ISTE Standards for Coaching

Project-Based Learning: A Recipe for Student Autonomy, Voice and Choice, and Sustained Inquiry

As a university dietetics instructor and internship director, I am focused on developing curricula that enables my students to practice and prepare for professional work. As budding professionals, dietetics students need opportunities to build knowledge and develop professional skills in food and nutritional sciences through simulation exercises and experiential learning in authentic settings. Further, due to the explosion of digital technologies utilized in the dietetics field, it is vitally important that dietetics students are provided educational opportunities to practice communicating their knowledge and skills via digital platforms. 

Incorporating projects into dietetics education that utilize digital platforms not only help prepare students for the professional realm, but offer students “voice and choice” in the design process. This curricular approach gives students the freedom to be creative and innovative as they make decisions about content, format, and overall design. My experience as a college professor leads me to believe that this approach to learning will likely increase intrinsic motivation among students since they are not constrained to a rigid set of assignment requirements, topics they are not interested in exploring, or project designs that are not appealing to them. Rather, by following a broad set of project guidelines, students are encouraged to investigate and design based on what is interesting and important to them.    

Further, I believe a critical aspect of being an effective college instructor involves periodic reflection on curriculum and instruction. Some questions to ponder as one reflects on course design include the following: 

  • What makes learning exciting and rewarding to students? 
  • How does the structure of the curriculum affect student motivation? 
  • What types of assignments enable students to build knowledge and develop skills that they will retain beyond a particular college course/term? 
  • How can assignments be designed to foster student autonomy, creativity and imagination? 

As I consider best practices in the instruction of dietetics students, I reflect on the following question as it pertains to utilization of digital technology in project-based learning, and how student voice and choice increase intrinsic motivation and creativity in the design process of project-based learning. How does student autonomy in selection and utilization of digital tools affect the quality of outputs in the design process?

The International Society for Technology in Education’s (ISTE) Standard 4 for Students, “Innovative Designer,” states that: “Students will use a variety of technologies within a design process to identify and solve problems by creating new, useful or imaginative solutions” (ISTE). Within this category, ISTE Standard 4a states: “Students know and use a deliberate design process for generating ideas, testing theories, creating innovative artifacts or solving authentic problems” (ISTE).

What is project-based learning? 

According to the Buck Institute for Education, “Project-based learning is a teaching method in which students learn by actively engaging in real world and personally meaningful projects” (Buck Institute for Education). This type of learning enables students to work on a project that allows voice and choice while investigating a problem or question. Sustained inquiry is a key component of project-based learning whereby students dive into the depths of a subject area over an extended period of time to answer questions or problems that are meaningful to them. Projects culminate with a public product, such as a blog post or a website. This instructional model enhances the learning process by including student reflection, which is an essential component of Kolb’s theory of experiential learning (Lindsey & Berger. 2009).  


Examples of Project-based Learning in Higher Education 

In a research article titled, “Fostering students’ autonomy: Project-based learning as an instructional strategy,” the author describes the curriculum design and outcomes of incorporating project-based learning design into an English language immersion class. Thirty university students worked in pairs to research a business of their choice and design a 15-minute PowerPoint presentation on the organization’s characteristics, such as the marketing mix, their mission and vision statements, a SWOT analysis, etc. Students were required to incorporate multimedia into their presentations, but were given autonomy on what to include. The results showed that the use of project-based learning instruction had a positive impact on student autonomy, collaborative learning, content knowledge, presentation skills, language acquisition, and use of technology tools (Rostom, 2019).  

Further, in an article titled, “Everyone designs: Learner autonomy through creative, reflective, and iterative practice mindsets,” the authors underscore the importance of an instructional approach that is open to creativity and reflection. The authors discuss that although encouraging autonomy in the learning process requires teachers to forgo some instructional control and the need to create learning opportunities that support autonomy, this approach benefits students through the development of 21st century skills, which are necessary for success in the professional world (Henriksen, Cain, & Mishra, 2018). 

Following are some of the many 21st century skills that can be formed through project-based learning (

  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Communication, teamwork and leadership skills 
  • Creativity and innovation
  • Information and communication technology, digital citizenship, and digital literacy 
  • Research skills
  • Planning and self-direction

Lastly, in a research paper titled, “Facilitating adoption of web tools for problem and project based learning activities,” the authors provide examples of the types of digital tools that are appropriate to use during various stages of project-based learning.  The paper provides an enlightening table detailing specific web-based tools that can assist students when they are working on various components of project-based learning, such as assimilating, communicating. producing, and practicing (Khalid, Rongbutsri, & Buus, 2012).  

In conclusion, project-based learning offers numerous benefits to college students and supports voice and choice in their educational pursuits. Dietetics students need opportunities to practice communicating their knowledge and skills using an instructional format that encourages revision and reflection and the opportunity to create products that are shared with the public. Project-based learning is an ideal teaching method for these purposes, and its use in dietetics education should be encouraged. 


21st Century Skills. (2016).

Henrickson, D., Cain, W., Mishra, P. (2018). Everyone designs: Learner autonomy through creative, reflective, and iterative practice mindsets. Journal of Formative Design in Learning, 2, 69-81. 

International Society for Technology in Education.

Khalid, M. S., Rongbutsri, N., & Buus, L. (2012). Facilitating Adoption of Web Tools for Problem and Project Based Learning Activities. In V. Hodgson, C. Jones, M. D. Laat, D. McConnell, T. Ryberg, & P. Sloep (Eds.), Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on Networked Learning 2012 (pp. 559-566).

Lindsey, L., & Berger, N. (2009). Experiential approach to instruction. In Reigeluth, C., & CarrChellman, A. (2009). Instructional-design theories and models, volume III: Building a common knowledge base (pp. 118-40). Taylor & Francis Group. 

Rostom, M. (2019). Fostering students’ autonomy: Project-based learning as an instructional strategy. SOCIOINT 2019- 6th International Conference on Education, Social Sciences and Humanities