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

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

Further information also available at:

Leggett, A. (2014). Active learning pedagogies: Problem-based learning. Retrieved from

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?