Problem based learning. Project based learning. Challenge based learning. Inquiry based learning. Are these phrases all describing the same thing? In this session, we will discuss the essential qualities of the above instructional strategies: authentic learning activities, problem to be solved, interest based, and real-world context.


Read the following unit descriptions and respond to the prompt below. Both units are covering the topics/objectives listed below.

Unit Objectives/Standards

Slope, slope formulas, and measurement.

First Unit

In this unit, the typical lesson will start with the educator modeling a skill for the whole group.  Learners will start to build knowledge by keeping a journal of the modeling sessions.  Further exploration of the skill will be facilitated through various cooperative learning experiences.  The educator will circulate asking probing questions, revealing any misconceptions.  Formative assessment will occur through the aforementioned questions, daily quizzes/in-class assignments, and nightly problem sets for homework.  A summative assessment will be given at the end of the unit to assess overall understanding of the skills.  This summative assessment will be a series of problems that will assess the skills separately and when they are used in conjunction with one another.

Second Unit

The unit is introduced with an authentic problem that needs to be solved: “There is a house in west Philadelphia that needs new basement stairs because of severe damage.” Learners create the curriculum for the unit by dissecting the problem and asking smaller questions about what they think they need to know in order to solve the problem.  They will sort and order these questions and the educator will use the list to structure the individual lessons of the unit.  The discrete math topics will focus on answering these questions.  The learners will complete three projects, each one scaffolding the design and construction skills for building the stairs. They will design the stairs on graph paper to scale. Then, in a group, they will build a scale model out of foam core.  The final performance of understanding will be to propose their solution to the owners of the house.  The proposal includes material costs, time frame, and design of the stairs.  Interested learners use the winning design to construct and install the stairs.


In the comments section below, respond to the following prompt. Compare and contrast the two unit descriptions.  Think about the nature in which learners build knowledge and the ways which they prove their understanding.

understanding by design

Step 1

What topics/skills/content/standards do you need to cover?  I find it helpful to stay away from the convoluted language of standards and assessment anchors.  I try to create a list of topics.

  • The science of global warming
  • Chemistry of carbon dioxide
  • Linear equations and functions
    • Slope intercept form
    • Point slope formula
    • Using technology to solve equations
  • Line graphs and scatter plots
  • Linear regression (lines of best fit)

Step 2

With that list in mind, create a problem statement.  The problem statement can be as simple as a question or it can be a description of a task.  This should yield a deliverable that is a performance of their understanding.  The ideal is to create a culminating project in which they must use each of the defined skills from the initial list.  Remember, the more they actually have an impact, the more powerful the learning experience.

Problem Statement: At what point will the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere reach a dangerous level?

Step 3

Now that you have created the end product, start to create activities that directly address the necessary skills for the final performance of understanding.


Reinventing Project-Based Learning offers educators an accessible guide for maximizing the benefits of project-based learning in today’s technology-rich learning environment.

Websites that have PBL Examples
Why Teach with Project-Based Learning?

Project-based learning is a dynamic approach to teaching in which students explore real-world problems and challenges. With this type of active and engaged learning, students are inspired to obtain a deeper knowledge of the subjects they’re studying.

Intel STEM Resources

Explore technology rich units that use project-based approaches to support the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Curriculum. Intel believes that young people are the key to solving global challenges. A solid math and science foundation coupled with skills such as critical thinking, collaboration and problem solving are crucial for their success.

What Is PBL?

In Project Based Learning (PBL), students go through an extended process of inquiry in response to a complex question, problem, or challenge. Rigorous projects help students learn key academic content and practice 21st Century Skills (such as collaboration, communication & critical thinking).