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Problem -or- Project-Based Learning

This method engages students in learning more deeply those essential facts and skills that have been emphasized in a course or unit. The faculty designs an extended inquiry process structured around complex questions or problems – authentic to the academic discipline under study and carefully designed to allow for student creativity. Good mentoring during the students’ problem-solving is critical to their development of high quality products and tasks.

If the project is authentic, the students should often encounter difficulties and experimentation or exploration during the process can lead to small failures – the faculty mentor should anticipate and acknowledge those setbacks as part of the scholarly research process.

A good capstone project in a course requires students to work in a task force that must collaboratively apply real world and theoretical knowledge to solve a problem. Performance is assessed on an individual basis, and takes into account the quality of the product produced, the depth of content understanding demonstrated, and the contributions made to the ongoing process of project realization. Assessment is best deployed by the use of rubrics that describe acceptable levels of synthesis and problem-solving on the part of the individual and the groups. The teams should be given a chance to defend their solutions and to reach a consensus on project decisions as a team. This then can serve as a practice site for real work environments where solving complex problems cannot typically be achieved individually but in groups who brainstorm possible solutions and achieve project milestones.

Project-based learning relies on higher levels of student learning – these are described in Bloom’s Taxonomy and in Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning. The student who engages in a well-designed project:

  • works with various elements identified in the course of study to arrange and combine them to form a new product (i.e., thinking “outside the box”); developing a creative, unique solution to the problem by applying what he/she has learned in a new and different way
  • judges the value of material learned for a given purpose (and those judgments are based on defined criteria); can use a multi-disciplinary approach to assess a situation, appraise whether or not a solution is valid and defend his or her decision regarding the quality of a particular solution
  • learns about and changes one’s self while understanding and interacting effectively with others (i.e., shows that he or she cares passionately about and values the scholarship under study)
  • learns how to learn — how to ask good questions and answer in a thoughtful manner — becoming a self-directed learner.

Capstone projects may be continued from prior semesters – just like in the real world where new group members join and others leave a long term project.  A key competitive edge for our graduates in today’s global economy lies in a greater expertise in , not just content mastery. “Teamwork, the capacity to innovate, the ability to access knowledge that has not yet been discovered, as well as multicultural proficiency and communications skills are prized attributes of today’s and tomorrow’s global talent pool (Alvarado, 2006).

In our own CELT library we have many books to assist in the integration of problem and project-based learning, such as The Power of Problem-Based Learning, The Challenge of Problem-Based Learning, and Teaching and Learning Through Inquiry.




Websites, Books and Journals on Project-based Learning:

Cavender, Amy. “Integrating a Digital Project Into a Class: Deciding on a Project,” Chronicle of Higher Education (August 24, 2011),

“Forming and Managing Project Teams in Large Capstone Design Courses,” ASEE Annual Conference, Austin, Texas.

Jeffrey McClurken, “Student Contracts for Digital Projects,” Chronicle for Higher Education (March 2, 2010),