Project Based vs Problem Based Learning

By Jan Schwartz

When I first read Jim Shimabukuro’s article, “A Quick and Dirty Look at Project-Based Learning,” I read it as Problem-Based Learning. I think that’s because he referred to Project-Based Learning as PBL in the body of the article, and I am accustomed to those initials meaning Problem-Based Learning. So, like Jim, I went to Google and found that while there are lots of similarities, there are also differences between the two. I Googled, problem based learning + project based learning.

Aside from the fact that when I see PBL I need to read more carefully, here is what I found. As opposed to Jim’s search, Edutopia did not come up on the first 5 pages of almost 5 million results, which meant to me that this was not going to be simplified easily!  Most of the results were .edu addresses so I prepared myself for a slog through the papers.

The most instructive (read simplified) article I found was “Collaborative Project-Based Learning and Problem-Based Learning in Higher Education: A Consideration of Tutor and Student Roles in Learner-Focused Strategies,” published in 2005 under a creative commons license.

The authors refer to Project Based Learning as CPBL (C=collaborative) and Problem Based Learning as PBL. Here is the summary of the similarities:

  • Contructivist approach to learning
  • Learner focused
  • Geared toward “real world” tasks
  • Projects or problems have more than one approach or answer
  • Simulate professional situations
  • Teacher as coach or facilitator
  • Students generally work in cooperative groups
  • Students encouraged to find multiple sources of information
  • Emphasis on authentic, performance based assessment

There is admittedly a blurring of lines between these two approaches to education, but there are differences. The genesis of CPBL is in science and engineering whereas the genesis of PBL is medicine and other like fields. CPBL is based on having an end product in mind, and it generally follows the production model (planning, researching, first draft, rewrite and submission); PBL is based on solving a particular problem via the inquiry model using a scenario or case study.

Other similarities have to do with the student and the teacher. Most students come from an educational background of “teacher as expert and deliverer of knowledge.” Of course most teachers come from that background too! In many cases students have not had to search for knowledge on their own, evaluate it and determine its relevancy to the real world. In other words they are not always taught to be self-directed and inquisitive.

In addition, most students do their work in isolation and do not feel a sense of responsibility for their classmates. Although some work is done solo in both CPBL and PBL, the group always comes into play and in the end will determine the outcome. Students need to learn strong communication and negotiating skills, time management skills and research literacy skills in order to be successful in a group. But isn’t that what employers are looking for today?

As Jim mentioned in his article, teachers will find that project [and problem based] learning is more time consuming than delivering a lecture and that the teacher has less control over the work being done by students. Designing the problem, or the project, and the assessment(s) takes much forethought. In addition to subject matter expertise, teachers must have excellent facilitation skills. How many of us have been taught how to do that well?

In my field of vocational education, alternative health care disciplines, Problem-Based Learning works best for the most part, as scenarios in client issues plays a big part in critically thinking about a treatment plan. But I can also see using Project Based Learning in a course such as business where students need to think about what comes after graduation.

I don’t usually care about pigeonholing how I teach, but this was a useful exercise for me in thinking about constructing learning activities in groups, both online and face-to-face.

8 Responses

  1. Thanks for finding the article, Jan, and for posting your thoughts. In my classes, the first stage in our collaborative project-based learning is for each group to define the problem they will solve. At least 2 weeks are devoted to problem definition and refinement. (That means every group will be solving a different problem. When they specify the problem their serious game will be designed to address, they are defining the parameters against which their solution will be judged.)

    So is this an example of problem-based collaborative project-based learning?

    • I suppose it is, Carrie. This was one of those intellectual exercises that helped me distinguish between the two, and your assignment seems a good use of both. But problem-based collaborative project-based learning is
      a mouthful that only (some) academics could love!

      • Jan and Carrie,

        What about saying “a project-based learning course, which will involve problem formulation and solving by the students” (or something like that) when you need to describe a concrete instance to non specialists?
        And agree that all project-based learning involves problem-based learning, but problem-based learning can also happen outside a project-based learning course?

  2. One thing I was thinking as a classroom practice based teacher is that the thing about PBL , or theme based learning or whatever we term it as, is that some people take the learning as delivered and teach it as it is.

    Injecting IEP for the place, students, level, areas of knowledge and
    personalization of the pbl makes it work , and behavior modification
    is usually not shared. I used to have a parent committee look over such PBL’s and we created a local add in, and local experts and resources . That makes it all more powerful.

  3. Mr. Frank, My name is Salim Nakhas from Indonesia. Now I am studying in magister program (S2) and now I very interested at your article about Project based Learning. May I take your the article, please? Tank You very much Sir

    • Salim, you may use my article. We work in teams of four or five students that work to complete a challenge together through social media Ipads and Ipods. Our current research has high school physics students create a weather balloon for the planet Mars. They must design the balloon, select the probe instruments and launch the balloon on Mars. NASA has given us the data for simulated flights. The students can collect simulated data on temperatures, pressures, radiation and even use cameras to collect pictures of the surface. We are in the pilot stages of this experiment. Students in three schools are using this program. WE like to define our program as teaming rather than collaborative learning. WE believe NASA and other work places use teams to get their work accomplished. Each member of a team has specific contributions to make to meet the challenge they are working on together.

  4. Project based learning, Theme based learning , whatever. I like the idea that the teacher, if well trained, and Tpack and technoliterate knows the learning landscape and can weave a sort of IEP that fits that
    learning place. NASA and NOAA and others have wonderful offerings.
    It is empowering to be able to add what is needed for that class, that school, and that student.
    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

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