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Problem-Based Learning, Project-Based Learning and Product-Based Learning: What’s the Difference?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bill Brantley
April 11, 2021

I was in a recent faculty meeting where we discussed the results of a recent survey. We asked new alumni what we could do to improve the curriculum. One question asked about expanding the use of PBL in our courses. As often happens in Zoom-based meetings, several of us were on a private chat to decipher what PBL is. We soon discovered that some faculty referred to problem-based learning while other faculty referred to project-based learning. Both problem-based learning and project-based learning were used interchangeably.

Students attempt to solve a problem or challenge in problem-based learning and project-based learning. They are encouraged to use what they learned in the class and resources outside of class to resolve the issue or challenge. However, it is the subtle differences in problem-based learning and project-based learning that significantly affect how students learn.

Besides problem-based learning and project-based learning, I have observed another PBL—product-based learning. You may have used product-based learning in your courses where you have students create a product or service for a client outside of the class.

Problem-Based-Learning

Problem-based learning can be performed by one student or a group of students. The problem or challenge can be a solved problem such as a case study or a new, unsolved problem. The goal of problem-based learning is to help students use the knowledge they gained in class or information they have found outside of class to create a solution. The key to problem-based learning is the far transfer of the knowledge gained by the students.

I have used a problem-based learning project in my classes to have students prepare a PowerPoint presentation that advocates moving the United States Capital to a more “effective” location in the nation. I was interested in how students defined “effective” and their reasoning in determining the new location. Was the site based on a central geographic location, proximity to the highest population density or other criteria? Secondary to the project was how the students constructed a persuasive and compelling PowerPoint presentation. I was more interested in the solution than in how the students arrived at the answer.

Project-Based-Learning

A group of students must perform project-based learning. I focus more on how the students built their solution than on the solution. As a certified project management professional, I want to teach my students effective methods in managing a project, building a project team and collaborating with others to create a solution. As a state government employee and as a Federal government employee, I have led many projects. I want to recreate that experience for my students because they may be called on in their public service jobs to be project team members or project managers.

An example of project-based learning class activity is when I have students create a new public agency based on a fictitious law. The students interpret the vision for the new public agency, which is outlined in the law. Their challenge is to operationalize the intent of the law by using project planning methods and techniques. I am not concerned with the details of the solution; I am focused on how the students worked together in executing the project.

Product-Based-Learning

Many of you may have encountered product-based learning, but haven’t called it such. I have had non-profit groups approach me for student volunteers to create a marketing plan or communication plan for their organization. Like problem-based learning, students can work solo or in a group to conduct further research around the organization’s problem. And, like with project-based learning, students may use a project management approach in creating the solution. However, product-based learning is more than just a combination of problem-based learning and project-based learning.

When students create a product or service, I have them use design thinking to empathize with the client. For example, students in my political communication course learn how to use voter surveys and demographic analysis to understand voters’ interests and how they will react to a candidate or public cause. If they design a product for a client, they hold design workshops to listen to the client’s needs deeply. My focus on product-based learning is how the students discovered what the client wanted and how their solution met the client’s needs.

The Future of Public Administration Courses?

The value of the three PBLs is how they engage the students in applying what they have learned to a tangible outcome. The difference between the three PBLs is in the journey to the tangible product. With problem-based learning, the journey is about exploring a topic while, with project-based learning, the journey is focused on how to collaborate in a structured way to bring about the outcome. With product-based learning, the journey is using the knowledge gained in class to serve others. I advocate using all three PBLs to help students explore the challenges they will face in their public administration careers.


Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Louisville and the University of Maryland. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Navy’s Inspector General Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of his employers. You can reach him at http://billbrantley.com.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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