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A guide to using problem-based learning in schools

Published: May 25, 2023
A group of elementary students in a Work ED program working on a project together.

Problem-based learning (PBL) is a student-centered approach to teaching that promotes active learning, autonomy, critical thinking, collaboration, and real-world problem-solving. 

In PBL, students work in teams to identify and solve complex, open-ended problems that are relevant to their lives and to the subject matter they are studying.

It’s a critical component of social-emotional learning and an important opportunity for students to begin developing soft skills, even from as early as pre-school.

And importantly, after the years of disrupted schooling during the lockdowns caused by the Coronavirus pandemic, multiple studies have shown that PBL is an effective way to address learning loss– especially among low-income and underserved students. 

By giving students creative freedom to identify problems, PBL encourages active learning and enhances subject knowledge. Instead of passively receiving information, students actively engage with the material by identifying and solving real-world problems.

Table of contents

    What is problem-based learning?

    Problem-based learning (PBL) is an educational approach that involves solving complex and real-world problems to facilitate learning. 

    In PBL, students are presented with a problem or scenario that requires them to apply their existing knowledge and skills to identify the problem, research potential solutions, and develop a plan of action.

    What does that mean for educators?

    PBL has a few defining characteristics which set it apart from traditional classroom instruction. While different styles of PBL have different requirements, there are 3 themes that connect all types of PBL:

    1. The student is central: The teacher is there to help and mentor, not to give a lecture.

    2. Collaboration is key: Students come to understand that success comes through teamwork, and through PBL develop their collaboration skills. 

    3. Focus on problem and process: PBL is all about allowing students to try different things to work through problems that may have many solutions.

    A student deeply focused on drawing a map for their video game in a Work ED program.Problem-based learning is about letting students find their own solutions to problems, rather than just teaching them. Copyright, Work ED.

    What are the benefits of problem-based learning for students?

    No one would blame you for thinking “PBL sounds like a euphemism for a group project” right about now. And everyone who’s ever been a student knows group projects can be a … challenging experience. 

    But, done right, PBL benefits students in a variety of ways.

    PBL requires that students develop and exercise soft skills such as 

    • Critical thinking

    • Collaboration

    • Communication

    • Problem solving

    • Self-directed learning

    • Research skills

    • Creativity

    By empowering students to develop these skills in nuanced, ambiguous environments, PBL prepares them for a world that will require much more of them than simply being able to memorize names and dates, or perform well on multiple-choice tests. 

    A group of students in a huddle, looking like they're doing a team talk before a game.Problem-based learning isn't just your usual group projects—it helps students develop soft skills crucial to career development. Copyright Work ED.

    Using problem-based learning to address learning loss

    The average student lost about half a year of learning in math and reading during the pandemic, but low-income students lost more—in some cases up to 2 years.

    As educators look to address the learning loss caused by the covid-19 pandemic, PBL has been shown to improve outcomes:offers an engaging and expeditious solution. 

    A recent Study of elementary school students found that 

    “PBL led to a 63 percent gain in social studies … that translates to five to six months

    of increased learning for the year … PBL [also] led to a 23 percent gain in informational reading, which represents an additional two months in learning for the year.”

    Encouraging students to contextualize their education through PBL can be an accelerator for addressing the gaps left in students’ education during the pandemic.

    A Work ED teachers listens attentively to an elementary-age student who is looking for help on their laptop.Studies have shown the benefits of problem-based learning, where the student is central and the teacher is a guide. Copyright, Work ED.

    Using problem-based learning to improve student outcomes

    Several academic studies have shown students in PBL classrooms outperform their peers in a traditional, teacher-centred classroom.

    At the highschool level, a study conducted by USC found that:

    • Students in PBL classrooms outperform students in non-PBL classrooms by 8 pecent

    • Gains held across income levels, suggesting that PBL could be a more equitable approach than the teacher-centered approach

    • The results carried over to the next school year, where PBL students outperformed non-PBL students by 10 percent

    “...nearly half of students in project-based classrooms passed their AP tests, outperforming students in traditional classrooms by 8 percentage points. Students from low-income households saw similar gains compared to their wealthier peers, making a strong case that well-structured PBL can be a more equitable approach than teacher-centered ones. Importantly, the improvements in teaching efficacy were both significant and durable: When teachers in the study taught the same curriculum for a second year, PBL students outperformed students in traditional classrooms by 10 percentage points.”

    Similar student outcomes have been reported at the elementary level. A study by the University of Michigan and Michigan State University found that students in PBL classrooms outperform their peers by 8 percentage points. 

    A third study found that middle schoolers in a science class using PBL scored 8 to 28 percentage points higher across multiple assessments than their peers in traditional classes.

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    Using problem-based learning to improve student engagement

    PBL can increase student motivation and engagement by making learning more meaningful and relevant. 

    According to the USC study, students engaged in PBL consistently report that their classroom assignments are more interesting, challenging, worthwhile, and enjoyable than their peers in traditional classrooms.

    A study from the Lucas Educational Foundation sums this up nicely:

    “[PBL] enhanced student engagement by encouraging students to see school not just as a building but as a variety of contexts where learning can take place”

    Using problem-based learning to improve classroom equity 

    In the USC study, the number of low-income students taking AP tests increased from 30% to 38% among PBL students. 

    But how exactly does PBL contribute to this outcome?

    One of the key distinctions of equity in learning is creating culturally responsive education – problem-based learning that allows students to engage culturally-relevant, community-focused projects that allow them to exercise and expand on skills learned in the classroom.

