Problem-Based Learning (PBL)

18 Jan 2012


Problem-based learning (PBL) is a student-centered pedagogy in which students learn about a subject in the context of complex, multifaceted, and realistic problems . The goals of PBL are to help the students develop flexible knowledge, effective problem solving skills, self-directed learning, effective collaboration skills and intrinsic motivation. Working in groups, students identify what they already know, what they need to know, and how and where to access new information that may lead to resolution of the problem. The role of the instructor (known as the tutor in PBL) is that of facilitator of learning who provides appropriate scaffolding and support of the process, modelling of the process, and monitoring the learning. The tutor must build students confidence to take on the problem, encourage the student, while also stretching their understanding.

PBL was pioneered in the medical school program at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada in the late 1960’s by Howard Barrows and his colleagues.[4] The PBL curriculum was developed in order to stimulate the learners, assist the learners in seeing the relevance of learning to future roles, maintain a higher level of motivation towards learning, and to show the learners the importance of responsible, professional attitudes (Barrows, 1996).
PBL offers an opportunity to practice, use, (and even develop) such processing skills as problem solving, interpersonal, group and team skills, the ability to cope with change, lifetime or self-directed learning skills and self-assessment skills. These are valued skills in themselves. Indeed, this poses a dilemma. Students should have “good” abilities with these processing skills if they are going to be able to gain the most from PBL. To some extent, your success with PBL will depend on the student’s processing skills. PBL is about learning subject knowledge in the context of using and developing process skills. Too often we focus only on the subject knowledge being learned.

Alternatively, some of you may have been using small group, self-directed, tutor-facilitated PBL for a number of years and are looking for additional ideas to help the students gain the most from the experience.
The major challenges to implementing any PBL program are:
1.To remind yourself of the principles of how to improve learning and how to flexibly apply these principles to your situation to develop a form of PBL with which you are comfortable.
2.To accept your role as coach/facilitator as opposed to the familiar lecturer.
3.To resolve how important it is to develop your student’s ability with the “processing skills.

4.To put together the key components needed to create the appropriate learning environment.

5. To decide how to assess.

Characteristics of PBL

Schmidt argues that a PBL environment enables students draw upon their prior knowledge and skills, brings a real-world context in the classroom, and reinforces the knowledge through both independent and cooperative group work.

Characteristics of PBL can be summarized as follows:
Ill-structured, complex problems that are often drawn from the real-world provide the focal points and act as stimuli for the course, curriculum or program.
Learning is student-centered.
Instructor takes the role of a supervisor, as a coach or facilitator.
Learning is realized in small groups of students who analyze, study, discuss and propose solutions to (possibly) open-ended problems.
Learner assessment is enhanced by self and peer assessment.

In a PBL setting the learning process is typically stimulated by discussion in small groups of students. This provides students with the opportunity to prepare for the professional life, by practical training in coordinating a work group and working effectively as a part of a team. The independent research and learning aspect of the PBL provides the students the skill of identifying, researching and filling in the missing knowledge in the type of problems they may encounter in their professional lives.

Principles to improve learning

To improve learning:
1.Students must be actively involved in the learning activities; not passively listening to you and me lecture. [Johnson and Johnson, 1982; Johnson, Johnson and Smith, 1991]
2.Students should work cooperatively together to help each other learn; [Johnson and Johnson, 1982; Johnson, Johnson and Smith, 1991]
3.Provide learning activities that exploits the students unique learning preference. Not all students learn the same way. Each has a preferred style. [Keller, 1968; Grayson and Biedenbach, 1974; and Felder and Silverman, 1988]
4.Students should have clear goals and criteria to tell them when the goals have been achieved. [Mager, 1962; Kibler et al. 1974; and Popham and Baker, 1970]
5.Students should get prompt feedback about their performance. It is not that useful to give them back a marked report three weeks after it was completed.

6.Empower the students to have some role in the assessment. (Whether it is peer or self-assessment.) [Gibbs, undated; Novak, 1989; and Brown and Pendleberry, 1992]
7.Provide a work environment that expects that they will succeed. Learn and use their names; take a personal interest in each student. (As opposed to one where you communicate that your role is to “weed them out,” “cover material,” “satisfy tough standards,” “do my thing without getting personally involved with you the students,” or “do my thing because the real reason I’m here is to do research.”)[Woods, 1985]
8.Provide rich tutor-student interaction through many different types of in-class and outside class events.
9.Don’t expect “processing skills” to be developed by providing “opportunities.” Asking students to work in groups does not necessarily develop good group skills; asking students to solve problems, does not necessarily develop problem solving skills. [Woods, 1993a-d; Norman and Schmidt, 1993; Resnick, 1987; Meiring, 1980; and Perkins and Salomon, 1989]
Therefore, to improve learning we should:
Create an environment that embodies and uses as many of these principles as we can, Use our expertise to facilitate the learning. Yes, we may have expertise in “lecturing” or delivering information; what about your expertise in “learning”? To me, one of the richest examples of learning is working with my graduate students. Here my student and I pose a
problem, and then we work together to try to solve it. The most exciting times for me are when the student is stuck.


Felder, R.M. and L. Silverman (1988) “Learning and teaching styles in engineering education,” Eng. Ed., 78, 7, 674-681.
Gibbs, G. (undated) “A-Z of student focused teaching strategies,” Educational Methods Unit, OxfordPolytechnic, Headington, UK.

Keller, F.S. (1968) “Good-bye, Teacher,” J of Applied Behaviour Analysis, 1, 79-89.
Kibler, R.J., D.J. Cegala, D.T. Miles and L.L. Barker (1974) “Objectives for Instruction

Novak, J. (1989) “Helping students learn how to learn: a view from a teacher-researcher,” Third Congress of Research and Teaching in Science and Mathematics, Santiago de Compostela, Spain, Sept. reviewed in PS News 69.

Resnick, L.B. (1987) “Education and learning to think,” National Academy Press, Washington DC

Woods, D.R. (1985) “Total Quality Management,” McMaster University, Hamilton ON.
Woods, D.R. (1993a) “Problem solving - where are we now?” J. College Science Teaching, 22, 312-314.
Woods, D.R. (1993b) “Problem solving - what doesn’t seem to work,” J. College Science Teaching, 23, 57-58.
Woods, D.R. (1993c) “New Approaches for developing problem solving skills,” J. College Science Teaching, 23, 157-158.
Woods, D.R. (1993d) “On the learning in problem-based learning?” PEDAGOGUE, 4, No. 2, 2-3.
Woods, D.R., W. Duncan-Hewitt, F. Hall, C. Eyles and A.N. Hrymak (1995) “Tutored and Tutorless Groups in PBL,” McMaster University, Hamilton, submitted.




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