PBL: Does Project-Based or Problem-Based Learning Better Prepare Students For The Real World?

Problem-based learning and project-based learning are often confused because they are both referred to as PBL. However, they are two separate learning styles.

So, what is the difference?

What is Project-Based Learning?

Project-based learning is a teaching method in which students work to investigate and respond to a complex question, problem or challenge. There are various types of projects one can encounter with project-based learning and all are meant to engage students.

To get a better understanding of project-based learning, review 10 Practical Ideas for Better Project-Based Learning in Your Classroom. Below are some of the key learnings:

  • Have students work small groups or pairs.
  • Choose skills over topics.
  • Offer guidelines that promote personalization and individuality.
  • Encourage students to take on different roles when collaborating.
  • Allow students creative choice with regards to their final result.
  • Change the way that projects are displayed and presented.
  • Grade projects based on targeted skills and concepts.
  • Consider cross-curricular activities and/or combine classrooms.
  • Give the project a purpose beyond the classroom.
  • Incorporate the project into the student’s digital portfolio.

What is Problem-Based Learning?

Problem-based learning came about in the 1960s and focuses on learning through problem solving. Students learn as they solve problems where multiple solutions are often possible. This style encourages students to apply knowledge and skills to find a viable solution to the problem.

There are many ways to teach problem-based learning, but the core of this method is to present a problem to a small group of students. These students are meant to engage in discussions in an effort to solve the problem. A facilitator will be present to provide support and guidance. Students almost always learn that they cannot solve the problem from their own supply of knowledge, so they research the issues and resume problem-solving at future meetings.

Project Versus Problem-Based Learning

There are similarities beyond the shared acronym of PBL, but the difference between the two ultimately comes down to student control. With problem-based learning, students have some control over setting goals and outcomes. With project-based learning, the goals are set from the start. Project-based learning also tends to be more structured.

There is a need for both learning styles. Project-based learning is especially important because it gives students the opportunity to solve real-world problems in a controlled scenario.

Benefits of Project-Based Learning

Students learn and retain information from experiences at much faster rates than they do in traditional lectures. This is part of the reason why project-based learning is so effective. Students are allowed to connect with the world and their community in ways that a lecture could never deliver.

When the alternative is to sit in a classroom learning about anatomy from a textbook, one can only imagine the excitement and learning possibilities involved with a hands-on lab project to find out why a biomedically-relevant enzyme acts as it does in a certain set of scenarios.

Projects such as these may take an entire semester and a great deal of collaboration to complete. It is far from the fleeting scribble in a notepad that is easily forgotten. Project-based learning projects such as these build the foundation for learning, and they are the projects students talk about long after graduation.

An Example of Project-Based Learning in Healthcare Education

If educators were to employ a project-based learning style when teaching students about the cardiovascular system, they would have many options. In this example, facilitators ask students to dissect a hypothetical case of heart disease.

One or two faculty members would facilitate the project-based lesson among six to ten students that meet once or twice a week.

Educators employ the following key steps:

  • Case presentation — A facilitator presents a case of cardiac arrest with the facts of the simulated case. This may include paper-based clinical scenarios, experimental or clinical laboratory data, photos and videos, articles from scientific journals or a family tree showing inherited disorder
  • Identifying key information — Students are asked to discuss, extract, identify and summarize what they have learned about the case so far.
  • Generating and ranking hypotheses — Students make educated guesses about what could have caused trauma in this patient. Some examples are infection, cardiac problem, allergy, asthma or broken rib.
  • Generating an enquiry strategy — At this point, students realize that they do not have enough information to come to a definitive conclusion, so they are required to ask for more. Maybe they need more information about the patient’s previous medical history or history of drug problems.
  • Defining learning objectives — Students are tasked to explain the biomedical mechanisms that link their hypothesis to presenting problems. Here is where students identify gaps in their own knowledge, which may prompt them to create personal learning objectives. For example, a student may need to learn more about the anatomy of airways or mechanics of breathing before they can come to a conclusion on this case.
  • Reporting back: Here is where students discuss their findings with facilitators and the class.
  • Integrating new knowledge: Students are required to integrate knowledge of public health, legal and socioeconomic aspects of the case before coming to a conclusion.

Not only does this example teach medical students about the cardiovascular system, but it forces them to employ critical thinking and problem-solving skills that can help them become better leaders in the future. Such skills are critical in areas like healthcare crisis management or infectious disease control.

How Project-Based Learning Will Better Prepare Students For The Real World

Unlike traditional lectures or problem-based learning, project-based learning uses real-world examples and problems to challenge students to come up with the best possible solutions. This arms students with the critical and analytical thinking necessary to handle most problems that come their way after graduation. Learning to think in this way and attack problems from various angles can help students naturally become better problem solvers.

Although a student may not encounter the exact issue faced in the project-based learning example, he or she will have the confidence necessary to attempt to find solutions.

Schools across the country are transforming classrooms with this student-centered way of teaching. Teachers are taking a step back to allow students to use their own critical thinking and problem-solving skills to come up with solutions and make sense of the world around them.