Project-Based Learning: Teaching Guide


Project-based learning (PBL) involves students designing, developing, and constructing hands-on solutions to a problem. The educational value of PBL is that it aims to build students’ creative capacity to work through difficult or ill-structured problems, commonly in small teams. Typically, PBL takes students through the following phases or steps:

  1. Identifying a problem
  2. Agreeing on or devising a solution and potential solution path to the problem (i.e., how to achieve the solution)
  3. Designing and developing a prototype of the solution
  4. Refining the solution based on feedback from experts, instructors, and/or peers

Depending on the goals of the instructor, the size and scope of the project can vary greatly. Students may complete the four phases listed above over the course of many weeks, or even several times within a single class period.

Because of its focus on creativity and collaboration, PBL is enhanced when students experience opportunities to work across disciplines, employ technologies to make communication and product realization more efficient, or to design solutions to real-world problems posed by outside organizations or corporations. Projects do not need to be highly complex for students to benefit from PBL techniques. Often times, quick and simple projects are enough to provide students with valuable opportunities to make connections across content and practice.

Implementing Project-Based Learning

As a pedagogical approach, PBL entails several key processes: (1) defining problems in terms of given constraints or challenges, (2) generating multiple ideas to solve a  given problem, (3) prototyping — often in rapid iteration — potential solutions to a problem, and (4) testing the developed solution products or services in a “live” or authentic setting.

Defining the Problem

PBL projects should start with students asking questions about a problem. What is the nature of problem they are trying to solve? What assumptions can they make about why the problem exists? Asking such questions will help students frame the problem in an appropriate context. If students are working on a real-world problem, it is important to consider how an end user will benefit from a solution.

Generating Ideas

Next, students should be given the opportunity to brainstorm and discuss their ideas for solving the problem. The emphasis here is not to generate necessarily good ideas, but to generate many ideas. As such, brainstorming should encourage students to think wildly, but to stay focused on the problem. Setting guidelines for brainstorming sessions, such as giving everyone a chance to voice an idea, suspending judgement of others’ ideas, and building on the ideas of others will help make brainstorming a productive and generative exercise.

Prototyping Solutions

Designing and prototyping a solution are typically the next phase of the PBL process. A prototype might take many forms: a mock-up, a storyboard, a role-play, or even an object made out of readily available materials such as pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, and rubber bands. The purpose of prototyping is to expand upon the ideas generated during the brainstorming phase, and to quickly convey a how a solution to the problem might look and feel. Prototypes can often expose learners’ assumptions, as well as uncover unforeseen challenges that an end user of the solution might encounter. The focus on creating simple prototypes also means that students can iterate on their designs quickly and easily, incorporate feedback into their designs, and continually hone their problem solutions.


Students may then go about taking their prototypes to the next level of design: testing. Ideally, testing takes place in a “live” setting. Testing allows students to glean how well their products or services work in a real setting. The results of testing can provide students with important feedback on the their solutions, and generate new questions to consider. Did the solution work as planned? If not, what needs to be tweaked? In this way, testing engages students in critical thinking and reflection processes.

Unstructured versus Structured Projects

Research suggests that students learn more from working on unstructured or ill-structured projects than they do on highly structured ones. Unstructured projects are sometimes referred to as “open ended,” because they have no predictable or prescribed solution. In this way, open ended projects require students to consider assumptions and constraints, as well as to frame the problem they are trying to solve. Unstructured projects thus require students to do their own “structuring” of the problem at hand – a process that has been shown to enhance students’ abilities to transfer learning to other problem solving contexts.


Overview of Project Based Learning (Stanford)

Using Design Thinking in Higher Education (Educause)

Design Thinking and Innovation (GSM SI 839)

Project Based Learning through a Maker’s Lens (Edutopia)