Project-Based Learning and Problem-Based Learning: Can They Co-Exist?

By David Reese, Ed. D.


Working with schools around the country, educators frequently refer to PBL in their discussions. When I ask whether they are referring to Project-Based Learning or Problem-Based Learning, some are definitive in their answer and others ask “what’s the difference”?  Often people believe they are the same thing.  Are they?


On the surface, the names help identify the outcome.  Project-Based Learning leads students and teachers toward the completed project. Problem-Based Learning leads the teachers and students to problem identification and a solution. Can it be that simple?


Let’s look at the attributes of both PBLs:

Project-Based Learning tends to consist of longer tasks and is often inter-disciplinary. Scenarios often drive the student research, solution building, and product construction. Through this process, a student follows a series of general steps that help to provide structure for learning and project development. The culminating activity is the creation of a product and/or performance often identified by the teacher.


Problem-Based Learning often involves a single content area, but it can include other subjects as well. Students use “messy problems” in the form of case studies or fictitious scenarios. These learning experiences tend to be shorter and follow specific steps that result in the identification of the problem and then working toward a solution or solutions. Finally, students determine and present their solution(s) to the given problem.


While the framing and style of both PBLs are different, they are fairly similar in theory. Both are student-centered strategies that encourage the teacher to serve as the facilitator. They are often completed with students working in groups and utilizing multiple sources of information. Through these processes students make authentic connections utilizing active learning and 21st-century skills to develop answers to open-ended questions, issues, and challenges.


Both strategies promote student independence and inquiry. Inquiry is a pedagogical approach that encourages students to explore and apply academic content by developing, investigating, and answering questions. With this approach, research is a critical aspect of the learning experience. Levels of inquiry can be implemented in the classroom, based on student skills and experience. These levels move from the reinforcement of prior knowledge, with much teacher involvement, to open inquiry, which has the student undertaking all aspects of the task. This is a process that can be part of vertical and horizontal curriculum mapping and as students progress through learning, they move through these levels.


Can Project-Based Learning and Problem-Based Learning co-exist in the classroom? 

Yes, with subtle adjustments these processes can be taught jointly or integrated together to engage students and create authentic learning tasks.  I am a big believer in the GRASPS (Goal, Roal, Audience, Situation, Product/Performance, Standards) scenario template from Understanding by Design (UbD) framework. The GRASPS template allows for differentiation based upon the student learning outcomes desired. The entry point to the task can be adjusted based upon decisions made by the teacher related to the Goal, Role, Audience, and Situation. Problems, issues, and challenges selected will drive the approach students take. In either case, research at some level will be critical. Based on the students, the teacher may choose to provide all or some of the research materials or the students may be responsible for all aspects of the research including the development of research questions.


The decision as to what product/project should be created to present the findings and solution can be determined by the teacher, the student, or both.  This is a great opportunity for the development of authentic products tied to real word careers and experiences. This is also an excellent strategy for potential differentiation of content, products, and/or learning environment.  Online curriculum resources like Defined STEM offer teachers hundreds of career-focused performance tasks that follow the GRASPS template where the culminating activity is the creation of a product and/or performance.  Click here for examples of Problem vs Project-Based Learning Examples for K-12.


Whether you choose to focus on one PBL strategy or intertwine them, both are effective methods of engaging and teaching students.  Most importantly, each offers opportunities to engage students in real-world learning and build future-ready skills they will need to succeed.



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