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Queen's University

Centre for Teaching and Learning

Designing and Developing a PBL Course

Problem-based learning courses primarily concentrate on students' learning through authentic problem situations. By creating these situations, the course simulates professional practice and the complex issues that surround it. Content is naturally embedded within problems. Through carefully designed problem scenarios, appropriate content is selected and positioned at authentic locations throughout the process and problem where it can be found by the students.

What Can a PBL Course Cover?

Generally, PBL courses cover the same amount of content or less content than would be in traditional didactic courses. The question is what are students expected to do with the content that the course covers. PBL is particularly appropriate for courses where the learning objectives focus on developing analytic and information literacy skills, and a deep learning of content that can be applied or critiqued within context.

Although much of a PBL course's content occurs during students' engagement with the problem, basic initial knowledge is often a pre-requisite. Instructors of PBL courses need to identify what knowledge and skills students will need prior to starting problem-based learning and then build in some embedded instruction that will allow the students to gain these prerequisites.

Consider students' prior course experiences. Depending on the program's curriculum and course pre-requisites, this course may be some students' first experience in a PBL learning environment. To facilitate their learning, scaffolding may need to be incorporated into the course's design. Approaches for scaffolding include providing explicit instructions or examples of how these problem situations can be approached and solved. It is also important to very clearly communicate the PBL process, the assessments and what is expected of the students.

PBL Curriculum Characteristics

Problem based learning curriculum have several distinct characteristics, specifically:

  • Reliance on problems to drive the curriculum - the problems do not test skills; they assist in the development of the skills themselves.
  • The problems are truly ill-structured - there is not meant to be one solution, and as new information is gathered in a reiterative process, perception of the problem, and thus the solution, changes.
  • Students solve the problems - teachers are coaches and facilitators.
  • Students are only given guidelines for how to approach problems - there is no one formula for student approaches to the problem.
  • Authentic, performance based assessment - assessment is a seamless component.

(Adapted from Stepien, W.J. and Gallagher, S.A. 1993. "Problem-based Learning: As Authentic as it Gets." Educational Leadership. 50(7) 25-8 and Barrows, H. (1985) Designing a Problem Based Curriculum for the Pre-Clinical Years.

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