Problem-Based Learning in Math

Problem-based learning is a teaching strategy in which teachers present content using real-world examples and scenarios. PrBL activities are student-centered in that teachers facilitate student discovery of a solution. This differs from traditional “stand and deliver” instruction, in which the teacher presents students with information and students learn it. With problem-based learning, students arrive at an answer themselves through exploration. There is often more than one correct answer in problem-based learning, but students must defend their answer with evidence. Problem-based learning can happen in any subject area. However, it is especially important in a math classroom, where students often don’t see math’s utility in the real world.

Here are some of the characteristics that great problem-based learning tasks share:

  • motivating for students

  • require reasoning, and defending reasons

  • interdisciplinary

  • collaborative

  • open-ended (more than one possible correct answer)

Some of the student benefits of problem-based learning are:

  • improvement of critical thinking skills

  • promotes communication and collaboration

  • builds a deeper understanding of concepts

How to Create Problem-Based Learning Opportunities in Math

  1. Contextualize lessons in real-life scenarios

  2. Explicitly teach the math skills students will need

  3. If applicable, give students jobs/roles within groups (or have students choose their own roles within groups)

  4. Provide some sort of rubric so students know exactly what it is they need to accomplish

  5. Anticipate misconceptions and prepare to correct them

Examples of PrBL in Math

Elementary: At the end of a geometry unit, students create a flyer for a business or event that uses all geometric shapes. They must include the shapes’ names and definitions on the flyer. How students choose to incorporate the shapes and their definitions is up to them.

Middle: Students receive a grocery store circular and a budget. They are in charge of preparing food for a soup kitchen and must figure out how to get the most food for their money while also incorporating given food groups/categories (e.g. there must be a green vegetable, protein, dairy, etc.)

High: Students in a geometry class must design a stadium with specific ratios, which seats a certain number of people, and meets a number of other guidelines. Students must create a scaled version of their design with measurements and stadium parts clearly labeled, and any calculations included in the final product.

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