What is Project-Based Learning (PBL)?

Project-Based Learning Explained

"Any learning environment in which the problem drives the learning"

Problem-based learning is based on the messy, complex problems encountered in the real world as a stimulus for learning and for integrating and organizing learned information in ways that will ensure its recall and application to future problems. Problems are raised at the start of the topic, before students have been taught some of the relevant knowledge. By actively engaging with the problem, students develop skills around finding information, identifying what information they still need, and possible sources of that information. Learners are able to connect what they are learning in class to their own lives and important issues in their world.

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Why PBL?

Today's world brings with it a rapid explosion of easily accessible knowledge. Graduates need to be self-directed and possess lifelong learning skills in order to effectively make use of the overwhelming abundance of information available to them. The interdisciplinary nature of today's issues, challenges, and work requires graduates to be able to integrate knowledge and skills from a number of disciplines in order to conceptualize and implement create solutions.

Problem-based learning activities are designed to help graduates develop transferable skills and attributes alongside gaining appropriate discipline-specific knowledge. Transferable skills/attributes are part of the degree level expectations that represent the intended outcomes for a university education and are being written into program curriculum. Problem-based learning challenges students to: (a) develop the ability to think critically; (b) analyze problems; and (c) find and use appropriate learning resources. Through PBL learners, are progressively given more and more responsibility for their own education and become increasingly independent of the teacher for their education.

The PBL Learning Process

In problem-based learning:

    • Learners encounter a problem and attempt to solve it with information they already possess allowing them to appreciate what they already know.

    • They identify what they need to learn to better understand the problem and how to resolve it.

    • Once they have worked with the problem as far as possible and identified what they need to learn, the learners engage in self-directed study to research the information needed finding and using a variety of information resources (books, journals, reports, online information, and a variety of people with appropriate areas of expertise). In this way, learning can be personalized to the needs and learning styles of the individual.

    • The learners then return to the problem and apply what they learned to their work with the problem in order to more fully understand and resolve the problem.

    • After they have finished their problem work, the learners assess themselves and each other to develop skills in self-assessment and the constructive assessment of peers. Self-assessment is a skill essential to effective independent learning.

    • The responsibility of the teacher in PBL is to provide the educational materials and guidance that facilitate learning. The principle role of the teacher in PBL is that of a facilitator or educational coach (often referred to in jargon of PBL as a "tutor") guiding the learners in the PBL process. As learners become more proficient in the PBL learning process, the tutor becomes less active.

Designing and Developing a PBL Project/Unit of Study

Problem-based learning courses primarily concentrate on students' learning through authentic problem situations. By creating these situations, the course simulates professional practice and the complex issues that surround it. Content is naturally embedded within problems. Through carefully designed problem scenarios, appropriate content is selected and positioned at authentic locations throughout the process and problem where it can be found by the students.

What Can a PBL Project/Unit of Study Cover?

Generally, PBL courses cover the same amount of content or less content than would be in traditional didactic courses. The focus is on what students are expected to do with the content that the course covers. PBL is particularly appropriate for courses where the learning objectives focus on developing analytic and information literacy skills and on a deep learning of content that can be applied or critiqued within context.

Although much of a PBL course's content occurs during students' engagement with the problem, basic initial knowledge is often a prerequisite. Instructors of PBL courses need to identify what knowledge and skills students will need prior to starting problem-based learning and then build in some embedded instruction that will allow the students to gain these prerequisites.

Consider students' prior course experiences. Depending on the program's curriculum and course pre-requisites, this course may be some students' first experience in a PBL learning environment. To facilitate their learning, scaffolding may need to be incorporated into the course's design. Approaches for scaffolding include providing explicit instructions or examples of how these problem situations can be approached and solved. It is also important to very clearly communicate the PBL process, the assessments and what is expected of the students.

PBL Curriculum Characteristics

    • Problem-based learning curriculum have several distinct characteristics, specifically:

    • Reliance on problems to drive the curriculum: The problems do not test students' skills. Rather, they assist in the development of the skills themselves.

    • The problems are open-ended: There is not meant to be one solution. As new information is gathered in a reiterative process, students' perception of the problem--and their ideas for solutions--can change.

    • Students solve the problems: Instructors are coaches and facilitators.

    • Students are only given guidelines for how to approach problems: There is no one formula for how students should approach their problem.

    • Authentic, performance based assessment: Consider both embedded and non-embedded assessments and ensure that assessments are timed to align well with students' progress throughout their PBL activities.

(Adapted from Stepien, W.J. and Gallagher, S.A. 1993. "Problem-based Learning: As Authentic as it Gets." Educational Leadership. 50(7) 25-8 and Barrows, H. (1985) Designing a Problem Based Curriculum for the Pre-Clinical Years.)

