• Jeffrey Hinton

Project-Based Learning Challenges

“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” – Albert Einstein

“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” – Robert F. Kennedy “Don’t be distracted by criticism. Remember the only taste of success some people have is when they take a bite out of you.” – Zig Ziglar

PBL is an approach to teaching and learning where students actively explore real-world challenges through comprehensive research and presentation of key findings by designing and building projects. PBL is beneficial to students because it has been demonstrated to increase academic achievement, hone 21st-century skills, and create self-confident, independent lifelong learners who are prepared to meet future challenges (Duch et al., 2001). PBL is beneficial to teachers, too, because it provides them with opportunities to build student relationships and develop innovative, impactful curricula that spark innovation and creativity. Despite the benefits, there are significant challenges in implementing the approach. The practical implementation of PBL requires a paradigm shift in how educators think about teaching and learning. Additionally, there are challenges of instructional time, depth versus breadth of content, preparation and management of the PBL, assessment, and of course, challenges for students as they move from dependent learning to independent learning.

Teaching challenges in PBL

In the traditional classroom, all students sit neatly in rows and columns facing forward, where all attention is focused on the teacher. Students dutifully take notes and answer questions because the teacher is the expert from which all knowledge and learning flow. In other words, the teacher is the “sage on the stage,” and students are empty vessels that need to be filled with the teacher’s knowledge. This is sometimes referred to as teacher-centered learning. The paradigm shift in PBL is that the students become the focus of all classroom activities, and the teachers become the “guide on the side.” In other words, PBL flips the script by creating a student-centered learning environment where the student is in the driver’s seat of their learning, as they get to decide what to learn about and how they learn it. It is the teacher’s role to facilitate that learning. In the PBL classroom, the teacher is more of a coach and mentor as they help students hone their thinking skills, provide conflict resolution, and manage resources and project workflow.

The challenge is that from the outside looking in; it appears the teacher is not teaching much. The outside observer may see the teacher casually moving around the room from one group of students to another, answering students' questions and providing them feedback. Meanwhile, the classroom may appear noisy, disorderly, and chaotic. What the observer doesn't see, however, is the methodical planning that went into designing and implementing the PBL project. In other words, the energy present in the PBL classroom is a good thing, it is the sound of students leading discussions and collaborating, or as Rutgers University Associate Professor of Teaching Patricia O’Brian-Richardson puts it, “A great classroom should have good noise.”

The Challenge of Instructional Time

Instructional time is one of the perennial challenges teachers face. Simply put, teachers never have enough of it. With mountains of state and local standards that need to be taught and little time to do it, spending large chunks of time on a project that seemingly addresses only a few standards may be seen by many as an unpractical use of instructional time. According to educational consultant and speaker Kim Strobel, the average teacher has approximately 200 standards to cover each year and about 5.6 hours of scheduled class time to teach the standards daily, which is about 1,008 hours a year. But with disruptions to the learning environment such as fire drills, assemblies, late busses, testing, student behavior issues, etc., students average only 696 of actual instructional time a year. That’s a deficit of 312 hours. But the reality is that to teach all 200 standards effectively. Teachers would need at least 15,495 hours. To do this, teachers would require a 71% increase in instructional time.

Since lengthening the school day is not likely to happen anytime soon, PBL teachers should triage those standards that matter the most. The highest priority standards are sometimes referred to as power standards. They should be taught either through PBL or another instructional method, such as direct instruction, repetition, and guided practice. One must also remember that teachers seldom teach one standard in isolation. Usually, a teacher’s lesson contains multiple standards and by strategically layering or combing standards, sometimes referred to as chunking, teachers can address multiple standards in less time.

The Challenge of Coverage v deep learning

Another issue teachers must consider is coverage versus deep learning. Covering standards means that the teacher mentioned or addressed the standard in a cursory way, usually during a class lecture, for example. As a history teacher, I used to joke that the coverage of our content standards was like the Platte River, “a mile wide but an inch deep.” When teachers cover standards in this way, it is more about what was taught than what was learned. Superficial coverage may be sufficient for students to pass a test in the short run, but the material students “learned” is usually forgotten quickly. On the other hand, deep learning is when the student has internalized the content and skills, enabling them to become independent, lifelong learners and critical thinkers. Additionally, when students learn deeply, they can transfer what they have learned and can do in one situation and apply it to a new one. Transference is a crucial component to success in the “real world.”