    In her discussion on creating culturally responsive education, Zaretta Hammond says, 

    “There’s a tendency to underestimate the intellectual capacity of diverse students and give them low-level tasks, while the teacher carries most of the cognitive load. In practice, this means that the teacher over-scaffolds the lesson, and the over-scaffolding becomes a crutch. The students may get through the lesson, but they haven’t internalized the learning because of the over-scaffolding and the lack of productive struggle.

    Having students carry more of the cognitive load and allowing the scaffolding to fall away over time is what stimulates brain growth, so that cognitively your brain says, ‘Oh, I need to step up. I need to get stronger. I need to figure that out.’”

    One of the key principles of PBL is creating purposeful and authentic experiences for students. 

    “Effective PBL requires purposeful and authentic experiences generated by students engaging in relevant questions … These questions should be related to students’ lives, the communities in which young people reside, and real-world issues happening outside the classroom.”

    It’s important for low-income and underserved students to see themselves and their communities in their education. Through PBL, students can learn to understand how the world works and what they, their collaborators, and their community can achieve. 

    This creates space for a more authentic learning experience for all students, not just those who are already good at rote learning—–leading to meaningful student outcomes. 

    Using problem-based learning to improve social-emotional learning development

    PBL allows students to practice social-emotional learning by emphasizing the following skills in group settings:

    • Collaboration

    • Self-reflection 

    • Conflict resolution 

    • Active listening

    • Goal setting

    Learn more about social-emotional learning here.

    How can PBL be used in the classroom?

    One of the (many) wonderful things about PBL is that it can be leveraged at different levels of education, from preschool all the way through post-graduate programs. 

    PBL can also be applied in any subject area, from math and science to history and literature, enabling students to gain a deeper understanding of the subject matter and its relevance to their lives by applying what they learn to real-world problems.


    So what does PBLthat look like in practice?

    There are several different methods of PBL that can be applied depending on the age and learning needs of the students and the project interval available. 

    The most commonly used types of classroom PBL are:

    • Standard PBL: Students work on a complex problem or project over an extended period of time, typically several weeks or a semester. 

    • Mini-PBL: Better for younger learners, mini-PBL projects are shorter, more focused problems or projects that can be completed in a single class period or several hours. They are designed to introduce a topic, explore a concept, or reinforce learning.

    • Case-based PBL: Students analyze real-world cases or scenarios to solve problems. The cases are designed to be complex and require students to apply their knowledge to make decisions and recommendations. A student-led re-trial of a famous court case is an example of this type of learning.

    • Inquiry-based PBL: Students pose their own questions and design their own investigations to solve problems. This approach promotes autonomy, curiosity, and creativity, and encourages students to take ownership of their learning.

    Introducing PBL in the classroom

    So what can educators do to start introducing PBL in the classroom? Here are a few quick steps to get you started. 

    1. Identify a problem or scenario related to the curriculum

    2. Assign teams of students to work on the problem

    3. Provide resources and guidance: Teachers can provide students with resources, such as articles, videos, or experts, to help them research the problem and provide guidance on how to approach the problem-solving process.

    4. Facilitate collaboration and feedback: Teachers can facilitate collaboration among teams by providing opportunities for discussion, peer feedback, and revision. 

    5. Present solutions to the class: At the end of the project, each team can present their solution to the class, allowing for discussion and evaluation of different approaches.

    How Work ED can help you use PBL in your enrichment programs

    A member of Work ED staff smiles as she engages with a table of elementary-age students.Work ED is here to help you create exciting enrichment programs that use PBL. Copyright, Work ED.

    At Work ED, we believe that young people learn better and dream bigger when they get a chance to work creatively on real-world tasks, rather than learning from a textbook.

    That’s why PBL is a core part of our approach.

    Each program we run is designed to get students thinking outside the box and working as a team to present their own creative solutions in real-world exercises.  

    And we know educators don’t always have the bandwidth to introduce new concepts or approaches in the school day.

    That’s why we run after school, summer camps, and intersession enrichment programs where students get to experience the benefits of PBL outside of the school day.

    Here’s an overview of how we use PBL concepts in our programming:

    We create programs that provide opportunities for students to apply and expand on what they’ve learned in the classroom 

    Our problem-based learning programs take the math, science and literacy skills students learn in class and apply them in real-world settings. Learn more about the afterschool and intersession programs we offer. 

    We design programs that empower students to take control of their own education 

    We offer a variety of exciting programs for students to choose from. The topics are future focused (AI or Drones and Aviation, anyone?) and designed to help students discover high-earning careers they didn’t know were available to them.

    We select appropriate problems and clear learning goals

    Our programs are centered on projects that are challenging, meaningful, relevant to the students' lives and require students to apply the knowledge and skills that they are learning in the classroom. Our programs are also specifically designed for students from 3rd through 12th grades and tailored to their needs and learning levels. 

    We provide guidance and resources 

    Through our network of industry experts, we provide students with the guidance and resources they need to be successful– all you need to provide is a classroom.

    Our programs facilitate collaboration

    PBL works best when students work collaboratively in teams. Our project-based learning programs provide opportunities for students to work together, and make sure that they have clear roles and responsibilities. 

    Our programs are community focused and operated

    We’re committed to creating growth in the communities we work in. This extends beyond programs: we hire high schoolers from the school district as part of our Teaching Assistant internship. This gives valuable (paid!) work experience to young people and helps them give back to their community. 

    If you’d like to run afterschool and enrichment programs that have PBL at their core, reach out to or click the button below.

    Build your own custom PBL program