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Project-based learning vs. Problem-based learning

Project-based learning vs. Problem-based learning

As I’ve been currently taking a course on project-based learning, I’ve been thinking also about the similarities and differences between project-based learning and problem-based learning. Before unpacking the two terms, my gut feeling was that the similarities far outweigh the differences.

Learning Defined

Project-based learning

  • Project-based learning is a teaching method that students learn by actively engaging in real-world and personally meaningful projects (PBLWorks).
  • Project-based learning is a dynamic classroom approach in which students actively explore real-world problems and challenges and acquire deeper knowledge (Edutopia).
  • Project-based learning is a model and framework of teaching and learning. Students acquire content knowledge and skills to answer a driving question based on an authentic challenge, need, problem, or concern.
  • Project-based learning is done collaboratively and within groups using a variety of employability skills such as critical thinking, communication, and creativity.
  • Project-based learning allows for student voice and choice as well as inquiry.
  • Authentic Project-based learning involves a community partner and a publicly presented product.
  • Project-based learning also involves an ongoing process of reflection (MagnifyLearning).

Project-based learning is a dynamic teaching and learning approach for actively exploring real-world problems and challenges so that each learner maintains a voice in promoting community, critical thinking skills, effective and efficient communication, creativity, and personal and transparent reflection.

Problem-based learning

  • Problem-based learning is a student-centered approach in which students learn about a subject by working in groups to solve an open-ended problem (Center for Teaching Innovation). 
  • Problem-based learning is a method of teaching where students are presented with a real or realistic problem, such as a case study or hypothetical situation, and use inductive reasoning to learn both information about the topic and how to think critically about it (University of Florida- Information Technology). 
  • To organize education so that natural active tendencies shall be fully enlisted in doing something, while seeing to it that the doing requires observation, the acquisition of information, and the use of a constructive imagination, is what needs to be done to improve social conditions – Dewey (1916, 1944).
  • All education involves either problem solving or preparation for problem solving (Deisle, 1997).
  • Problem-based learning is a teaching method in which complex real-world problems are used as the vehicle to promote student learning of concepts and principles as opposed to direct presentation of facts and concepts. In addition to course content, PBL can promote the development of critical thinking skills, problem-solving abilities, and communication skills. It can also provide opportunities for working in groups, finding and evaluating research materials, and life-long learning (Duch et al, 2001).

Problem-based learning is a student-centered approach to teaching and learning for actively pursuing open-ended and complex problems so that each learner may think critically and communicate with each other to set and solve problems in ways that improve social conditions.

Conclusion: Clearly there are more similarities than differences when comparing and contrasting project-based learning with problem-based learning. Perhaps with project-based learning, there is a slight difference with a bit more focus on personal reflection on the part of the student in terms of what is being learned, how learning takes place, the purpose of learning and teamwork, etc. Also, a project could be a problem-setting exercise where learners set out to better understand the problem rather than trying to offer possible solutions. Finally, a project doesn’t necessarily involve a problem, per se; however, some might argue that not relating the project to a problem could cause one to question the relevance or authenticity of the educative (classroom) experience. 


Call to action: After comparing project-based learning with problem-based learning, I find myself favoring the former. In your own practice, which term do you typically use? Which best describes the kind of activities you design that promote problem setting/solving, critical thinking skills, community, creativity, etc.?

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