Projects and Project-Based Learning: What’s the Difference?

Dr. Lori McDonald
Dr. Lori McDonald
Elementary School Teacher; Ed.D. in School Leadership/Administration
Diverse group of students sitting at a table working together with a tablet and laptops.

Building a model of the solar system, writing and presenting a book report, creating a model habitat, completing a science fair project, making a collage – these are all examples of school projects. For teachers, projects provide the opportunity for some creative expressions of learning. It also gives parents the opportunity to be involved with the learning, as projects are, often times, completed at home. Is this the method we’ve heard about called project-based learning? Not quite. These are projects. Project-based learning is very different.

What is Project-Based Learning?

Project-based learning (PBL) is an approach to teaching through which students are fully immersed in the learning. It is all encompassing. PBL is defined as “an instructional methodology that encourages students to learn and apply knowledge and skills through an engaging experience.” PBL begins with a driving question or problem. Also, PBL is a long-term learning activity that can last anywhere from one week to a semester. It can focus on any subject area but is always interdisciplinary. Effective PBL may use math, science, social studies, language arts, and more to solve real problems in a way that more accurately simulates what actual problem-solving is like in the workforce. There are some characteristics that are consistently present in PBL.

Characteristics of PBL:

  1. Driving question based on a relevant, real-world problem
  2. Engaging/sparks students interest
  3. In-depth inquiry and discovery
  4. Integration of technology
  5. Led by students/student ownership
  6. Reflection and revision as needed
  7. Cross-curricular

A Few Examples of PBL:

  1. Fighting Hunger – Students raise a garden, evaluating the most productive methods for growth. Students use what they produce to provide food for homeless shelters. Students could also look for ways to promote others to fight hunger in different ways in the community.
  2. Coding/building a robot – Students work together to code/build a robot to perform certain tasks. This would include a great deal of test and revision.
  3. Design an app – Students design an app for a particular audience and purpose. This would involve technology, problem-solving, marketing, and budgeting, just to name a few.
  4. Environmental Impact – Students research the environmental impact of some industry or businesses in the area and come up with ways to prevent or stop the negative impacts. This may involve reaching out to the public or writing a congressman to promote a positive change.

How Project-Based Learning Differs from Projects

So, even though many hear and misunderstand the term project-based learning, it is important to note that simply assigning projects is as different from PBL as night is from day. To further illustrate the characteristics of PBL, imagine this scenario with me. It’s time for a holiday dinner with the whole family, including aunts, uncles, and cousins. Each relative sits in a different room in the house, all alone. To socialize with each family member, you have to go into each separate room, sit down, and talk to that relative. Sound fun? Maybe. Maybe not. Sound efficient? Certainly not. This is an example of how school projects work. It’s not a bad thing. It just leaves subjects and content very isolated and compartmentalized.

Now imagine all the family members crammed into one room in the house, say the living room. The room is filled with conversation and laughter. This conversation sparks another conversation. Everyone gets to spend time with everyone. This is project-based learning. Cross-curricular skills are married in a long-term problem-solving activity. Students brainstorm and bounce ideas off one another. It is very interactive, engaging, and cooperative. Students use what they have learned in multiple disciplines to solve problems within the project.

Significant differences in PBL and projects:

Real world situations – Unlike projects, PBL is based on real-world situations. Students collaborate to solve a realistic, relevant problem.

Student ownership – Students lead and work through the problems that arise in PBL together. The teacher is there to facilitate.

Rigidity vs. fluidity – Projects have rigid requirements. Teachers assign projects and dictate how they are to be completed. Often, projects have accompanying rubrics with very specific criteria that must be met in order to get the best grade. PBL is much more fluid as the project evolves and improves as theories are tested.

Level of Teacher Involvement in Projects vs. PBL

The teacher is far more involved as the imparter of knowledge in a classroom that utilizes projects as opposed to a PBL classroom. Projects simply provide a different way for students to express learning. Projects can be a great way to allow students of different learning styles to express learning. The teacher delivers information to students on a given subject and then outlines, very specifically, how students are to demonstrate that learning through a project. Of course, some teachers will allow more student choice than others. It all depends on the teacher’s individual style.

Projects are about an outcome. It’s a type of summative assessment. PBL is a totally different way of looking at learning. It’s as much about the process as it is the product. Students grow and learn in a much more realistic environment and become better prepared for their futures in the process.

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