16 September 2014
Short articles

Problem-based learning and project-based learning

Both problem-based learning and project-based learning are referred to as PBL, and some find it confusing to separate the two pedagogies.

So, what is the difference?

Problem-based learning originated in the 1960s and is a teaching pedagogy that is student-centred. Students learn about a topic through the solving of problems and generally work in groups to solve the problem where, often, there is no one correct answer. In short, ‘it empowers learners to conduct research, integrate theory and practice, and apply knowledge and skills to develop a viable solution to a defined problem,’ (Savery, 2006).

Project-based learning has its origins back in the work of John Dewey and William Kilpatrick and dates back to 1918 when the term was first used (Edutopia, 2014). Project-based learning is an instructional approach where students learn by investigating a complex question, problem or challenge. It promotes active learning, engages students, and allows for higher order thinking (Savery, 2006). Students explore real-world problems and find answers through the completion of a project. Students also have some control over the project they will be working on, how the project will finish, as well as the end product.

The differences

The difference between problem-based learning and project-based learning is that students who complete problem-based learning often share the outcomes and jointly set the learning goals and outcomes with the teacher. On the other hand, project-based learning is an approach where the goals are set. It is also quite structured in the way that the teaching occurs.

Project-based learning is often multidisciplinary and longer, whereas problem based learning is more likely to be a single subject and shorter. Generally, project-based learning follows general steps while problem-based learning provides specific steps. Importantly, project-based learning often involves authentic tasks that solve real-world problems while problem-based learning uses scenarios and cases that are perhaps less related to real life (Larmer, 2014).

In conclusion, it is probably the importance of conducting active learning with students that is worthy and not the actual name of the task. Both problem-based and project-based learning have their place in today’s classroom and can promote 21st Century learning.


Larmer, J. (2014). Project-based learning vs. problem-based learning vs. X-BL. Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/pbl-vs-pbl-vs-xbl-john-larmer

Savery, J. R. (2006). Overview of problem-based learning: Definitions and distinctions. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning, 1(1). Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.7771/1541-5015.1002

Further information also available at:

Leggett, A. (2014). Active learning pedagogies: Problem-based learning. Retrieved from http://www.uq.edu.au/tediteach/flipped-classroom/problem-bl.html

Have you used project-based learning or problem-based learning in your classroom?

What activities did you use to engage the students?

Was there any evidence to suggest that students were more engaged?

Dr Chris Campbell

Dr Chris Campbell is a lecturer in Learning Innovation at Griffith University, Queensland. She currently researches and teaches in technology in higher education including mobile learning, self-regulation in online learning and learning design. Previously Chris taught both pre-service and in-service teachers on how to use ICTs.


  • We have been running a large scale project based learning unit with our year 7 students this term where they work in teams of 4 (mixed gender) students to design and develop a video game to solve a water based issue. They would meet for 6 sessions a week together and negotiate their ideas, plan and then eventually code it. Most games consisted of 2-3 levels that incorporated the learning from Sci, Math, English, Geography and ICT. They created a game design document and had 7 weeks in total, after which they reflected and presented their learning at a public expo. Their interactive digital games were designed in Stencyl.
    We engaged them initially with team building making activities and considering the hours they put in (almost 30 hours) with students outside their friendship groups, and that they were not traditionally ‘assessed’ all teams remained engaged to submit their games in the last week. Their intrinsic motivation, perseverance in the face of coding challenges and meta cognition was inspiring.
    More challenging however has been persuading some of our teaching staff that game based learning has real educational value, the traditional view that silo, subject based learning of the 20th century is the only true learning experience is hard to shake, despite the growing evidence to the contrary.

    29 August 2016
  • I am currently writing my research Dissertation paper for my final year at University.  It is evaluating whether the implementation of Project-Based Learning at a Key Stage 3 Pupil Referral Unit school has had any effect on student’s behaviour and learning.  I would be very interested if there are any links, papers or references you may be able to tell me about regarding the implementation of PBL with students who have social, emotional and behavioural needs?

    Thank you very much in advance.

    Amelia Hemmings
    UK based.

    26 April 2017
  • Hi Jo,

    Thank you very much for your response. I shall have a read tonight!


    27 April 2017
  • Jo,
    I have now read this paper and it’s excellent and proving to be a great source for my research, so thank you again. If you do have any other links to other papers that you think of, please if you could let me know. Thank you so much again, Amelia.

    28 April 2017

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