Project Based Learning



Project-based learning (PBL) is a student-centered educational approach that organizes learning around projects. When engaged in PBL, students in small learning groups work together to meet a specific outcome/goal over a period of time through asking and refining questions, debating ideas, making predictions, collecting and analyzing data, drawing conclusions and communicating their ideas to an audience. Project-based learning is not to be confused with Problem Based Learning which “is a student-centered pedagogy by which students learn about a subject in the context of complex multi-faceted and realistic problems” (Wikipedia).

In PBL, the project is central to the curriculum and is thought to drive the learning. However, student engagement with a classroom project is not synonymous with PBL. To be considered PBL, projects must be structured in a manner which engages the students in a community of inquiry. Together in this community the students focus on questions that drive them to encounter the central concepts and principles of a subject. Essentially, the project must help students to meet a complex challenge, develop and present an answer to a central question. The overall goal is to create a high quality product and/or performance which will be delivered to an audience. Projects are to include authentic, engaging content which help students to build 21st Century skills such as collaboration, critical thinking and communication.

Project Criteria

According to Thomas (2002), five criteria should be seen in PBL projects:

  • PBL projects are central, not peripheral to the curriculum (the defining feature). The students learn central concepts through the project.
  • PBL projects are focused on questions or problems that “drive” students to struggle with the central concepts and principles of a discipline. It is not sufficient for them to be built around a theme or unit.
  • Projects involve students in a constructive investigation – involves inquiry, knowledge building and resolution.
  • Projects are student driven.
  • Projects are realistic and address real life challenges.

The Buck Institute for Education began a focus on Problem Based Learning in the late 1990’s and have made available a checklist to help teachers to ensure that their classroom projects fit the criteria for true Project Based Learning to take place (Buck Institute for Education, 2012).

Role of the Teacher

A teacher implementing PBL in his or her classroom will take on a different role than seen in traditional teaching approaches. PBL is highly student-centered; therefore students work in groups on their projects. Although there may be times where the teacher must step in to supplement the learning process, delivery of information to students in the PBL approach is not a primary function of the teacher. Alternatively, the teacher will act as a coach, assist with facilitating the inquiry process and continuously assess student learning.

Although PBL is intended to allow for student voice and choice, the projects should be rigorous, well organized, managed and assessed. As such, the teacher will play a role in structuring the question/issues to assist with directing the student toward relevant content and outcomes. Upon completion of the project the teacher will provide feedback to the students to assist them in strengthening their skills in the next classroom project.


PBL can be implemented in any grade or subject. However, the project structure is a key factor for effective PBL; therefore it is useful to see completed exemplar projects.  The Buck Institute for Education hosts a repository of completed projects across age levels.

Schoolyard Habitat Project

In this project students research, design and implement a plan to enhance their school campus through the creation of insect habitats, provide nesting sites for birds, planting native plants or removing weeds and invasive plants. Download the full project here:

Design It Clean

In Design It Clean: The Water Filter Challenge, students work in teams to develop water filters that are dependable, affordable, and can provide clean water for specific communities in the real world. Students are challenged to learn about a region where people lack access to clean water, and to design and build a working solution. They must ensure that their solutions align with the needs of the community, culture, environment, and local government. They will also present their water filtration prototypes, along with relevant data, to adults playing the roles of local end users, government officials, aid workers, venture capitalists, and other key stakeholders. Download the full project here:

Comments are closed.