Problem-Based Learning

Background of Problem-Based Learning


Problem-based learning (PBL) as a teaching strategy and curricular design began over thirty years ago at McMaster University in Canada. Using problems based on actual clinical cases as focal points in a medical program evolved after years of medical faculty and student frustration with the traditional lectures and challenging clinical experiences. Imparting and absorbing the immense amount of content inherent in a medical education was becoming more unrealistic and improbable. Drawing from the tutorial process developed by Barrows (Barrows & Tamblyn, 1980), the medical curriculum shifted from a faculty-centered approach to a student-centered, interdisciplinary process.

Hybridization of the McMaster PBL approach has occurred at numerous institutions. Harvard Medical School derived its use of PBL from earlier work at Case Western Reserve University (Boud & Feletti, 1997). At the latter institution, faculty at the school of medicine employed an interdisciplinary lab and a variety of teaching strategies to educate students. Harvard expanded upon these experiences by integrating PBL problems with didactic, discussion and experiential sessions (Tosteson, Adelstein & Carver, 1994).

The continued use of PBL arises from the recognition that students retain minimal information obtained from traditional didactic teaching (Bok, 1989) and have difficulty transferring knowledge to new experiences (Schmidt, 1983). According to Schmidt, PBL provides an environment in which students can draw upon prior knowledge, learn within the real-world context, and reinforce the knowledge through independent and small group work.


There are numerous definitions and interpretations of PBL. Some faculty and institutions ascribe to the original definition which is:

  • PBL is both a curriculum and a process. The curriculum consists of carefully selected and designed problems that demand from the learner acquisition of critical knowledge, problem solving proficiency, self-directed learning strategies, and team participation skills. The process replicates the commonly used systemic approach to resolving problems or meeting challenges that are encountered in life and career (Barrows & Kelson).

Other definitions abound. A key point to designing, implementing and assessing the student outcomes achievable with PBL is to determine the definition that best fits your teaching philosophy and your institution's mission. Some of the PBL definitions generated include:

  • PBL is an approach to structuring the curriculum which involves confronting students with problems from practice which provides a stimulus for learning (Boud & Feletti, 1991).
  • Problem-based learning (PBL) is an instructional method that challenges students to "learn to learn," working cooperatively in groups to seek solutions to real world problems. These problems are used to engage students' curiosity and initiate learning the subject matter. PBL prepares students to think critically and analytically, and to find and use appropriate learning resources (Duch,1995)
  • Problem-based learning is a development and instructional approach built around an ill-structured problem which is mess and complex in nature; requires inquiry, information-gathering, and reflection; is changing and tentative; and has no simple, fixed, formulaic, "right" solution (Finkle & Torp, 1995).
  • Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is an instructional strategy that promotes active learning. PBL can be used as a framework for modules, courses, programs, or curricula (Samford, 1998).


  • Ill-structured, complex problems provide the focal point(s) and stimuli for the course, curriculum and/or program.
  • Learning is student-centered.
  • Faculty act as a coach or facilitator.
  • Students work in small groups to solve/provide multiple solutions to problems
  • Learner assessment is enhanced by self and peer assessment

Aims of PBL

According to Barrows and Tamblyn (1980) and Engel (1997), PBL can, regardless of discipline, enhance students' achievement of:

  • Adaptation and participation in change
  • Application of problem solving in new and future situations
  • Creative and critical thought
  • Adoption of holistic approach to problems and situations
  • Appreciation of diverse viewpoints
  • Successful team collaboration
  • Identification of learning weaknesses and strengths
  • Promotion of self-directed learning
  • Effective communication skills
  • Augmentation of knowledge base
  • Leadership skills
  • Utilization of relevant and varied resources


The Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (1996) compared prescriptive and experiential curriculums. Using these as endpoints on a continuum, one would place PBL close to the latter. Again, depending on one's interpretation and usage of PBL, this can vary.

Prescriptive Curriculum Experiential Curriculum
Teacher-centered Student-centered
Linear & rational Coherent & relevant
Part to whole organization Whole to part organization
Teaching as transmitting Teaching as facilitating
Learning as receiving Learning as constructing
Structured environment Flexible environment

Savin-Badin (2000) delved into the differences between PBL and other teaching strategies. Drawing upon Barrow's work, she delineated the basics associated with each of the following strategies:

Teaching Strategy Description
Lecture Information presented and discussed by faculty instructor.
Case-based Written case histories provided prior to lecture and followed with in-class discussion about content and concepts.
Case method Written case histories provided prior to class, studied and then discussed in class (typically in small groups)
Modified case method Incomplete, written information provided and studied prior to class. Within groups, determination made as to additional information needed. Sometimes additional information provided in class.
Problem-focused Students provided with a simulated problem/scenario.
Problem-based Incomplete, written information provided and studied prior to class. Focus is on identifying learning issues applicable to resolution of the problem. Content and concepts relevant to learning a key component.

The differences between case-based and problem-based learning can be difficult to ascertain. In a study examining both expert and non-expert tutors, Hay and Katsikitis (2001) determined the two are similar. The uniqueness of each is in the presentation of the problem. With case-based, the problem is accompanied by resource materials and questions; with PBL, only the problem is provided. PBL focuses more on what students do, rather than what the faculty do (MacDonald & Issacs, 2001).

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