Problem-Based Learning vs. Project-Based Learning: Understanding the Differences and Benefits

In Perspectives by Sean Newman Maroni

By: Christian Boakye

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and Project-Based Learning (PjBL) are essential teaching methodologies in modern education. Both emphasize active learning and real-world applications but differ in execution and focus.

PBL involves students solving complex, real-world problems and fostering critical thinking, problem-solving, and self-directed learning skills. Students work in collaborative groups guided by a facilitator (Barrows, 1996). On the other hand, PjBL involves students working on a project over an extended period, integrating various subjects and skills into a final product or presentation (Kingston, 2018). Understanding these differences helps educators choose the appropriate method based on instructional goals and student needs, benefiting diverse learning styles and preferences. Policymakers can support educational innovation by promoting these methodologies.

In Problem-Based Learning (PBL), students solve real-world problems collaboratively, encouraging critical thinking and independent learning. The instructor acts as a facilitator, guiding students through inquiry and reflection without providing direct answers (Barrows, 1996). Project-Based Learning (PjBL) centers on students completing a project over an extended period, integrating multiple subjects and skills into a final product. It emphasizes hands-on learning and collaboration, with teachers providing clear guidelines and resources (Kingston, 2018).

Regarding structure and process, Problem-Based Learning (PBL) starts with a complex problem, prompting students to collaboratively analyze, research, and propose solutions. The facilitator guides the process, promoting self-directed learning and critical thinking (Barrows, 1996). Project-Based Learning (PjBL) begins with a driving question, leading to planning, research, and a final product. Teachers provide structured guidance and checkpoints, helping students develop project management skills and ensuring thorough exploration of the subject matter (Kingston, 2018).

Regarding skills development, Problem-Based Learning (PBL) focuses on developing critical thinking, analytical skills, self-directed learning, and collaboration. Students learn to dissect issues, evaluate evidence, and propose reasoned arguments (Hmelo-Silver, 2004). Project-Based Learning (PjBL) emphasizes practical application, project management, interdisciplinary learning, and collaboration. Students acquire knowledge and apply it effectively in practical situations (Blumenfeld et al., 1991).

PBL vs. PjBL Comparison Table

Feature Problem-Based Learning (PBL) Project-Based Learning (PjBL)
Teaching Style Guide on the side (facilitator) Teacher as a guide and resource provider
Skill Focus Critical thinking, problem-solving, self-directed learning Practical application, project management, interdisciplinary learning
Structure and Process Starts with a complex problem; promotes inquiry and solution proposal Begins with a driving question; involves planning, research, and project creation
Assessment Continuous assessment of process, critical thinking, and problem-solving; reflection-based Assessment of process and final product; criteria include quality, creativity, and application of knowledge
Examples Medical education (diagnosing patient cases), engineering (designing sustainable buildings) K-12 education (school garden project), business (developing a startup business plan)
Learning Environment Collaborative, student-centered Hands-on, project-centered
Outcome Focus Reasoned arguments and solutions to real-world problems Completed project or product demonstrating learned skills
Role of Teacher Facilitator of inquiry and reflection Provider of guidelines, resources, and structured checkpoints


Problem-Based Learning (PBL) assessment focuses on students’ processes and reasoning. Continuous assessment evaluates participation, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. Reflection is essential, allowing students to assess their learning process and outcomes (Savery, 2015). In Project-Based Learning (PjBL), assessment focuses on the process and final product. Educators evaluate planning, research, and the final presentation, with criteria including quality, creativity, and application of knowledge. Peer review fosters collaboration and critical thinking (Bell, 2010).

In terms of examples and applications, Problem-Based Learning (PBL) can be seen in medical education, where students diagnose and propose treatment plans based on patient cases, developing critical diagnostic skills (Barrows, 1996). In engineering, students tackle complex design problems, such as designing a sustainable building, fostering problem-solving and teamwork (Dym et al., 2005). On the other hand, Project-Based Learning (PjBL) can be seen in K-12 education, where projects like creating a school garden integrate science, math, and language arts, culminating in a tangible outcome (Grant, 2002). In business and entrepreneurship, developing a business plan for a startup applies knowledge from marketing, finance, and management (Mergendoller & Thomas, 2005).

Both Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and Project-Based Learning (PjBL) offer valuable educational experiences, fostering student engagement, critical thinking, and real-world application of knowledge. PBL emphasizes solving complex problems, while PjBL focuses on creating a final product through interdisciplinary projects. Understanding these differences helps educators, students, and policymakers enhance teaching and learning effectiveness, preparing students for future success. Educators can create dynamic and engaging learning environments by integrating these approaches thoughtfully.


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Bell, S. (2010). Project-based learning for the 21st century: Skills for the future. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 83(2), 39-43.

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(3-4), 369-398.

Dym, C. L., Agogino, A. M., Eris, O., Frey, D. D., & Leifer, L. J. (2005). Engineering design thinking, teaching, and learning. Journal of Engineering Education, 94(1), 103-120.

Grant, M. M. (2002). Getting a grip on project-based learning: Theory, cases and recommendations. Meridian: A Middle School Computer Technologies Journal, 5(1), 83-92.

Hmelo-Silver, C. E. (2004). Problem-based learning: What and how do students learn? Educational Psychology Review, 16(3), 235-266.

Mergendoller, J. R., & Thomas, J. W. (2005). Managing project based learning: Principles from the field. Retrieved June, 14, 2005.

Savery, J. R. (2015). Overview of problem-based learning: Definitions and distinctions. Essential readings in problem-based learning: Exploring and extending the legacy of Howard S. Barrows, 9(2), 5-15.

Schmidt, H. G., Rotgans, J. I., & Yew, E. H. J. (2011). The process of problem-based learning: What works and why. Medical Education, 45(8), 792-806.

Kingston, S. (2018). Project Based Learning & Student Achievement: What Does the Research Tell Us? PBL Evidence Matters, Volume 1, No. 1. Buck institute for education.