Project-Based and Problem-Based: The same or different?

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1 Project-Based and Problem-Based: The same or different?

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The terms project-based learning and problem-based learning are each used to describe a range of instructional strategies. The breadth of their respective definitions, their conceptual similarity, and the use of the shorthand term PBL result in some confusion in the literature.

2 Similarities

  • instructional strategies intended to engage students in authentic, "real world" tasks to enhance learning. Students are given open-ended projects or problems with more than one approach or answer, intended to simulate professional situations.
  • student-centered
  • the teacher as facilitator or coach.
  • work in cooperative groups for extended periods of time
  • seek out multiple sources of information.
  • often, an emphasis on authentic, performance-based assessment.

3 Differences

3.1 Matter

Project-based learning tends to be associated with K-12 instruction. Problem-based learning is also used in K-12 classrooms, but has its origins in medical training and other professional preparation practices. (Ryan et al, 1994).

3.2 Start

Project-based learning typically begins with an end product or "artifact" in mind, the production of which requires specific content knowledge or skills and typically raises one or more problems which students must solve. Projects vary widely in scope and time frame, and end products vary widely in level of technology used and sophistication. Problem-based learning, as the name implies, begins with a problem for students to solve or learn more about. Often these problems are framed in a scenario or case study format. Problems are designed to be "ill-structured" and to imitate the complexity of real life cases. As with project-based learning, problem-based learning assignments vary widely in scope and sophistication.

3.3 Approach, Model

Project-based learning: production model:

  1. students define the purpose for creating the end product and identify their audience. They research their topic, design their product, and create a plan for project management.
  2. Students then begin the project, resolve problems and issues that arise in production, and finish their product. Students may use or resent the product they have created, and ideally are given time to reflect on and evaluate their work. (Crawford, Bellnet website, Autodesk website, Blumenfeld et al). The entire process is meant to be authentic, mirroring real world production activities and utilizing students’ own ideas and approaches to accomplish the tasks at hand. Though the end product is the driving force in project-based learning, it is the content knowledge and skills acquired during the production process that are important to the success of the approach.

Problem-based learning: inquiry model:

  1. students are presented with a problem
  2. they begin by organizing any previous knowledge on the subject, posing any additional questions, and identifying areas they need more information.
  3. Students devise a plan for gathering more information, then do the necessary research and reconvene to share and summarize their new knowledge.
  4. Students may present their conclusions, and there may or may not be an end product.

Again, students ideally have adequate time for reflection and self-evaluation. (Duch, 1995; Delisle, Hoffman and Ritchie, 1997; Stepian and Gallagher, 1993). All problem-based learning approaches rely on a problem as their driving forces, but may focus on the solution to varying degrees. Some problem-based approaches intend for students to clearly define the problem, develop hypotheses, gather information, and arrive at clearly stated solutions. (Allen, 1998). Others design the problems as learning-embedded cases which may have no solution but are meant to engage students in learning and information gathering. (Wang, 1998).

4 Two approaches sometime complementary

In practice, the line between project- and problem-based learning is frequently blurred and that the two are used in combination and play complementary roles. Fundamentally, problem- and project-based learning have the same orientation: both are authentic, constructivist approaches to learning. The differences between the two approaches may lie in the subtle variations. There are at least two possible continua of variation in these type of learning approaches.

  1. the extent to which the end product is the organizing center of the project. On one end of this continuum, end products are elaborate and shape the production process, such as a computer animation piece which requires extensive planning and labor. On the other end, end products are simpler and more summative, such as a group’s report on their research findings. The former example is best described as project-based learning, where the end product drives the planning, production, and evaluation process. The latter example, where the inquiry and research (rather than the end product) is the primary focus of the learning process, is a better example of problem-based learning.
  2. the extent to which a problem is the organizing center of the project. On one end of this continuum are projects in which it is implicitly assumed that any number of problems will arise and students will require problem-solving skills to overcome them. On the other end of this continuum are projects that begin with a clearly stated problem or problems and require a set of conclusions or a solution in direct response, where "the problematic situation is the organizing center for the curriculum.". Here again, the former example typifies project-based learning, where the latter is best described as problem-based learning.

5 References

Allen, D. (1998?) Bringing Problem-Based Learning to the Introductory Biology Classroom. In A. McNeal & C. D’Avanzo (Eds.), Student Active Science. (Ch. 15). Available:

Autodesk website:

Bellnet website:

Barrows, H. (1985) Designing a Problem Based Curriculum for the Pre-Clinical Years. New York: Springer Publishing Company.

Blumenfeld, P.C., Soloway, E., Marx, R. W., Krajcik, J. S., Guzdial, M., &Palincsar, A. (1991) Motivating project-based learning: Sustaining the doing, supporting the learning. Educational Psychologist, 26, 369-398.

Center for Problem Based Learning at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy website:

Delisle, R. (1997) How to Use Problem-Based Learning in the Classroom. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Alexandria, VA.

Duch, B. (Ed.) (1995, January) What is Problem-Based Learning? In ABOUT TEACHING: A Newsletter of the Center for Teaching Effectiveness, 47. Available:

Hoffman, B., & Ritchie, D. (1997, March) Using Multimedia to Overcome the Problems with Problem Based Learning. Instructional Science, 25(2), 97-115.

Ryan, Christopher, Koschmann, & Timothy. (1994) The Collaborative Learning Laboratory: A Technology-Enriched Environment to Support Problem-Based Learning.

Stepien, W.J., and Gallagher, S.A. (1993) Problem-based Learning: As Authentic as it Gets." Educational Leadership, 50(7), 25-8. Wang, H. (1998, August 8) Research Associate, CCMB-USC. On AERA listserve on-line discussion.