Four ways to support PBL for Advanced Placement Teachers

Stanley Richards

More than a million students take Advanced Placement (AP) courses and exams every year. These rigorous academic programs can help prepare students for courses in college.  Traditionally, AP courses have relied on textbooks and lectures to prepare students for the exam. Recent research, however, has found that when AP teachers use a Project Based Learning (PBL) method of teaching, it can make a big difference in students’ engagement with the content and AP test results. Here are some of the reasons why PBL works so well, and what schools can do to support AP teachers who want to use PBL in their classrooms.


Why Project Based Learning?

In Project Based Learning, students work on a project over an extended period of time to solve a real-world problem or answer a complex question. Doing this work helps the students develop deep content knowledge, as well as critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and communication skills –and best of all, it truly engages students and gets them excited about learning. Teachers rave about the effectiveness of Project Based Learning for the instruction of academic knowledge and skills as well as the cultivation of other competencies necessary for college and career readiness. Additionally, research released earlier this year provides proof of the impact of PBL specifically for students taking AP classes. I had the opportunity to help lead a partnership between the non-profit PBLWorks, which provides PBL professional development, and Lucas Education Research (LER) to study the effectiveness of PBL within a high stakes AP environment. Teachers in the research project utilized and adapted the Knowledge in Action (KIA) curriculum, a PBL approach to AP courses. This curriculum was designed by University of Washington professors in collaboration with AP teachers. The teachers in the research project received professional development from PBLWorks over the course of the year as they implemented the PBL curriculum. The research found that PBL, coupled with high-quality professional development, significantly improves student performance when compared to students in non-PBL classrooms. Specifically, the students in the PBL classrooms performed 8 percentage points higher than their peers on AP U.S. Government and Politics and AP Environmental Science exams in the first year of implementation. The study also found that teachers implementing and adapting the KIA curriculum in the second year had more positive outcomes; students in the PBL classrooms scored 10 percentage points higher on the AP exam than students in non-PBL classrooms (Saavedra et al. 2021).


Shifting to PBL teaching

The move to Project Based teaching can be a big shift, especially for those teaching AP classes because of the breadth and depth of content that must be covered. PBL asks teachers to shift from being the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side,” working collaboratively with students to learn and discover, rather than transmitting knowledge purely through lecture. PBL requires a shift in mindset and takes some time to master. Here are some of the issues administrators should consider when thinking about how to best support Advanced Placement teachers who want to make this shift.

  • Provide professional development that is specific to AP courses and that provides ongoing support. We often hear about the so-called “implementation dip” when teachers set out to try new things in the classroom. There are two things that contribute to this – a psychological fear of change and lack of the skills and knowledge needed to implement it. Investing in ongoing professional development that is specific to Advanced Placement teaching, will help make sure teachers are successful as they make the shift to PBL. It’s also important to give teachers the opportunity and time to reflect after each project on what worked and didn’t work, and give them that opportunity to make changes and grow.


  • Don’t force teachers to use a PBL model. Instead, provide opportunities for teachers to see it in action or talk to other teachers who’ve tried it so they can get excited to try it themselves. One of the biggest challenges from a professional development standpoint is to convince teachers that PBL can work for AP classes – that these classes can move students beyond remembering content toward teaching them how to apply and transfer that knowledge to real-world scenarios Find a few teachers to be PBL ambassadors and encourage them to share their strategies and their successes. Share video testimonials from those who were involved in the research to show how powerful PBL can be. Teachers will want to use PBL when they see the value of the practice for student learning, engagement, and outcomes.


  • Encourage teachers to adapt provided materials to meet students’ needs. PBL is not a boxed, canned curriculum. Teachers don’t need to start on page 1 of the textbook and go all the way to page 400. One of the key factors of success in AP PBL implementation is teacher adaptation of materials to suit the needs of their students. Teachers should plan to scaffold learning for the unique individuals in their classrooms, and ensure that everything they do has their learners squarely centered in the work-- even if this means doing something different from the teacher next door.


  • Keep equity in mind. There’s something in the implementation or teaching of AP that historically has not supported certain populations of students (Kolluri, 2018) The KIA curriculum changes that because PBL is a vehicle for equity. It helps teachers make sure all students are challenged appropriately and have what they need to be successful. PBLWorks professional development has four levers for equity: 1) shared power – create a collaborative relationship in which teachers and students are partners in the process, 2) knowledge of students - learn about the students, their families and their communities and build meaningful relationships with them, 3) literacy - provide authentic opportunities for students to engage in reading, writing, listening, and speaking for a variety of purposes and audiences and 4) cognitive demand - hold high intellectual expectations for all students, and provide appropriate supports to ensure that each student is able to engage in intellectually rigorous work. PBL democratizes learning environments:  students and teachers are learning together and students are challenged and supported in ways that honor their strengths, interests, needs, and identities.

For too long, AP courses have been considered just a means to an end – the thing you have to do to help you pass the test. However, the classes don’t have to be just test prep. As evidenced by the LER study, AP courses can both achieve that end goal (and even improve passage rates) and also give students a meaningful experience that will have an impact for years to come.


About the author

Stanley Richards is the Senior Curriculum Manager at PBLWorks and was program manager for an ongoing partnership between PBLWorks and Lucas Education Research (LER) to study the effectiveness of PBL within a high stakes AP environment. He now supports the professional development and coaching of teachers to implement AP Environmental Science and AP Government curricula in school districts all over the country. Previous to his work at PBLWorks, Stanley implemented PBL practices as a high school science teacher for 10 years. Stanley was also an instructional coach in the subjects of science and math for 5 years. He has a BS in Environmental Science (with a focus on biology and chemistry) from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.



Terada, Y. (Feb. 21, 2021) New Research Makes a Powerful Case for PBL. Retrieved from

Saavedra, A. et al (2021) Knowledge in Action Efficacy Study Over Two Years. USC Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research. Retrieved from

Kolluri, S. (2018) Advanced Placement: The Dual Challenge of Equal Access and Effectiveness. Sage Journals, Volume: 88 issue: 5, page(s): 671-711. Retrieved from

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