Monday, September 26, 2011

Can PBL be effective for Advanced Placement Courses?


If you teach an AP course, you know all about the concern of covering content! The end goal that all AP teachers push their students toward is receiving a score of a 4 or 5 on the AP exam in May. Thus, content heavy lessons become the daily focus of the course. Unfortunately, this often leads students to merely memorize the information, rather than to truly learn the information.

Having taught AP U.S. Government for the last eight years of my fourteen-year teaching career, I understand the desire to “push” through the content. I know all about the demands of the College Board. In fact, I would argue that most high school AP courses are much more demanding than the dual enrollment courses that many students opt to take at local colleges. I am also the first to admit that for the first few years of my AP teaching experience, I merely “covered” content. However, I can’t guarantee that my first classes of AP students truly learned the content.

As AP teachers we know that AP level students are masters at the game of school. They can read and memorize, listen to lectures and memorize, and can pass a unit test with flying colors, having memorized all of the content. But the question remains: Have they truly learned the content and mastered the standards of the course?

While I had been using project-based learning in my other courses for several years, I was skeptical at implementing PBL into my AP Government class. In fact, it wasn’t until one day, while discussing ways in which voter turnout could be increased that my students took charge of the class and created their own project. Admittedly, I was dubious, not to mention worried that too much time would be spent on the project with too little content covered and too few standards met. However, at the end of the project, I was amazed to learn that more content was covered and more standards were met than I ever imagined were possible. When I began to move away from the structure of the textbook and toward an integrated thematic approach, the design of the project came naturally.

Today, I am excited to report, that I have more non-traditional, first-time AP students who register for my class than any other AP class in my district. While not every student who takes my class signs up to take the AP exam in May for various reasons, I am please to say that 75% of my students last year received a 4 or a 5 on the exam. Most importantly, I can say with confidence that my students are truly learning the content and meeting the standards in my course that is solely structured around project-based learning.

If you are interested in hearing more about PBL in an AP setting, join me on November 2 for a free webinar. Space is limited so please register at to reserve your spot.

I will be sure to talk about the project that convinced me that PBL is the way to go in an AP course, as well as offer examples of projects that have been successfully implemented in other AP courses. I will also provide you with tools to make PBL a success in your own AP courses. Until then, start thinking about ways in which you can transform your traditional AP classes into project-based learning experiences.

BIE National Faculty


  1. Congrats on your good work with AP Gov't and PBL, Dayna! I know it is possible to integrate real, sound pedagogy with an AP course. I have been teaching AP U.S. History and AP U.S. Government for 15 or so years and began to go more and more with PBL in the last 5 years or so with tremendous results. The learning is deeper and more enduring, and the students enjoy what they're doing and get more engaged. It's the only way to go. I hope you have a great webinar - if I'm available, I'll be sure to tune in!

    Keep up the good work. Cheers!

  2. Dayna:

    Thanks for this post. Good to hear that some AP teachers are taking the risk to innovate with their instruction and not be overly concerned about covering content. As you discovered, the content did get covered and the depth of understanding was improved through more engagement of the learners. I am not surprised and applaud you on trying.

    There are still challenges ahead. As a former AP Biology and Chemistry teacher, I too tried project-based learning in my classes and had similar results; however, students were engaged in projects that were specifically biology and chemistry related. I wonder if I would have had as much success had I used PBL as it is designed--more an an interdisciplinary approach to projects. What has been your experience? Do you do projects that are interdisciplinary?


    Bob Ryshke
    Center for Teaching

  3. Bob -

    I am a strong advocate for interdisciplinary work in all classes, including AP courses. I have completed projects in my AP course that have connected with art, statistics, biology, and even a culinary class! I will be sure to talk about this aspect during my webinar. I would love to hear about the projects that you completed in your science course. Feel free to email me the details for possible inclusion in the webinar.


  4. Hi Dayna,

    We are a New Tech school and are combining our AP English and AP social studies courses for the first time this year in the PBL model. Do you have any good links or resources to share?

    Cynthia E. Mose-Trevino
    Director of New Tech
    Calumet New Tech High School

  5. Cynthia -

    Which social studies course? AP US? If you let me know, I can provide you with more information. I would also suggest that you join the BIE Edmodo community. There are over 1800 members with lots of great sharing of resources!


  6. I just came across this blog post and would love to see first-hand what you've done with your AP Government class. Are you going to revisit this topic in an upcoming webinar or do you record them for future viewing? Thanks!

  7. Nicole - You can view the archive of the webinar on our BIE YouTube site. It discusses this project and many other AP courses as they relate to the 8 elements of Project Based Learning. If you have any additional specific questions about my class, you may reach me at