in Portland, Ore., that incorporated service learning. Authors Alison Butler and Monica Christofill found the addition of service learning “made a significant improvement in student self-motivation and helped students achieve intended core outcomes by their own agency.”
  • In a study published in 2016 in the International Journal for the Scholarship of Technology Enhanced Learning, authors Darren H Iwamoto, Jace Hargis and Ky Vuong found project-based learning “has the potential to improve student engagement and their academic performance.”

Everybody wins

At a time when Michigan faces an imperative to improve the success of adult learners, integrating student learning opportunities through a project-based learning model provides a win-win-win opportunity.

Students involved in the project win by getting a meaningful, project-based learning experience. The institution wins by tapping the expertise they are cultivating to extend the impact of their learner attraction and support efforts, while creating a stronger sense of community. Most importantly, prospective and current students benefit from the additional support and outreach.

The Michigan Center for Adult College Success, an initiative of TalentFirst, is committed to working with postsecondary education institutions across Michigan to help explore and implement creative solutions like these to better serve adult learners. If you are interested in partnering with us in this work, reach out to us at or join us for one of our virtual office hours.


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