Problem-Based Learning

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What is Problem-Based Learning?

Dr. De Gallow, Director, Instructional Resources Center,
Project Director, Hewlett Grant

One of the primary features of Problem-Based Learning is that it is student-centered. “Student-centered” refers to learning opportunities that are relevant to the students, the goals of which are at least partly determined by the students themselves. This does not mean that the teacher abdicates her authority for making judgments regarding what might be important for students to learn; rather, this feature places partial and explicit responsibility on the students’ shoulders for their own learning. Creating assignments and activities that require student input presumably also increases the likelihood of students being motivated to learn.
A common criticism of student-centered learning is that students, as novices, cannot be expected to know what might be important for them to learn, especially in a subject to which they appear to have no prior exposure. The literature on novice-expert learning does not entirely dispute this assertion; rather, it does emphasize that our students come to us, not as the proverbial blank slates, but as individuals whose prior learning can greatly impact their current learning (Scardamalia, Bereiter, 1991) . Often they have greater content and skill knowledge than we (and they) would expect. In any case, whether their prior learning is correct is not the issue. Whatever the state of their prior learning, it can both aid and hinder their attempts to learn new information. It is therefore imperative that instructors have some sense of what intellectual currency the students bring with them. One way to determine this is by being witness to how students go about addressing intellectual challenges, especially those that seem at variance with their current understanding. Active, interactive, and collaborative learning, on which Problem-Based Learning is based, allows an instructor the rare opportunity to observe students’ learning processes.
The context for learning in PBL is highly context-specific. It serves to teach content by presenting the students with a real-world challenge similar to one they might encounter were they a practitioner of the discipline. Teaching content through skills is one of the primary distinguishing features of PBL. More commonly, instructors introduce students to teacher determined content via lecture and texts. After a specific amount of content is presented, students are tested on their understanding in a variety of ways. PBL, in contrast, is more inductive: students learn the content as they try to address a problem.
The “problems” in PBL are typically in the form of “cases”, narratives of complex, real-world challenges common to the discipline being studied. There is no right or wrong answer; rather, there are reasonable solutions based on application of knowledge and skills deemed necessary to address the issue 1. The “solution” therefore is partly dependent on the acquisition and comprehension of facts, but also based on the ability to think critically. What does “critical thinking” refer to? The phrase is often bandied about but seldom defined. For our purposes, critical thinking refers to the ability to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information, as well as to apply that information appropriate to a given context. It is both critical and creative in that synthesis, in particular, requires the learner to take what information is known, reassemble it with information not known, and to derive a new body of knowledge. Note that we’re not necessarily asking students to create new knowledge in the way a practicing scholar does; instead, we’re asking students to create something that is at least new to them. (It is not uncommon, for even undergraduates to develop some pretty sophisticated and ingenious solutions.)
The instructor is not passive during student learning, but neither does he take the traditional role of “sage on the stage.” The instructor’s role can be to model different kinds of problem-solving strategies, sometimes referred to as “cognitive apprenticeship” learning (Brown, Collins, & Newman, 1989). Students also can model for one another a variety of problem-solving strategies. The most common instructor role is to question the students about their learning process by asking meta-cognitive questions: “How do you know that?” “What assumptions might you be making?” These questions are meant to get students to become self-reflective about their learning processes, thus another primary feature of PBL is that it is process-centered more so than product-centered. This may seem contradictory as “solving” the problem is an important and critical aspect of PBL—hence its name. The point to be taken here, however, is that while content changes (especially in a rapidly changing technological world), the ability to problem-solve needs to be more portable. No one set of skills will suffice for all time, either; but the ability to generate problem-solving strategies is the skill “with legs.” Information trans-ferability is limited by the information available; how to find and create information is limited only by the learner’s willingness to participate. PBL, by having students demonstrate for themselves their capabilities, can increase students’ motivation to tackle problems.
Problem-based learning is also experiential in that participants experience what it is like to think as a practitioner. How do biologists think? What distinguishes the way a criminologist might address a problem as opposed to the way a mathematician might? How might these two specialists work together on a problem, a question more germane as disciplines become ever more inter-disciplinary? It is also a question of great concern to employers. Three major complaints from employers about college graduates are graduate’s poor written and verbal skills, their inability to problem-solve, and their difficulties working collaboratively with other profes-sionals. PBL can address all three areas.

Defining Characteristics of PBL





Student-centered & Experiential

Select authentic assignments from the discipline, preferably those that would be relevant and meaningful to student interests. Students are also responsible for locating and evaluating various resources in the field.

Relevance is one of the primary student motivators to be a more self-directed learner


Introduce content through the process of problem solving, rather than problem solving after introduction to content.

Research indicates that "deeper" learning takes place when information is introduced within a meaningful context.

Builds on/challenges prior learning

If the case has some relevance to students, then they are required to call on what they already know or think they know. By focusing on their prior learning, students can test assumptions, prior learning strategies, and facts.

The literature suggests that learning takes placewhen there is a conflict between prior learning and new information.


Choose real or contrived cases and ground the count in the kinds of challenges faced by practitioners in the field.

Again, context-specific information tends to be learned at a deeper level and retained longer.

Problems are complex and ambiguous, and require meta-cognition

Select actual examples from the "real life" of the discipline that have no simple answers. Require students to analyze their own problem solving strategies.

Requires the ability to use higher order thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and creation of new knowledge.

Creates cognitive conflict

Select cases with information that makes simple solutions difficult: while the solution may address one part of a problem, it may create another problem. Challenges prior learning as noted above.

The literature suggests that learning takes place when there is a conflict between prior learning and new information.

Collaborative & Interdependent

Have students work in small groups in order to address the presented case

By collaborating, students see other kinds of problem solving strategies used, they discuss the case using their collective information, and they need to take responsibility for their own learning, as well as their classmates'.