Problem-Based Learning

Any learning environment in which the problem drives the learning. (Woods, 2005)

What is Problem-Based Learning (PBL)?

Problem-based learning is based on the messy, complex problems encountered in the real world as a stimulus for learning and for integrating and organizing learned information in ways that will ensure its recall and application to future problems. Problems are raised at the start of the topic, before students have been taught some of the relevant knowledge. By actively engaging with the problem, students develop skills around finding information, identifying what information they still need, and possible sources of that information. Learners are able to connect what they are learning in class to their own lives and important issues in their world.

Why PBL?

Today's world brings with it a rapid explosion of easily accessible knowledge. Graduates need to be self-directed and possess lifelong learning skills in order to effectively make use of the overwhelming abundance of information available to them. The interdisciplinary nature of today's issues, challenges, and work requires graduates to be able to integrate knowledge and skills from a number of disciplines in order to conceptualize and implement create solutions.

Problem-based learning activities are designed to help graduates develop transferable skills and attributes alongside gaining appropriate discipline-specific knowledge. Transferable skills/attributes are part of the degree level expectations that represent the intended outcomes for a university education and are being written into program curriculum. Problem-based learning challenges students to: (a) develop the ability to think critically; (b) analyze problems; and (c) find and use appropriate learning resources. Through PBL learners, are progressively given more and more responsibility for their own education and become increasingly independent of the teacher for their education.

The PBL Learning Process

"In traditional learning, students are given the information they need to know, asked to memorize the information, and assigned a problem to apply the information. With PBL, students are first assigned a problem they need to solve. They must then identify the information they need to solve the problem, and learn the information in order to apply it to solve the problem."

In problem-based learning:

  • Learners encounter a problem and attempt to solve it with information they already possess allowing them to appreciate what they already know.
  • They identify what they need to learn to better understand the problem and how to resolve it.
  • Once they have worked with the problem as far as possible and identified what they need to learn, the learners engage in self-directed study to research the information needed finding and using a variety of information resources (books, journals, reports, online information, and a variety of people with appropriate areas of expertise). In this way, learning can be personalized to the needs and learning styles of the individual.
  • The learners then return to the problem and apply what they learned to their work with the problem in order to more fully understand and resolve the problem.
  • After they have finished their problem work, the learners assess themselves and each other to develop skills in self-assessment and the constructive assessment of peers. Self-assessment is a skill essential to effective independent learning.
  • The responsibility of the teacher in PBL is to provide the educational materials and guidance that facilitate learning. The principle role of the teacher in PBL is that of a facilitator or educational coach (often referred to in jargon of PBL as a "tutor") guiding the learners in the PBL process. As learners become more proficient in the PBL learning process, the tutor becomes less active.

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 focus is on what students are 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 on 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 prerequisite. 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 students' skills. Rather, they assist in the development of the skills themselves.
  • The problems are open-ended: There is not meant to be one solution. As new information is gathered in a reiterative process, students' perception of the problem--and their ideas for solutions--can change.
  • Students solve the problems: Instructors are coaches and facilitators.
  • Students are only given guidelines for how to approach problems: There is no one formula for how students should approach their problem.
  • Authentic, performance based assessment: Consider both embedded and non-embedded assessments and ensure that assessments are timed to align well with students' progress throughout their PBL activities.

(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.

Assessment methods used in problem-based learning courses relates to the nature of the tasks, processes, and content in PBL courses. With PBL, assessment also evaluates the level of integration of interdisciplinary knowledge, skills and behaviors. Selecting appropriate assessment that generally differs from traditional methods is important to create alignment between what students are asked to do and their learning that is driven by assessment.

The types of assessment that evaluate PBL tasks, process, content and integration of interdisciplinary knowledge include:

  • newspaper article
  • peer assessment
  • position paper
  • presentations/demonstrations
  • reflective essays
  • reflective problem log
  • role-play
  • self-assessment
  • videotape presentation.

As PBL involves a great deal of team/group work, a large amount of the assessment should revolve around groups. For example, group presentations can provide a substantial contribution towards students' final mark and still balanced by a final formative peer review each student receives. Reflective journals and essays, as well as self assessment, are powerful tools that encourage students to think about their learning through the process.

Assessments aligned with PBL, including any essays and exams, should maintain the focus on context, and involve engagement with messy problems from multiple perspectives when assessing students' learning of course content. For additional tips on assessing problem-based learning, check out this article.