Problem-Based Learning: Raising Rigor In Your Classroom

Students doing project-based learning

One of the more popular trends in schools today is the use of problem-based learning (PBL), which is “an inquiry process that resolves questions.  . . . Student inquiry is very much an integral part of PBL and problem resolution” (John Barell, 2006, p. 3).

You may be thinking that problem-based learning sounds a lot like project-based learning. The main difference is that in the latter, the teacher directs the questions and assigns the final product. In problem-based learning, the students are more self-directed and come up with many of their own questions.  In other words, if the teacher directs students to create a video presentation about a new biome, that is project-based learning, not problem-based.

I recently visited a kindergarten classroom using PBL. Students were learning about various colors, and one student asked, “Are there other colors we don’t know about?” The teacher took advantage of this question, and asked students to work with a partner to create their own colors. Students had total flexibility regarding how they determined their color, how they would explain the color to the class, and how they would show and/or demonstrate the new color. As one student said to me, “It was awesome to answer our own question!”

Darrin Baird used problem-based learning with his high school marketing students. As he says, “I turned the control to students, rather than me.” One day, he brought a box of Cheerios to class. As he discussed marketing ideas for different products, the students began to plan other purposes for Cheerios. They worked in small groups to discover different uses for the cereal, as well as ways to market the product. This open-ended activity enabled students to solve a complex problem of interest to them that was also linked to their class standards.

Sample Problem-Based Learning Experiences

Kendra Alston, former academic facilitator at Kennedy Middle School, shared a problem-based learning activity from a social studies class when she was in high school. She wasn’t excited to study the 1920s and 1930s, but her teacher, Mr. Baldwin, told the class he was giving a “show me what you know” final exam. “He didn’t care how you showed it, as long as you showed what you know,” she said. “Things flashed before my eyes, but I was into theater. So I researched the vaudeville circuit at the time and discovered Bessie Smith. She was a blues singer who sang in speakeasies; and I learned about the ’20s and ’30s through her eyes. On the day of the exam, I came in singing, staying in character. Mr. Baldwin asked questions, and I answered based on what Bessie Smith would have said.” What a wonderful way to demonstrate understanding of a topic.

Here’s another example of problem-based learning: An accident occurred near a secondary school.  Students wanted to prevent future accidents in the area, so they worked in groups to develop a safety plan for drivers. In addition to creating safety information, such as brochures and a short video, the groups also worked together to petition for a stoplight at the intersection to make the area safer.

After reading The Moon Book by Gail Gibbons, students in an elementary classroom asked, “How long would it take to go to the moon?”  In groups, they decided on a method of transportation, such as a rocket or on a light beam, researched the time it would take to make the trip, created a list of needed supplies, and then described their travels. Some wrote a book, others produced a simple video, but all combined creativity with information to demonstrate their learning.

Remember, students have more control with problem-based learning. They generate questions based on a standard or essential question, and then discover the answer through their own research. This doesn’t mean that you allow them to stumble through the project on their own; you’ll need to guide and facilitate as well as frame parts of the activity to provide a loose structure. As a result, students choose to demonstrate their understandings in creative ways such as videos, blogs, reports, models, experiments or metaphors.

A Final Note

Project- and problem-based learning can increase the rigor in your classroom. In addition to incorporating higher-level thinking, shifting ownership for learning to your students can increase their intrinsic motivation.


Barell, J. F. (2006). Problem-Based Learning: An Inquiry Approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.


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John Larmer's picture

Submitted by John Larmer

Barbara, I don't know how you arrived at your distinction between problem- and project-based learning, but it's not how I and people I know see it. The degree of control teachers exert over students' inquiry varies widely in both PBLs. Many project-based units I've seen are as open-ended as you describe problem-based to be. A few years ago I wrote this blog post comparing the two PBLs:
bcgroup's picture

Submitted by bcgroup

John, thank you for your comments. I agree that, in any model, teachers implementation varies tremendously. What I have found during my research is that the refinements I describe reflect what I also see in the schools I work with. Thank you again for your insight.