Arts Pedagogy Research and Innovation Laboratory

Project Based Learning (PBL) in a Japanese History Class

Love for learning is why we’re all here…hopefully right? And it’s such an important part of life. And if you don’t have that life is going to be so boring. And that’s the one thing this class really did foster – that intrinsic curiosity, and that wanting to explore.
--Adrienne, Third Year Student, East Asian Studies

In 2013, Dr. Mikael (Mickey) Adolphson of the University of Alberta took a radical turn in delivering his undergraduate course in Japanese Studies. Starting with guidelines for research and a carefully structured assessment model, Dr. Adolphson placed his 23 third-year undergraduate students in four groups. The student groups were charged with conducting their own historical research on the place of the Samurai image in Japanese culture. Using historical chronicles, literature, art and other media, each student group collaborated to develop two in-depth presentations: one for their classmates, and one for a general audience online. Students were encouraged to use multiple media and modes of communication – an important component of project based learning (Helle, Tynjälä, & Olkinuora, 2006). There were no exams in the course.

Although Dr. Adolphson and his students experienced some initial trepidation around the loose structure of the course, this quickly gave way creativity and excitement. Adolphson began the semester with enough content to provide the students with a foundation to pursue their own project interests. As students became more comfortable with the format of the class, Professor Adolphson found class time was spent coaching students’ reasoning, suggesting resources, and otherwise supporting their inquiries. He was particularly surprised at how the projects encouraged students to carefully consider their audiences and tailor their presentations. He was intrigued to notice that students began attending to the “how to” of his lectures and other media used in research because they were considering how to convey their own content effectively. Visit this student-created website to see some student projects from Japan 333. 

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In evaluating the experience, students discussed two key factors that motivated their learning: First was the freedom to explore the course themes in ways that interested them. Second was the recognition that the artefacts they were creating were authentic – they were presented to real audiences. Research has found significant links between autonomy and motivation in student learning (Douglass & Morris, 2014). Students described their learning as “meaningful.” The project based format, they stated, helped them to make “real world” connections with course content.

To see how your own project-based class might be structured, you can view Dr. Adolphson's syllabus here.

More Viewing

Watch a three part video series to learn more about how to implement project based learning in your own classroom. In Part I: Learning Kyoto and Tokyo, Dr. Adolphson describes how he thought through converting Japan 333 into a project-based learning course. Part II: Creating Kyoto and Tokyo, shows how students created their projects. In Part III: From Kyoto and Tokyo to Beyond, students reflect on their learning experiences, and describe the ways in which learning in Japan 333 stimulated their creativity, independence, and sense of purpose.

More Reading

Douglass, C., & Morris, S. R. (2014). Student perspectives on self-directed learning. Journal of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 14(1), 13–25.

Helle, L., Tynjälä, P., & Olkinuora, E. (2006). Project-based learning in post-secondary education – theory, practice and rubber sling shots. Higher Education, 51(2), 287–314. doi:10.1007/s10734-004-6386-5.

Lee, J. S., Blackwell, S., Drake, J., & Moran, K. A. (2014). Taking a leap of faith : Redefining teaching and learning in higher education through project-based learning. The Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning Higher Education, 8(2), 3–13.