The differences between projects and Project-Based Learning

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There are many differences between 'doing' projects and taking a project-based learning (PBL) approach. But what are they?

The chart below by Amy Mayer of friEdTechnology is helpful to clarify the important differences between projects and project-based learning – the main difference being the process itself. As you can see, this view of projects vs. project-based learning is slanted in favour of PBL, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

You can also download the table as a printable word document here.



Project-based learning…

Can be done at home without teacher guidance or team collaboration.

Requires teacher guidance and team collaboration.

Can be outlined in detail on one piece of paper by the teacher.

Includes many ‘Need to Knows’* on the part of the students and teachers.

Are used year after year and usually focus on product (make a mobile, a poster, a diorama, etc.).

Is timely, complex, covers many TEKS**, and takes a team of highly trained professionals significant time to plan and implement.

The teacher work occurs mainly after the project is complete.

The teacher work occurs mainly before the project starts.

The students do not have many opportunities to make choices at any point in the project.

The students make most of the choices during the project within the pre-approved guidelines. The teacher is often surprised and even delighted with the students’ choices.

Are based upon directions and are done ‘like last year’.

Is based upon driving questions that encompass every aspect of the learning that will occur and establishes the need to know.

Are often graded based on teacher perceptions that may or may not be explicitly shared with students, like neatness.

Is graded based on a clearly defined rubric made or modified specifically for the project.

Are closed: every project has the same goal.

Is open: students make choices that determine the outcome and path of the research.

Cannot be used in the real world to solve real problems.

Could provide solutions in the real world to real problems even though they may not be implemented.

Are not particularly relevant to students’ lives.

Is relevant to students’ lives or future lives.

Do not resemble work done in the real world.

Is just like or closely resembles work done in the real world.

Do not include scenarios and background information or are based on events that have already been resolved.

The scenario or simulation is real or if it is fictitious, is realistic, entertaining, and timely.

Are sometimes based around a tool for the sake of the tool rather than of an authentic question. (Make a Prezi.)

Use technology, tools, and practices of the real world work environment purposefully. Students choose tools according to purposes.

Happen after the ‘real’ learning has already occurred and are just the ‘dessert’.

Is how students do the real learning.

Are turned in.

Is presented to a public audience encompassing people from outside the classroom.

Are all the same.

Is different.


Make a model (or diorama or mobile) of the school/town/local site of interest.


Design a fortification that would take your community through a bio or other non-traditional attack and make a recommendation to the city council for future planning.

© Amy Mayer, friEdTechnolody, The Original WOW! Academy. Please copy and use freely!


 * ‘Need to knows’ – things that will need to be learned or discovered during the process of creating the product.

** Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) – the state standards for what students should know and be able to do. The Texan equivalent of the National Curriculum or Common Core Standards.


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