Frequently Asked Questions

1.  What is the difference between problem-based learning (PBL) and project-based learning (PBL)?

2.  Instructors just give students the scenario, the problem solving model and step back, right?

3.  How do I design a scenario?

4.  Why would I want to try this?

5.  Will PBL work with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)?

6.  Do PBL lessons take longer?

7.  How long will a PBL lesson last? 

8.  Do I need to use PBL all of the time? 


1.  What is the difference between problem-based learning (PBL) and project-based learning (PBL)?There are many similarities between the two forms of PBL.  They could be considered to be first cousins that are often mistaken for each other.  The main difference is that project-based learning uses the “project” as the context.  The project produces an output as the final goal. This might take the form of a plan, model, program or service learning project.  Students work toward the final product.  Examples of projects include: to inform the public about carbon footprints, to reduce trash in the watershed, or to create a mural depicting early colonists.  In problem-based learning, a person, thing or system may be out of balance or equilibrium, broken, or exhibiting unacceptable characteristics.  The students’ task is to learn what is wrong and how to alleviate the problem or make recommendations about it.  Examples of problems include a person needing medical attention, a nuclear accident, invasive species, or global climate change.


2.  Instructors just give students the scenario, the problem solving model and step back, right?  Educators often mistakenly think they need to get out of the way and that guidance or scaffolding is out of place.  The role of the instructor as facilitator is extremely important; it is just a different role than in a traditional classroom.  Teachers need to stay abreast of students’ groups as they go through the PBL model.  As the facilitator, teachers insure students’ problem statements are on track and that their questions are related to the problem.  It will also be imperative to keep the groups on target so that progress takes place throughout the process and not just in the 11th hour rush to deadline. 


3. How do I design a scenario?  The scenario is the context that drives the lesson. See, for example, the scenarios in the modules located here. First, think about the learning that has to take place according to the standards followed or the content addressed in the syllabus.  Both content and skills may be needed to meet the learning objectives.  After identifying the objectives, craft a scenario or context that requires students to learn content or skills in order to address the problem.  If the scenario is authentic (real) and/or relevant to students, so much the better.   Another method of writing the scenario is to watch for current events, newscasts, magazine articles, or the Internet. Often, a scenario will be apparent within an article or event and can be incorporated into a lesson.  This is what happened with this team, for example, when it developed the Mt. Rainier Volcano Module for the Exploring the Environment Website.  The Seattle Times carried a story about a local town that was in the process of determining whether or not to build a new high school.  But when stakeholders considered that a volcanic eruption could possibly destroy their new school, they had a decision to make.  Our team tasked the students with making a recommendation about whether to build the school or not. They had to justify their decision based on knowledge about volcanoes.


4.  Why would I want to try this?  Problem or project-based learning is designed to increase 21st Century Learning Skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, ability to work in a group, and communications, both oral and written.  In PBL, students work in groups to define a problem statement, plan their investigation by developing a list of questions related to the problem, then learn the content or skills necessary to address the task (project) or problem.  Over a period of time, for example a semester or year, the students become semi-autonomous learners, actively participating in the classroom and taking initiative in defining their learning needs.


5.  Will PBL work with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)?  A 2013 study found that U.S. workers lag in math, reading and problem solving.  The CCSS are designed to prepare high school graduates for success in college and the workplace.  In a recent poll by Scholastic, 75% of 20,000 teachers say that the CCSS will improve thinking skills.  Like the CCSS, PBL is designed to increase students’ depth of understanding and skills.


6. Do PBL lessons take longer?  A common observation is that PBL lessons do take longer.  A teacher can give a lecture and have students read an appropriate chapter in less time than it may take to do a PBL lesson or project.  After students become accustomed to a learner-centered classroom environment, however, the process goes faster as students become more actively engaged.


7.  How long will a PBL lesson last?  A PBL lesson can last one class period or more depending on the scope of the task or nature of the problem.  Usually a PBL lesson spans a week or two and can be worked on concurrently with other course activities.  In some cases a problem or project could last a semester or a year.  A school in Texas, for example, has students build an actual rocket to carry experiments into outer space. The latter is an exceptional experiential form of PBL and demonstrates that some problems or projects can span longer periods. 


8. Do I need to use PBL all of the time?  PBL does NOT have to be used exclusively.  Some K-12 schools and universities, however, elect to use it predominately.  PBL is a tool that increases 21st Century Learning Skills while students learn content and/or appropriate skills.  Lectures and other standard teaching methods can be used as appropriate.  PBL gives teachers an additional tool, that when implemented effectively, will create learning environments, as opposed to teaching environments.


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