Problem-Based Learning

What is Problem-Based Learning (PBL)?

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is another approach to learner-centered instruction. The instructor (or tutor in PBL-speak) is a facilitator for the learning process, but the entire execution of the PBL experience is student-led. PBL engages students because the real-world problems are determined by student interest and explored in ways the students suggest.

The situations they are dealing with are complicated and target student’s analytical, critical thinking and problem-solving skills.They are deliberately ambiguous so students have to work hard to arrive at solutions and often they are so multifaceted, that arriving at a solution can present yet another problem to be addressed.

The experiential nature of PBL is underscored by the fact that the students have to think and act like real professionals in their respective fields as they work to solve realistic problems. They go through the problems as if they are the actual pathologists, environmental scientists, social workers, field linguists, etc. The University of Delaware has a nice site devoted to PBL on which you can view sample syllabi and example problems from various disciplines including Physics, Criminal Justice and Biology/Chemistry. They also provide access to a PBL clearinghouse, filled with peer reviewed problems, notes to the facilitator and resources for the students. The U of Delaware site lists the following student benefits of the PBL approach:

    • Improved critical thinking and problem-solving skills
    • Enhanced writing and communication skills
    • Increased motivation to learn
    • Provided a model for lifelong learning
    • Improved capacity for workplace collaboration
    • Enhanced retention of information

PBL Simplified Visually

Designing Problems to Promote Higher-Order Thinking

The success or failure of many instructional strategies often hinges on the instructor’s preparation for class. When using case studies, reacting to the past or problem-based learning in the classroom, this is never more true. Weiss (2003) provides an insightful chapter on designing problems to promote higher-order thinking through the use of PBL in higher education. She notes that many professors believe they have crafted a thoughtful problem for analysis by students, when in reality they have merely created a ‘scavenger hunt’ for information embedded in a straight-forward problem. So how do you create effective problems for the PBL class?


The first step when designing a problem (or locating a problem) is to determine the purpose of the problem. These will ideally map to the learning outcomes set for the course. What do you want your students to get out of the activity? What skills to you wish to target in your PBL activity? How will these support their attainment of lesson learning objectives and overall course learning objectives? Duffy and Cunningham (1996) identify five potential purposes for problem use in class: guiding students to a better understanding of course content, testing student knowledge of new content, allowing students to illustrate or conceptualize new content, giving students the opportunity to process new concepts, or challenging students to navigate and negotiate ambiguous situations to promote higher order thinking as they puzzle through the problem.

Once the purpose has been established, designing or locating the problem will be a focused endeavor. During this development process, instructors should consider the following key characteristics (Weiss, 2003) of problems that promote higher order thinking:

  1. Appropriate for Students
  2. Ill Structured (vs. well structured)
  3. Collaborative
  4. Authentic
  5. Promotes Lifelong and Self-Directed Learning

PBL in Action

This video is similar to the animated version above, only it depicts a real PBL process as experienced by students at an Institute for Tourism who are charged with implementing Web 2.0 for their clients. The members of the team are interviewed about their experiences; they are filmed meeting with field experts (clients); the tutor (instructor) discusses her role and the feedback she provides to each team member; the client gives his input about involving students in the professional realm.