Project-Based Learning

Strategy, Structure, Results

What is it?

Project- and problem-based learning (PBL) are learner-centered, inquiry-based approaches designed to foster deep, engaged learning. In PBL, learners work in small groups to develop solutions to complex, real-world problems.

What’s the evidence?

Research has shown PBL to be a powerful approach that can lead to deep, engaged learning. It has been found to ignite learner motivation, facilitate knowledge acquisition and retention, and support important real-world skills. Educators have reported that while PBL can be challenging, it can also be quite rewarding.

While class projects and problems are not uncommon in higher education, not all of them result in deep, engaged learning. The PBL methodology provides structure for ensuring learners are not just doing, but “doing with understanding” (Barron et al., 1998). Aspects of the PBL methodology that can increase learning and motivation in projects and problems are described below.

  1. A well-crafted driving question. The driving question is the essential question or problem statement that launches the learning. The question must drive learners to course content, be at the appropriate level of challenge for the learners, and be perceived by learners as relevant (Jonassen, 2000).
  2. Support for learner responsibility for learning. Student responsibility for the learning process is key to learning and motivation in problem and project work. However, because many learners are unfamiliar with this, educators must explicitly explain the learner role, guide learners in learning how to learn, and gradually reduce the amount of instruction over the course of the project (English & Kitsantas, 2013).
  3. Focus on process and results. To be successful in problem and project approaches, learners must develop real-world skills such as thinking and reasoning, collaboration, and communication. Therefore, feedback, assessment, and self-evaluation activities should include these skills along with disciplinary knowledge and skills (Duch, Groh, & Allen, 2001).
  4. Peer and educator feedback throughout. Making learners’ thinking visible through formal and informal sharing of works in progress throughout the problem or project is critical. This provides opportunities for learners to articulate their rationale, become exposed to multiple perspectives, receive feedback and coaching, and deepen their learning (Kolodner et al., 2003).
  5. Individual and group accountability. PBL is a collaborative activity. Self- and peer-evaluation of performance should be included throughout, along with educator assessment (Savery, 2006).

Structure and Flow

Complex projects typically take place over an entire semester.

The primary steps for learners in PBL are:

  1. Examine the driving question and goals.
  2. Brainstorm prior knowledge and assumptions, and identify “need to know.”
  3. Plan, conduct inquiry, and iteratively develop solutions and products.
  4. Present solutions and products to an audience.
  5. Reflect on knowledge and skills developed.



Barron, B. J. S., Schwartz, D. L., Vye, N. J., Moore, A., Petrosino, A., Zech, L., & Bransford, J. D. (1998). Doing with understanding: Lessons from research on problem- and project-based learning. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 7(3-4), 271–311.

Duch, B. J., Groh, S. E., & Allen, D. E. (2001). Why problem-based learning? A case study of institutional change in undergraduate education. In B. Duch, S. Groh, & D. Allen (Eds.), The power of problem-based learning (pp. 3-11). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

English, M. C., & Kitsantas, A. (2013). Supporting student self-regulated learning in problem- and project-based learning. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning, 7(2). Retrieved from

Jonassen, D.H. (2000). Revisiting activity theory as a framework for designing student-centered learning environments. In D. H. Jonassen & S. M. Land (Eds.), Theoretical foundations of learning environments (pp. 89-121). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Kolodner, J. L., Camp, P. J., Crismond, D., Fasse, B., Gray, J., Holbrook, J., Puntambekar, S., Ryan, M. (2003). Problem-based learning meets case-based reasoning in the middle-school science classroom: Putting Learning by Design(tm) into practice. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 12(4), 495–547.

Savery, J. S. (2006). Overview of PBL: Definitions and distinctions. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning, 1(1). Retrieved from