10 Tips For Effective Problem-Based Learning: The Ultimate Instructional Solution

Post by Open Colleges on May 23rd, 2015

Problem-based learning (PBL) was first introduced to the field of education in the 1960s by medical education specialist Howard Barrows, who argued that the teaching of medicine at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada should be organized in a way that emulated the reasoning of a skilled practitioner.

Monash University was the second institution to adopt PBL within a medical school environment and continues to apply this within its Faculty of Medicine, Nursing, and Health Sciences for the Bachelor of Medicine/Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) programs delivered in Australia and Malaysia. More than 80 percent of medical schools in the U.S. now use some form of PBL.

PBL has been adopted in nearly every discipline imaginable, including math, law, education, economics, business, engineering, and physical sciences. In Malaysia, an attempt is being made to introduce a problem-based learning model in secondary mathematics, with the aim of educating citizens to prepare them for decision-making in sustainable and responsible development. Aalborg University in Denmark has created its own “Aalborg PBL model” which combines problem orientation with project organization for enhanced student learning.

In 2008, Marist Brothers’ College, a secondary Catholic school in NSW, employed the methods of PBL in its teaching of Year 9 and 10 boys. The learning system was a great success and has since been expanded to lower grades to challenge students to think outside of the box and relate content-driven courses to problems in the real world.

But what is Problem-Based Learning, exactly? And how does it differ from all the other educational buzz terms like Project-Based Learning, Student-Centered Learning, Self-Directed Learning, Collaborative Learning, Inquiry-Based Learning, and Anchored Instruction?

What exactly is PBL?

In his original definition, Barrows describes PBL in the following terms:

  1. Student-centered;
  2. Small groups, usually 6-10 students;
  3. Facilitators or tutors guide students rather than teach;
  4. A specific problem serves as the focus of the group and stimulates learning;
  5. The problem is a vehicle for the development of problem solving skills, thereby stimulating the cognitive processes; and
  6. New knowledge is obtained through Self-Directed Learning (SDL).

Since Barrows, several authors have described the characteristics and features required for a successful PBL approach to instruction. Boud and Feletti (1997) provided a list of the practices considered characteristic of the philosophy, strategies, and tactics of problem-based learning. Duch, Groh, and Allen (2001) described the methods used in PBL and the specific skills developed, including the ability to think critically; analyze and solve complex, real-world problems; to find, evaluate, and use appropriate learning resources; to work cooperatively; to demonstrate effective communication skills; and to use content knowledge and intellectual skills to become continual learners.

Torp and Sage (2002) described PBL as focused, experiential learning organized around the investigation and resolution of messy, real-world problems.

They describe students as “engaged problem solvers,” seeking to identify the root problem and the conditions needed for a good solution and in the process becoming self-directed learners. Hmelo-Silver (2004) described PBL as an instructional method in which students learn through facilitated problem solving that centers on a complex problem that does not have a single correct answer. She noted that students work in collaborative groups to identify what they need to learn in order to solve a problem, engage in self-directed learning, apply their new knowledge to the problem, and reflect on what they learned and the effectiveness of the strategies employed.

Later researchers have added an element of meta-awareness to the concept as it applies to higher learning, claiming that the question of what qualifies as a “problem” should be treated as a problem in and of itself.


Many instructional strategies are part of – but do not define – Problem-Based Learning. For example, although PBL and Anchored Instruction share a concern for authentic, real-world problems, PBL does not require the instructor to provide information. On the other hand, while Student-Centered and Self-Directed Learning do not require the instructor to provide information, they also don’t require collaboration the way that PBL does. Collaborative Learning, naturally, constitutes the other extreme. Below are a few differences, identified by John Savery, Director of Instructional Services at the University of Akron, that are less obvious: 

Project-Based vs. Problem-Based

“While projects are excellent learner-centered instructional strategies, they tend to diminish the learner’s role in setting the goals and outcomes for the ‘problem.’ When the expected outcomes are clearly defined, then there is less need or incentive for the learner to set his/her own parameters. In the real world it is recognized that the ability to both define the problem and develop a solution (or range of possible solutions) is important.”

