Problem-Based Learning vs. Project-Based Learning

A photograph of a graph paper notebook with a pen and two crumbled up pieces of paper.

Both problem-based learning and project-based learning are types of experiential learning. Problem-based learning involves critical thinking to examine problems that lack a well-defined answer. In project-based learning, students are challenged to develop a plan and create a product or artifact that addresses the problem. This article delves further into the differences and similarities between these two types of experiential learning.

Problem-Based Learning

Problem-based learning is a category of experiential learning that involves students in the process of critical thinking to examine problems that lack a well-defined answer. In problem-based learning, students are given a problem with only preliminary information. They work towards solving the problems themselves, rather than reviewing how others have resolved the situation or problem as in a case study. They do not produce a product as in project-based learning, and students are not necessarily working in the community unless they are gathering data.

Problem-based learning fosters students’ metacognitive skills. They must be consciously aware of what they already know about an area of discovery as well as what they do not know. In addition, students must be aware of strategies they can use to solve the problem. Students do not necessarily walk away from a problem-based learning strategy with knowledge; rather, they develop problem solving skills they can use for lifelong learning. Students also learn how to work with a team, much like they will in their future professional work. Group dynamics can be challenging and as students work through these challenges, they gain new skills. Further, students learn to connect concepts as they progress. Student confidence in their skills and ownership of their learning are strong benefits of problem-based learning (Stanford University Center for Teaching and Learning, 2001).

To facilitate problem-based learning, we recommend the following steps adapted from Svinicki & McKeachie (2014):

  1. Students are assigned to permanent groups to explore the problem, organize their thoughts, and define the concepts or elements of the problem.
  2. Students identify resources related to the problem.
  3. Students attempt to determine the nature of the problem.
  4. Students pose questions about the problem. These are questions students don’t yet understand and require new learning.
  5. Students record and discuss learning issues. They continually determine what they don’t know and what needs further investigation.
  6. Students list the learning issues in order of their importance and assign them to individuals or to the whole group.
  7. Students discuss needed resources with the instructor as well as constraints that may interfere with solving the problem.
  8. Students select an initial response to the problem using criteria they develop such as cost, materials needed, political processes, environmental constraints, etc. to determine if the response is an acceptable solution.
  9. Students determine what must be done to arrive at an acceptable solution, review and analyze the learning issues, and work towards integrating their knowledge.
  10. Students choose a solution to the problem and evaluate that solution.
  11. Students determine ways to monitor their solution.
  12. Students continue to determine new learning issues related to the problem.

For resources and examples of problem-based learning, look at the PBL@UD Institute for Transforming Undergraduate Education website.

Project-Based Learning

Project-based learning is a category of experiential learning where students are presented with a complex problem or question that has multiple potential solutions and possibilities for exploration. However, after studying this problem or question in their teams, students are challenged to develop a plan and create a product or artifact that addresses the problem. These projects, if done well, require students to use many of their core skills including critical thinking, teamwork, communication, empirical and quantitative analysis, and personal and social responsibility.

Students engage in project-based learning work with real world challenges, solve problems in their teams, discover knowledge on their own without structure imposed by the instructor, and develop projects that are the result of this work. Per Helle, Tynjälä, and Olkinuora (2006), there are four motivators for project-based learning:

  • Fostering work readiness
  • Facilitating humanitarian service
  • Fostering critical thinking
  • Facilitating understanding of content

As students design and produce a project or artifact, they gain skills of application that provide continuous feedback about their learning. Students will consistently find gaps in their learning that require them to dig deeper into resources while they construct the project. They use project-planning and design skills and rely heavily on the skills of their teammates.

Often, presentation of the final work is done in the public arena. You may even consider inviting experts such as community leaders or scientists to provide feedback to the students. This public presentation invites feedback and affords students the opportunity to respond to questions or critique another real-world skill.

UNT Lecturer, Dr. Jessica Strubel, designed the following experiential learning project for her class, MDSE 3350: Historic and Contemporary Style of Apparel Class: 

Imagine that you are a curator who is about to mount a traveling fashion exhibit. Your show will open at the Dallas Museum of Art, but then it will move on to one international site of your choice. A lot of planning goes into putting an exhibition together. You will be responsible for everything from procuring garments and props to creating a promotional strategy that appeals to a broad international audience. This project will walk you through that process step by step. You must address each point in detail to receive full points, and always keep in mind the international component of this project when responding to all of the questions and making your justifications for your choices (Strubel, 2010, by permission).

For more examples of project-based learning, this webpage from Educurious provides valuable examples that can be adapted for many core courses. Each example includes standards or outcomes, a brief video, and a Prezi description.

References

Center for Learning Enhancement, Assessment and Redesign. (2016). Teaching Resources for Engaged Educators [online training modules]. Denton, TX: University of North Texas.

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.

Svinicki, M. D., & McKeachie, W. J. (2014). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (14th edition). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Stanford University Center for Teaching and Learning. (2001). Problem-based learning. Speaking of Teaching: Stanford University Newsletter on Teaching.