Problem Based Learning: Collaborative, Student-Driven Learning in Real-World Contexts

The US Department of Labor and the New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE) have partnered to assist YouthBuild programs in implementing problem based learning (PBL). While not new, there is increasing commitment to PBL and its practical applications for learners.
According to NEBHE, PBL is an “educational method that engages students in inquiry-based real world problem-solving.  PBL is an instructional approach that teaches students ‘how to learn’ by collaboratively solving authentic industry problems. PBL is an exciting and challenging alternative to traditional lecture-based instruction that provides students with learning experiences that engage them directly in the types of problems and situations they will encounter in the 21st century workplace. Students of PBL become active participants in their own learning as they encounter new and unfamiliar learning situations where problem parameters are ill-defined and ambiguous — just like in the real world. When utilizing the PBL approach, learning occurs collaboratively in small groups, problems are presented before any formal preparation has occurred — the problem itself drives the learning — and new information is acquired via self-directed learning.”
NEHBE places high value on PBL as a structured approach to solving open-ended problems. PBL includes the following eight approaches:

1.     Key Knowledge, Understanding, and Success

2.     Challenging Problem or Question

3.     Sustained Inquiry

4.     Authenticity

5.     Student Voice & Choice

6.     Reflection

7.     Critique & Revision

8.     Public Product

Learn more about these approaches at

NEBHE’s work with PBL shows that PBL improves students’ motivation for learning, confidence in their ability to solve real world problems, interest in life-long learning, skills for critical thinking, and appreciation for collaborative learning. 

Region 1 of the US Department of Labor, located in Boston, recently concluded a PBL pilot that included three DOL YouthBuild grantees: YouthBuild Newark, the Providence Plan, and Community Renewal Team in Hartford. As part of the pilot, NEBHE worked directly with YouthBuild staff, supporting them in the implementation of PBL and the development of their public product, or “challenge.” Mike Deragon, Lead Teacher and Testing and Assessment Coordinator at Providence Plan, had this to say about the PBL pilot:
“The support and guidance we received from NEBHE strengthened our curriculum.  This happened specifically around planning for better PBL challenges and experiences for our students.  Further, it helped us to be more thoughtful around how we can incorporate all aspects of the program into our projects and better support students with resources.”
Read more about Providence Plan’s PBL work at

You can also visit for PBL professional development resources and projects.