Inquiry-Based vs. Problem-Based

“The primary difference between PBL and inquiry-based learning relates to the role of the tutor. In an inquiry-based approach the tutor is both a facilitator of learning (encouraging/expecting higher-order thinking) and a provider of information. In a PBL approach the tutor supports the process and expects learners to make their thinking clear, but the tutor does not provide information related to the problem – that is the responsibility of the learners.”

Case-Based vs. Problem-Based

“Case studies can help learners develop critical thinking skills in assessing the information provided and in identifying logic flaws or false assumptions. Working through the case study will help learners build discipline/context-specific vocabulary/terminology, and an understanding of the relationships between elements presented in the case study. However, like Project-Based Learning, Case-Based Learning tends to pre-set goals and expected outcomes in a way that PBL does not.”


The challenge for many instructors in adopting a PBL approach, Savery says, is to make the transition from knowledge provider to facilitator of learning as smoothly as possible. “If teaching with PBL were as simple as presenting learners with a ‘problem,’ and students could be relied upon to work consistently at a high level of cognitive self-monitoring and self-regulation, then many teachers would be taking early retirement,” he writes.

The reality is that learners who are new to PBL require significant instructional scaffolding to support the development of problem-solving skills, self-directed learning skills, and teamwork/collaboration skills to a level of self-sufficiency where the scaffolds can be removed. Teaching institutions that have adopted a PBL approach to curriculum and instruction have developed extensive tutor-training programs in recognition of the critical importance of this role in facilitating the PBL learning experience.

Here are a few strategies, adapted from a Stanford University Newsletter on Teaching, you can use to overcome these challenges and effectively integrate Problem-Based Learning into your own instruction:

  1. Clearly define your purpose for doing PBL: Know the procedures you will use, along with your expectations, well before your first PBL session.
  2. Hold Brainstorming Sessions: Rangachari (1996) suggests that the first few class meetings in a PBL course include brainstorming sessions in which issues central to the course are identified.
  3. Develop Ill-Structured Problems: Based on student input about course topics, the instructor develops ill-structured problems, or open-ended problems that have multiple solutions and require students “to look at many methods before deciding on a particular solution.” Ill-structured problems require more information for understanding the problem than is initially available; contain multiple solution paths; change as new information is obtained; prevent students from knowing that they have made the “right” decision; generate interest and controversy and cause the learner to ask questions; are open-ended and complex enough to require collaboration and thinking beyond recall; and contain content that is authentic to the discipline.
  4. Refrain from Providing Information: Regardless of how topics were selected, the instructor presents the problems to student groups before providing any formal instruction on the topic. Allen, Duch and Groh [1996], however, suggest that problems be introduced with “mini-lectures” that provide some context for the problem and identify areas of potential difficulty.
  5. Allow Time for Collaboration: Students then work on the problems in groups of three to eight students, depending on the number of students in the course and the number of available instructors or tutors. Both inside and outside of school time, students work with their groups to solve problems. Throughout each session the instructor must ensure that all students are involved in the problem-solving process and must familiarize students with the resources needed (e.g. library references, databases) to solve the problems, as well as identify common difficulties or misconceptions.
  6. Emphasize Depth Over Breadth: Give students two to six weeks to work on one problem depending on its complexity. Upon completing the research or inquiry phase of problem solving, groups may be required to write a report and present it to the rest of the class.
  7. Conduct Regular Assessment: Assess progress at regular intervals. If necessary, interrupt group work to correct misconceptions, or to bring groups up to par with one another.
  8. Hold Class Discussions: Allow time for class discussion of the problem at the end of the PBL session, or at the beginning of the next class period.
  9. Facilitate Peer Feedback: A critical part of assessment in PBL is the feedback students receive from their peers. Allen, Duch, and Groh (1996) asked students to rate their group members using a numerical scale based on “attendance, degree of preparation for class, listening and communication skills, ability to bring new and relevant information to the group, and ability to support and improve the functioning of the group as a whole.” This peer rating constituted up to ten percent of students final grades.
  10. Assess Authentically: PBL assessments should be authentic, which is to say that they should be structured so that students can display their understanding of problems and their solutions in contextually-meaningful ways (Gallagher, 1997). Clearly, multiple-choice assessments and even short-answer or essay questions that require rote repetition of facts will be of little value in assessing the extent to which students have internalized holistic approaches to complex problems.
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