Problem-Based Learning

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This page was originally authored by James Richardson and Sanyee Chen (2007).
This page has been revised by Mike Sherman (2008).

Problem-based learning (PBL) is an instructional strategy in which learners are provided with a problem that may be ill-defined and have no obvious solution. Students must tap into prior knowledge and do additional exploration to find a solution to the problem.

Characteristics of problem-based learning

  • PBL requires the active involvement of learners, both individually and in collaboration with others.
  • Learners must think critically, creatively, and analytically in order to solve problems.
  • Problems must be authentic, i.e., they must resemble ones that people face in the real world. Authenticity ensures that learners will be engaged with the problems and assume greater ownership over solving them.
  • PBL differs from the Socratic method of learning where the teacher is the fountain of knowledge whom students must consult and ask questions of in order to learn; rather than being teacher-centred, PBL is learner-centred.

Role of the teacher

In the initial stages of PBL, the teacher models how to solve the problem. As students become competent with the process, the teacher assumes more of a faciliatory role. From this point on, the teacher does not tell the learner what he or she knows but guides the learner to finding a solution to the problem on his or her own. The teacher asks questions of the learner such as: Why? What do you mean? How do you know that's true? The teacher also challenges the learner's thinking: Do you know what that means? What are the implications of that? Is there anything else? The goal of the teacher is not to feed facts and information but to nurture reason. The teacher guides the learner to explore deeper metacognitive processes that will help him or her to solve the problem.

Role of the learners

In PBL, small groups of students are provided a topical problem. Students review what they already know then determine what they still need to find out in order to solve the problem. This involves the division of responsibilities and tasks among group members. Self-directed work follows. Once each member has completed this work, the group meets again and discusses what information collected is relevant and what is not. If the problem is still not solved, more work is needed.

PBL assessment

Because PBL is so open ended, teachers often leave it up to students to determine their own learning objectives. Many teachers then design tests to address these stated objectives. However, there is no guarantee that student objectives match those mandated in the curriculum. Many perceive this as a drawback of PBL.

PBL frequently includes individual and peer assessment as well. The following things are commonly assessed.

  • Self-directed learning
  • Problem solving
  • Skills as a group member

Where PBL is used

PBL was first developed in the 1970s at McMaster University Medical School in Hamilton, Ontario. Today it is used in medical schools around the world. PBL is also used in schools of architecture, business, education, and law. PBL is also commonly used in high schools and in construction management.


McMaster University Center for Leadership in Learning

Savery, J. R., Duffy, T. M. (1995). Problem Based Learning: An Instructional Model and Its Constructivist Framework. Educational Technology, 35 (5), p. 31-38

Wee, K.N., Kek, Y.C., Sim, H.C. (2001). Crafting Effective Problems for Problem-based Learning. PBL Conference.

Problem Based Learning Home Page. Queens University

The PBL Handbook

External links

Problem-Based Learning Resources at the University of Delaware

Samford University Center for Teaching, Learning, and Scholarship. Check out links in the left menu for more information on PBL.

Problem-Based Learning Initiative. A group of experienced PBL educators willing to share their knowledge and expertise with others.

The Higher Education Academy. More on PBL including a discussion of its perceived advantages and disadvantages.

See also

Constructivist teaching methods

Inquiry-based learning

Project-based learning

Student-centred learning