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From Boring Lessons to Engaged Learners: How Project-Based and Problem-Based Learning Can Transform Your Teaching

Sara Segar
January 5, 2021

Project-Based Vs. Problem-Based Learning

This post is about how I personally view and utilize project-based learning (PBL) and problem-based learning (PrBL).

My approach is based on my training. There are slight variations in how educators perceive the two, but there is agreement across the board when it comes to a few main features.

What do Project-based Learning and Problem-Based Learning Have in Common?

There is often confusion between project-based learning (PBL) and problem-based learning (PrBL). When I was asked to write this post, my first thought was that I am not entirely certain of the distinction myself. Both PBL and PrBL have been central to my curriculum. I have treated them as discrete learning experiences, but there is quite a bit of overlap between the two.

PBL and PrBL both begin with and are framed around real-world problems. Both are also cross-disciplinary, incorporating a variety of concepts from across the board into one learning experience. PBL and PrBL are also both powerful tools for developing essential skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, empathy, and information literacy, among others.

The process of exploring the problem and solutions is where the two strategies diverge.

My students have learned about ecological principles in my biology and environmental science classes by studying wolf conservation in Minnesota, through both PBL and PrBL.

Selecting this topic to study was very deliberate, as this problem directly impacts my students who are Minnesota residents. I’m going to use this example to highlight the differences between PBL and PrBL.

Problem-Based Learning

Problem-based learning involves picking apart and finding solutions to real-world problems. Students research the issue, investigate differing perspectives and experiences around the issue, explore solutions from a variety of angles, and put together a comprehensive plan to solve the problem.

My environmental science students explored the problem of at-risk wolf numbers in Minnesota through problem-based learning (PrBL). The wolf population size in Minnesota has been dangerously low at times.

Looking at this problem through a problem-based learning approach would require students to first look at the source of the problem (wolves have a reputation of being dangerous, they prey on livestock, loss of critical habitat, genetic depletion, etc.)

The source of the problem is multi-dimensional, as are most real-world problems. Herein lies the foundation of PrBL.

Once my students had a portfolio of information about the problem at hand, they explored solutions.

They looked at a variety of options:

  • Changing or creating policies to protect both wolves and farmers
  • Forming a mutually beneficial partnership between farmers and conservationists
  • Changing public perception about wolves
  • Community education and partnerships
  • Funding ongoing wolf research to understand their habits, territories, food availability disease, the impact of warming on behaviors
  • Promoting technology that directly prevents livestock depredation by wolves
  • And so much more!

The purpose is to get students critically thinking, seeing a problem from many lenses, and gaining content knowledge across a wide spectrum of disciplines.

In the case of the wolves, many concepts were included such as conservation, politics, economics, ecology, math, geography and so much more.

The end product is a comprehensive plan to solve a complex and multifaceted problem.

The plan is theoretical, meaning I do not expect my students to share their plans or act on their plans.

This is one of the main differences between project-based learning and problem-based learning.

Read: Problem-based Learning articles

Project-Based Learning

In my opinion, project-based learning (PBL) is a form of problem-based learning, with a few distinct features that set it apart from other types of PrBL experiences.

PBL starts with a real-world problem, as does PrBL, but the process and outcomes differ slightly.

Authenticity is more pronounced in project-based learning. PBL emphasizes solving real-world problems by being a part of the solution.

Rather than study a problem, find solutions, and move on, project-based learning encourages:

  • Collaboration with community members
  • Final products that impact or solve the problem for a specific audience
  • Sharing that final product with a relevant audience

Let’s go back to the wolves as an example where my biology students participated in a group project-based learning experience about wolf conservation.

We connected with the Wildlife Science Center (WSC) in Minnesota to partner with them on several aspects of wolf conservation.

This provided so many wonderful opportunities - from working with a Ph.D. student from the U of M who was testing sound and light alarm systems to deter wolves from preying on livestock to participating in an IVF study taking place at the center, which had huge implications for captive breeding and release programs.

My students were even able to observe, in-person, an ultrasound conducted on a female wolf!

Some students demonstrated learning by creating an awareness campaign to change the negative and fearful reputation of wolves. Others created and tested their own sound and light technology using the wolf residents at the WSC as their subjects.

This is project-based learning at it’s finest. Students look at a problem and explore solutions, but rather than stop there, as I would with the type of problem-based learning approach that I’ve already discussed, project-based learning gets students directly involved and actively working toward solutions.

Read: Project-based Learning articles

The Breakdown

So let’s break this down.

Problem-based learning looks at a real-world problem and students explore solutions through an inquiry-based approach.

Project-based learning does the same but adds an element of direct involvement on the part of the students.

Project-based learning is a form of problem-based learning that may take more time, but adds significant skill-building opportunities that other types of problem-based learning may not, such as building a professional network, communication, and collaboration.

I often have my students start a project-based learning experience with the problem-based approach I mentioned earlier. They deeply explore the issue from every angle and brainstorm solutions. They then move onto the project-based learning piece of the experience where they focus on one specific aspect of the problem and a solution or two, and get even deeper into the issue by incorporating authentic learning experiences, community collaborators, innovative final products, and authentic presentations.

Together, these two styles of learning are quite powerful. Both are transformational in their own way, inciting creativity, curiosity, empathy, critical thinking, and so much more.

A venn diagram comparing problem-based learning and project-based learning


How to Use Digital Portfolios to Support PrBL and PBL

When implementing a problem-based or project-based learning approach, digital portfolios are a natural fit.

Documenting Experiences

Digital portfolios allow students to add their research and potential solutions as they progress throughout the learning experience. Students are then able to reflect on the solutions and identify next steps to do a deeper dive.

If students are collaborating with community members, or interviewing a subject-matter expert, these authentic experiences can be documented in a portfolio by adding different types of media.

Read: How to implement project-based learning with digital portfolios

Skill Development

21st-century skill development is very easily promoted with the use of digital portfolios. Not only are students able to develop their communication skills by presenting their learning in a variety of formats, but they are also able to improve their critical thinking skills through reflecting on their learning and the processes.

Read: How to use digital portfolios to promote metacognition in your classroom

Digital portfolios also give students the ability to collaborate with their peers. By having students share their learning in a safe environment of just 2-3 students, it gives them the ability to brainstorm and learn from each other while that learning and growth remain visible to you as an educator.

The Bigger Picture

Since digital portfolios promote documenting and reflecting on learning as it happens, once students have completed their PBL or PrBL assignment, they will have a glimpse into how their research and collaboration play a part in their proposed solution(s).

Students are able to gain a better understanding of the impact they can have on real-world problems. Digital portfolios help students get a more complete picture of how each stage of the learning process contributes to the overall solution(s) they have proposed/implemented.

Connect with Sara Segar

 A former middle and high school biology teacher at a project-based middle and high school in St. Paul Minesota, Sara is the founder of Experiential Learning Depot. As such, she helps educators go beyond worksheets and lectures, and transition to student-centered and directed learning experiences.

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