Assessment for PBL Projects/Units of Study

Assessment methods used in problem-based learning courses relates to the nature of the tasks, processes, and content in PBL courses. With PBL, assessment also evaluates the level of integration of interdisciplinary knowledge, skills and behaviours. Selecting appropriate assessment that generally differs from traditional methods is important to create alignment between what students are asked to do and their learning that is driven by assessment.

The types of assessment that evaluate PBL tasks, process, content and integration of interdisciplinary knowledge include:

  • newspaper article

  • peer assessment

  • position paper

  • presentations/demonstrations

  • reflective essays

  • reflective problem log

  • role-play

  • self-assessment

  • videotape presentation.

As PBL involves a great deal of team/group work, a large amount of the assessment should revolve around groups. For example, group presentations can provide a substantial contribution towards students' final mark and still balanced by a final formative peer review each student receives. Reflective journals and essays, as well as self assessment, are powerful tools that encourage students to think about their learning through the process.

Assessments aligned with PBL, including any essays and exams, should maintain the focus on context, and involve engagement with messy problems from multiple perspectives when assessing students' learning of course content. For additional tips on assessing problem-based learning, check out this article.

Source: Queens University - Centre for Teaching and Learning

Why Do Project-Based Learning?

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Source: Edge Foundation

Project vs Problem-Based Learning

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Source: Edge Foundation

Benefits of PBL

Picture students collaborating in groups with hands-on learning, while improving social skills. The teacher becomes a facilitator and mentor.

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Students become stakeholders. Collaborating versus competing. Extends learning potential beyond individual capabilities.

Active Learning

Learning becomes an ongoing and active endeavour which is not only more fun for the student but creates long-term lasting learning.

Subject Integration

PBL brings subjects and knowledge together, like in life. Students learn to apply knowledge and critical skills in various meaningful, real-world scenarios.

Modern Employment

Students taught through Project Based Learning are better prepared for the rapidly changing 21st century workplace. Today’s success requires more than just basic knowledge and skills. With PBL students learn to take initiative, collaborate in teams, communicate ideas and engage with information technologies, build confidence and solve problems.

Source: Pear Tree Elementary Website

Common PBL Misconceptions

  • Learning is unstructured

  • Students do just what they want around a general topic or theme.

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  • Students are left to their own devices.

  • There is no 'input' from the teacher until the end.

  • It's a 'free for all'.

  • There is no 'formal' learning/input or teaching from the teacher.

  • Students will be assessed as a group.

  • Students can get away with doing very little and leave it to the rest of the group.

  • There are no checks and balances throughout the project.

Source: Edge Foundation

PBL Learning Process

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Source: Pear Tree Elementary Website

PBL Process

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Source: Edge Foundation

Getting Started with PBL - Website

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Website Source: John Spenser Website
Also see A.J. Juliani's Blog: How the Heck Do You Manage a Project-Based Class?

Project Based Learning: Explained - Video

Run Time: 3:49- Dec 9, 2010
This simple video makes the essential elements of PBL come alive and brings to light the 21st Century skills and competencies (collaboration, communication, critical thinking) that will enable K-12 students to be college and work-ready as well as effective members of their communities.

PBL Works Blog & Resources

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PBLWorks provides information and resources to help build the capacity of teachers to design and facilitate quality Project Based Learning and the capacity of school and system leaders to set the conditions for teachers to implement great projects with all students. The site is free to browse, but if you wish to download any of the resources, you will need to create a free account. The site is run by Buck Institute for Education.

The Blog

  • You can search for areas of interest or use their categories: How-to Tips and Tools; Success Stories; Projects in Action; PBL and Equity; Gold Standard PBL: Teaching Practices; Gold Standard PBL: Design Elements; or General PBL.


  • Dive into the collection of videos, planning forms, rubrics, blogs, and more. Whether you want to learn about PBL, or find classroom resources, you should be able to find materials will support your journey.

SEL is Essential to Success in PBL

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  • All teachers, but PBL practitioners in particular, should take notice of a published paper by Lucas Educational Research. This white paper affirms that SEL is essential to success not just in school, but in PBL specifically for a number of reasons.

  • A comprehensive review of hundreds of studies confirmed that SEL raises academic performance, improves classroom behavior, and bolsters the ability of students to resist stress, depression, and other emotional challenges that, due in part to the ongoing pandemic, continue to persist at high levels.

PBL and Visible Thinking Routines

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Source: PBLWorks Website
* More information about Visible Thinking Routines

Empowering Student Agency Through PBL

[Gever Tulley]

Run Time: 1:42:11- Nov 18, 2021
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Drew Perkins talks with Gever Tulley, founder of Tinkering School and SF Brightworks, about their use of PBL to develop student agency and deeper learning that works.

