MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XIX No. 4
February 2007
Experiential Learning and the
Freshman Experience
Stakeholder Expectations of Learning in First-year Project-based Subjects
The Importance of Freshman-Year Projects
One Perspective on Project-Based Learning
Printable Version

Project-Based Learning

Stakeholder Expectations of Learning in
First-year Project-based Subjects

Edward F. Crawley and Diane H. Soderholm


In the design of a curriculum, each subject should have a well-understood role and objective, stated in terms of learning outcomes for knowledge, skills, and attitudinal outcomes [Diamond, R. Designing and Assessing Courses and Curricula: A Practical Guide. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA, 1998]. The authors conducted a survey to determine the degree of community consensus on the desired learning outcomes for a first-year project-based experience.

Voluntary interviews were conducted with representatives of four faculty stakeholder groups: thirteen department heads and deans; sixteen undergraduate officers; twelve faculty of first- and second-year core or department lead-in subjects; and nine members of the Task Force, CUP, and CoC. In addition, 58 students were interviewed: 20 current seniors; 20 incoming freshmen, and 18 prospective students.


The objectives of a first-year project-based experience, within the larger framework of problem-based learning [Duch, B. The Power of Problem-Based Learning, Stylus Publishing, Virginia, 2001], will be summarized, with appropriate extracts from faculty interview responses, around the following four topics: excitement, skills, professional context, and pedagogic foundation.

First-year project-based subjects can attract and excite students, and provide intellectual variety and an opportunity to explore.  They involve students “in exciting subject matter as quickly as possible” and help “solve the delayed gratification problem.” Successful experiences can build student confidence that will “spill over into other learning,” help to overcome the sense of being “overwhelmed or beaten down” by the freshman year, and “allow students to do what they came to MIT to do.”

Particular emphasis was placed by the faculty on those transferable skills associated with self-directed learning and the value of perseverance – “trying things that don’t work and understanding why they didn’t work.” “Creativity within the bounds that are realistic” and “learning that there is not only one answer” were also important outcomes.

Project-based subjects can introduce students to the context of the professional domain of practice, motivating the acquisition of and giving context to disciplinary knowledge.

They “give students the opportunity to be collaborative and deeply interdisciplinary” and to “deal with ambiguous complex problems,” “applying intelligence and analytic skills” to such problems. Such courses also “contribute to a student’s professional identity.”

More subtly, project-based subjects can play a critical role in laying a pedagogic foundation for further learning. This is far more than just motivation. “If properly designed, students will be involved in authentic experiences.” They will learn to “connect theory, principles, and equations to something that works.” Such concrete learning can have an important role in learning retention – “ It can be a lasting experience when learning hands on.” Such learning experience can cater to the variety of learning styles among our students – “a ‘C’ student in a lecture course can be an ‘A’ student in one of these courses.”

The learning cycle proposed by Kolb [Kolb, D.A. Experiential Learning. Prentice-Hall, NJ, 1984] – concrete experiences, reflective observation, abstract generalization, and active experimentation (and then back to concrete experiences in a loop) – may better serve many of our students, who tend to learn from the concrete to the abstract [Qualters, D. Learning Styles. All About learning/Aero-Astro Learning White Paper Series. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dept. of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 2001]. This would give them the personal cognitive structure onto which the abstractions they learn in many of our other theory-based subjects could be mapped. The result is deeper learning of the abstractions, and better long-term retention.

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Detriments and Other Issues

Picking up again on the theme of pedagogic impact, there is a concern that freshmen are not prepared for project-based experiences – “Freshmen don’t know much, don’t know all the principles yet; would these courses go better if we waited a year?” Others reflect the learning style variety as a concern: “It is possible that not everyone has an aptitude for this type of thing, but it can’t be that bad to learn it for one semester.”

Many faculty expressed concerns over curricular tensions. The most critical is simply the scarcity of time, that project-based courses “should not replace a GIR – should not be at the expense of a fundamental course.”

A more applied curricular concern is for the structure of the project-based subject in the Task Force proposal, indicating that there “seems that there are symmetrically more intelligent ways to do this,” and that “interdisciplinary or inter-School courses would be better.”

A widespread concern was of the quality of these offerings. At an intellectual level, there is a “concern that we’d be teaching merely surface behaviors that mimic authentic processes and students will think they then know something that they really don’t.” Said another way, “Will students think this is something ‘Mickey Mouse’ that was cooked up for freshmen, unlike the core courses they know are serious?” It is “very different to do these courses with freshmen – you cannot take an upper course and just use it for freshmen.” In addition there were general quality concerns that such subjects need to be done carefully, and that there is “very little evidence (from the old Lab requirement) that there is effective monitoring and oversight of these courses.”

Finally, almost everyone interviewed spoke in some way about a concern about resources. The “enormous preparation time for instructors,” the “equipment for each student – must we share?” and the scalability to hundreds of students were prime concerns. The scarcity of interested and qualified faculty was evident in comments like “How many profs are good at this?” and that the interested “faculty submit pilots, but that may change in the future.” Space, sustainability, and scalability were all issues.

There were also a number of comments made that did not identify project-based courses as clearly beneficial or detrimental, but which nevertheless highlighted important issues.  These issues fell into the categories Fit Within Curriculum/Coordination, Value of Choice vs. Fundamentals vs. Improving GIRs, Evaluation and Assessment, Faculty Issues, and Ownership.


The benefits identified by the qualitative responses of the faculty generally support the propositions of the Task Force, and the experience with project-based subjects at MIT and elsewhere. The pedagogic value of helping construct a cognitive scaffold to support deeper learning of further, more abstract fundamentals, is not as well recognized as its value might suggest.

The detriments identified by the stakeholders are all legitimate. Some are more matters of priority of investment or resources, but must be considered in the implementation of the Task Force recommendations. Others call for quality in a sustained and scalable manner, and the development of adequate resources to ensure the job is done “MIT well.” 

The faculty responses for expected proficiency in nine skill areas – Problem Solving, Inquiry-Based Knowledge Discovery, System Thinking, Personal Skills, Attitudes, Conceiving/Designing/Building, Teamwork, Communication, and External and Societal Context – did not reflect a strong consensus that any one skill be emphasized. There was broad consensus that all of the skills should be learned near the level of “To be able to participate in and contribute to,” which is a high expectation for a first-year subject. As an indication of hope, those who currently teach freshmen and sophomores were the most optimistic about what could be accomplished. The student input was also hopeful, and perhaps indicated a potential emphasis on teamwork. The vast majority of prospective MIT students indicated they would be interested in taking such a subject.

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