Problem Based Learning



Problem Based Learning (PBL) is a structured framework for active and collaborative learning. The framework is closely aligned with the theoretical notion of constructivism which argues that learning is a constructive and co-constructive activity involving social interactions. Problems, tutors and small groups are all important components of this teaching approach. The “problem” is considered to be the driving force behind the student’s learning by challenging them to actively engage in the learning and drive them to construct new knowledge linked to their existing knowledge.

A teacher implementing this approach will assume a very different role than he or she would in more traditional approaches. During PBL, the teacher assumes the role of a tutor, who does not convey expert knowledge, but instead stimulates and monitors the group process and discussions. The teacher should encourage collaborative and self-directed learning but scaffold the students throughout the process.

PBL always starts with a problem. The students do not prepare for the problem beforehand, instead beginning their initial discussions of the problem based on their prior knowledge. Problems are considered to be ill-structured without a clear cut solution and are designed in a manner that will encourage students to ask questions and seek additional information. When engaging with the problems students analyze the information, generate possible explanations, build on each other’s ideas and identify key issues to be studied further. As such, the goal of PBL is to elicit active, self-regulated, collaborative and contextual learning.

Designing Problems

PBL emphasizes the development of four kinds of knowledge: explanatory knowledge, descriptive knowledge, procedural knowledge and subjective knowledge. Each of these four knowledge types are addressed through different types of questions (explanation problems, fact-finding problems, strategy problems and moral dilemma resolution problems). Careful development of these problems are considered to be of utmost importance as higher quality problems will promote students to collaborate to a greater extent, spend more time on self-directed learning activities, and raise more interest in the materials being studied. Essentially, the quality of the problem very heavily influences the depth of the learning process and the quantity and quality of the student interactions.

Teachers must find or create good problems based on clear learning goals since it is through each problem that teachers should be leading students to learn key concepts, facts and processes related to core course content. Therefore, the careful design of problems is an essential component. The following tips can provide support to teachers starting develop problems for their classrooms (from Berkel, Scherpbier, Hillen and Vleuten, 2010).

  • Each problem should have a title.
  • The problem should be in the form of a concrete body of text (concrete terms and common language).
  • Problems require a set of instructions giving the student steps to follow.
  • The problems should always be connected to student’s prior knowledge base, and should raise students’ curiosity.
  • Each problem should only raise a limited number of issues for learning and should not take much self-directed study time for a fair understanding of the issues to be acquired.

All problems should be similar to what learners face in their real-life situations, should allow students to generate hypotheses, stimulate discussion, provide evidence and reasoning and enforce retention of information.

Role of the Teacher

When carrying out PBL, a teacher will move away from their traditional teaching role. The teacher will act as a facilitator of student learning as opposed to a disseminator of knowledge to the students. As such, the teacher does not convey any expert knowledge, instead spending time actively simulating and monitoring group process and discussions. As PBL is taking place, he/she must ensure that he/she is keeping the learning process going, probing the students for knowledge, asking questions that probe accuracy, raising new issues for consideration, ensuring involvement of all students, modulating challenge of the problems, and inviting clarification.  

Examples and Assessment

As students work through a problem together, they will move through seven steps.

  1. Review terminology
  2. Identify the problem
  3. Brainstorm
  4. Generate possible explanations
  5. Create a list of learning issues (this list will be addressed during self-study)
  6. Self-Study
  7. Group meets to report out on self-study

During PBL, it is believed that the small groups learn through their interactions with one another. They spend time explaining concepts and phenomenon to one another, asking questions, discussing the problem at hand and constructing collaborative explanations.

As with all assessments for learning, it is important that it is carefully aligned with the learning methods. Therefore assessment in PBL looks significantly different than that seen in traditional teaching methodologies since teachers must rely on more authentic assessment techniques. Problems will often lead up to a demonstration or presentation of learning which might take the form of a written product, a solution, a recommendation or a summary of what was learned.    


Problem 1: (Note – The source website is no longer active)

The National Oceanographic Association (NOA) announces the opportunity for university marine archaeologists to submit a proposal for the chance to excavate a recent discovery of a Spanish Galleon. The galleon was found at the Key Largo Coral Reef in the National Marine Sanctuary. The shipwreck was located by NOA’s coastal operation which analyzes bottom habitats.

Evidence suggests this is a major find of a Spanish galleon that has never been touched. Furthermore, preliminary observations suggest that this was a treasure from the America’s to Spain in the late 16th century.

NOA requests all interested universities submit a proposal for this excavation. The proposal needs to include:

  • How the team will carry out the marine excavation.
  • What difficulties you anticipate you will encounter.
  • A plan for the preservation of objects.
  • A list of what precautions and concerns the team will take in excavating in the coral reefs.
  • A list of what objects may be found at the site based on documentation from other excavations.
  • An explanation of the historical significance of these objects.
  • A summary of the history of the conquest of the Americas for the eventual presentation of objects found.
  • A list of where the objects were originally so they may be returned after the exhibition.

All proposals are due on _______________. Late proposals will not be accepted.

Problem 2:(Note – The source website is no longer active)

Dear Ancient World Explorer,

Have you heard about the meteorite which was found in Antarctica? Scientists are very excited about this discovery because it might mean that there was life at one time on the planet Mars. They are investigating the evidence carefully. When archaeologists dig up the artifacts of ancient civilizations, they make exciting discoveries too and try to find out what life was like for ancient people.

As you explore the civilizations of the ancient world, you will try to answer questions about how people lived thousands of years ago. It may be hard to answer every question because sometimes there is not enough evidence to support a conclusion. Historians may also look at the same evidence in different ways. Sometimes the experts have to change their answers as new artifacts are discovered.

In this activity, you will study the structures of Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and China. As you learn about these wonders of the ancient world, remember that there are many different ideas about why and how they were built.

Some people think that ancient people learned how to build these awesome monuments by aliens from outer space who were more advanced than earthlings. Others believe that one culture may have borrowed from other people on earth who already knew how to build. Still others think that people in these cultures created the monuments totally on their own without any outside contact.

We have been asked by your teacher to visit your classroom and listen to your conclusions at the end of your unit. We look forward to hearing your findings as you present them to our group, the Ancient World Architectural Review Board (the AWARB).


The Ancient World Architectural Review Board


PBL originated at McMaster University, Canada by a small influential group with leading members Jim Anderson, Howard Barrows and John Evans. The original theory behind the approach stemmed from a desire to present real-life patient problems to medical students, therefore improving the authenticity of medical education. Since the initial development of PBL in 1966, the educational approach has expanded exponentially across disciplines and into K-12 education.

Although there is currently limited research to support the argument that PBL leads to better learning outcomes when compared to more traditional approaches, studies have shown that PBL elicits a number of cognitive activities that are assumed to enhance student learning. For instance, it is said to encourage activation of prior knowledge, elaboration and interactions. Moreover, it is argued that the focus on group discussion influences a student’s intrinsic interest in the subject matter. Others argue that active engagement in explaining phenomenon during PBL has a positive impact on memory and will lead to superior explanations by students. Finally, many studies report that students engaged in PBL are highly satisfied with the approach and that teachers find it a satisfying way to teach.

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