Links & Resources Mentioned In This Episode:

Source: The TeachThought Podcast

Project-Based Teaching Practices

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Source: PBLWorks Website

PBL Boosts Science Learning

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Source: Edutopia Website

Many classrooms today still look like they did 100 years ago, when students were preparing for factory jobs. But the world’s moved on: Modern careers demand a more sophisticated set of skills—collaboration, advanced problem-solving, and creativity, for example—and those can be difficult to teach in classrooms that rarely give students the time and space to develop those competencies.

Project-based learning (PBL) would seem like an ideal solution. But critics say PBL places too much responsibility on novice learners, ignoring the evidence about the effectiveness of direct instruction and ultimately undermining subject fluency.

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Advocates counter that student-centered learning and direct instruction can and should coexist in classrooms.

Now two new large-scale studiesencompassing over 6,000 students in 114 diverse schools across the nation—provide evidence that a well-structured, project-based approach boosts learning for a wide range of students.

In the studies, which were funded by Lucas Education Research, a sister division of Edutopia, elementary and high school students engaged in challenging projects that had them designing water systems for local farms, or creating toys using simple household objects to learn about gravity, friction, and force. Subsequent testing revealed notable learning gains—well above those experienced by students in traditional classrooms—and those gains seemed to raise all boats, persisting across socioeconomic class, race, and reading levels.

Source: Edupedia

This article by A.J. Juliani is for those that need more resources about inquiry-driven education, and for those trying to get research to back them up when bringing it to a leader, school board, parent committee, or even colleagues.

The article sheds some light on the research behind choice, and more broadly, inquiry-driven education. Juliani says it’s easy for him to praise Genius Hour because he's done it in the classroom, and seen many other teachers do it successfully with their students. However, he also understands that if you have not had that experience, it may be difficult to justify.

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The article is separated into four sections:

  1. How choice, PBL, and inquiry-driven learning increases student engagement and achievement

  2. Success-stories from fellow teachers using the choice and inquiry-driven learning model

  3. How choice, PBL, and inquiry-driven learning is connected to the common core standards

  4. Related books, whitepapers, and research linked to choice and inquiry-driven education

Also read: PBL vs Doing The Same Thing: The Research Is Clear by A. J. Juliani

Source: A.J. Juliani

Five Questions for Troubleshooting Project-Based Learning

When PBL isn’t going as planned, sometimes it takes just a few tweaks to turn things around. Sometimes, in spite of your best efforts, the project-based learning (PBL) experience you planned just doesn’t work. Instead of throwing up your hands and assuming that PBL doesn’t work for you (or your kids), the article lists five questions to help you figure out what went wrong so you can adjust and get it right next time.

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The article is separated into five sections:

  1. How's Your Community

  2. What Grouping Decisions Did You Make?

  3. Did You Over- or Under-Shoot the Level of Structure?

  4. How Complex is the Work?

  5. Do Students Have Clarity About What is Expected of Them?


Ways to Get started with PBL

Run Time: 3:05 - Sep 28, 2021

PBL in the Early Elementary

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PBL Approach to Teaching Elem. Science

Run Time: 5:02 - Feb 21, 2021

Solving Real-World Issues Through PBL

Run Time: 5:29 - Nov 1, 2016

PBL Strategies for Differentiated Instruction

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Differentiate Through Project-Based Learning

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While examples given are from MS & HS, you will see that they can also be applied to elementary school.

Sample Grade 3 PBL Example

Run Time: 7:40 - Jun 5, 2019

Austin’s Butterfly Video

Run Time: 6:32 - Mar 9, 2012Relevant Resources from EL Education WebsiteAustin's Butterfly DraftsAn Artist's Journey at Dunraven School - Inspired by Austin's Butterfly

PBL Articles and Resources

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Project-Based Learning

Creating a PBL Unit Based on Local History in Elementary School | Edutoipia | January 5, 2023 | Here’s a framework for a project-based learning unit that guides upper elementary students to develop a rich understanding of local history.

5 Steps to Keep Engagement High During Project-Based Learning | Edutoipia | December 21, 2022 | Taking students’ interests into account when designing project-based learning helps ensure that they stay engaged throughout the unit.

New Research Makes a Powerful Case for PBL | Edutoipia | February 21, 2021 | Two new gold-standard studies provide compelling evidence that project-based learning is an effective strategy for all students—including historically marginalized ones.

Pear Tree Elementary Website | Comparison between PBL and Traditional Teaching methodology & some sample PBL projects.

What Is Project Based Learning? 10 Best PBL Ideas to Boost Outcomes | Prodigy Website | June 02, 2020

Problem-Based Learning

Problem-Based Learning: Tips and Project Ideas | Education World | 2013 |

New, Strong Evidence for Problem-Based Learning | Forbes | Oct 29, 2019 | Two new large-scale reports provide convincing empirical evidence that problem- or inquiry-based learning is effective and that teachers, students and parents prefer it as an instructional method - along with other active, immersive techniques.

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