Preparation time for creating and managing the PBL

PBL takes time to plan. As has already been pointed out, there is much to consider when planning a PBL project. Teachers must select the standards, create the driving question, plan formative and summative assessments to include rubrics, plan daily timelines with learning activities, plan the project kickoff, manage student collaborative teams and conflict, and help students investigate, design, and execute their projects. Teachers must assess students’ final projects and plan the public presentation. It is much easier for teachers to have their students read the textbook, do worksheets, and take a selected response test. But PBL teachers persist because they know that PBL offers their students an opportunity to learn deeply about subjects that matter to them while developing critical 21st-century skills.

The Challenge of Assessment

To assess each project fairly and thoroughly and provide quality feedback, teachers must spend significant time evaluating student work against the project rubric. Performance assessments of authentic learning are always more involved than assessing multiple-choice, true/false, matching, fill-in-the-blank, and short-answer questions, which are often graded with scantron machines or are done digitally. And while the time it takes to evaluate student projects effectively can be challenging. The benefits to students are well documented. Authentic assessments can encourage active learning, greater retention of content, and real-world experience in a safe and supportive environment (Murphy, Fox, Freeman, & Hughes, 2017). Additionally, no matter how methodically one uses the project rubric, teachers are always susceptible to students’ claims of subjectivity. As discussed in a previous blog post, when evaluating authentic assessments, especially when students work in collaborative teams, it can be beneficial to implement self-assessments and peer reviews to hold students individually accountable, making the overall evaluation more valid.

The challenge for students

PBL is not only a paradigm shift for teachers but one for students too. Most students in typical educational environments are dependent learners. Dependent learning is when the student depends on the teacher to do most of the “work” in school. It is characterized by compliance, passivity, and uniformity. An example of dependent learning is when the teacher gives explicit step-by-step directions and guidelines for an assignment or activity with little to no student input. On the other hand, independent learning is when the student takes responsibility for their learning by having ownership and control over what they learn. Teachers new to PBL will often face pushback from students who prefer that the teacher continue to do most of the academic work. After all, learning is difficult, and PBL requires a tremendous amount of student initiative and motivation to be successful. The students, not the teacher, should leave school intellectually exhausted and not the other way around.

Another challenge teachers may face when introducing their students to PBL is apathy. It is not that students necessarily dislike PBL. They are not used to making independent choices about what they do in class and may quickly become overwhelmed. Students may need help managing their time in the wake of their newfound freedom and support to be more productive and on task. In addition, students might start the project with intensity and enthusiasm but lose interest as the project continues. To keep the students motivated, remind them about their short and long-term deadlines and the fact that they will present their final products to a public audience. In other words, remind them that what they are working on matters. Lastly, it might be helpful for students new to PBL to start doing small projects and gradually work their way up to larger ones to build their confidence and endurance.


PBL is a different approach to teaching that requires paradigm shifts in how teachers, students, parents, administrators, and stakeholders think about school. Schools should be preparing students for their futures, whether college, technical training, career or military. As uncertain as the future is, one thing is for sure. It will look much different than the one we know today. Schools have a responsibility to do everything in their power to equip their students with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to be successful in a technology-rich, interconnected, diverse, and fluid workplace. The traditional education model is an anachronism in the modern world if we wish our students to be competitive in an increasingly globalized economy.

With more than 20 years of teaching experience, I am convinced that PBL is an effective way to prepare our students with the 21st-century skills they will need for the future. A recent report titled the Worldwide Educating for the Future Index: 2019 From Policy to Practice pointed out that to meet the challenges of the future and to equip our students with “future-oriented skills,” today’s students must “develop capabilities and skills in areas such as critical thinking, problem-solving, leadership, collaboration, creativity, and entrepreneurship, as well as digital and technical skills.” All of these skills are developed through participation in PBL.

If you enjoyed this blog post, consider purchasing my book An Education for the 21st-century: A Handbook for Teachers on Amazon.

Duch, B. J., Groh, S. E, & Allen, D. E. (Eds.). (2001). The power of problem-based learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Murphy, V., Fox, J., Freeman, S., & Hughes, N. (2017). “Keeping it Real”: A review of the benefits, challenges, and steps towards implementing the authentic assessment. All Ireland Journal of Higher

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