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Problem-Based Learning: Tips and Project Ideas

EducationWorld is pleased to present this article contributed by Aimee Hosler, who specializes in education-related topics for a number of websites, including She holds a B.S. in Journalism from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

Traditional rote learning is not working—at least not for all students. So is there a better way to engage kids? To encourage critical thinking, communication and socialization, all while reinforcing key lessons and concepts? Chances are no single model will work for every student or classroom, but some come pretty close. Problem-based learning is one of them.

What is problem-based learning?

In this type of instruction, students work together to solve real-world problems in their schools and communities. Successful problem-solving often requires students to draw on lessons from several disciplines and apply them in a very practical way. The promise of seeing a very real impact becomes the motivation for learning.

These real-world projects develop problem-solving, research and social skills, but that is just the beginning. Studies suggest these activities engage learners, enhance retention and help establish a model for lifelong learning. They also teach students valuable lessons in cooperation and communication that they can carry with them into the workforce.

Best practices for problem-based learning

Begin with a focus on very real, very local problems in the neighborhood or the school community. This way, students will see the fruits of their labor and develop a sense of accomplishment. You may take a walk through your school grounds or the surrounding neighborhood to identify suitable problems—say, a flower bed that is not living up to its potential or an ongoing litter problem. Even better, ask students to identify problems.

Either way, set a reasonable scope for the activity by considering students’ age and prior experience with problem-based learning. Once you have selected a problem, gather your students to discuss project goals, deadlines and materials, and to brainstorm some action steps for the project. Make sure your assignment has no one right answer. Let your students drive the discussion and do the real, “messy” work—your job is to offer gentle direction and answer questions.

In addition, consider how students will present their solution to the problem. A final product could be anything from a persuasive letter or series of graphs to a multimedia presentation. Be careful, however, not to over-emphasize the “pizzaz” of the presentation, at the expense of the problem-solving portion of the project.

Ideas for problem-based learning opportunities

If no project ideas immediately occur to you and your students, try collaborating with other educators in your school building or community to share insights. You may also join online communities dedicated to problem-based learning. Another good source of inspiration is local business leaders—especially those who might be willing to serve as a resource for students.

Here are a few questions that can help jump-start brainstorming:

  • How can we limit food waste in the school cafeteria?
  • How might we better control the area deer population?
  • How could we improve access to healthy food in our community?
  • How could we track and protect local plant or animal species?
  • How could we improve school attendance?
  • How might we limit cold and flu transmission among students?
  • Is there a better way to manage school traffic during pick-up and drop-off times?

Potential barriers (and how to get around them)

It is inevitable that students will sometimes run into problems when trying to complete projects. Perhaps one of the most common barriers is a lack of community support. Sometimes students may need to contact local businesses or experts for support, but not all of them will be willing to contribute—or, at times, even take young people seriously. Another common barrier is a lack of resources, especially when problems require certain materials or off-site excursions. View these obstacles as opportunities for students to develop their communication skills and problem-solving savvy. Help them learn how to work within time and budget constraints. These skills—and others they are sure to develop—will serve them well as adults.


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