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Problem-Based Learning

Here's a situation: your students are learning tons of content in related topics or courses and need to be able to apply it, all of it, to complex problems in the future. They're novices. They may not have even mastered the content, much less learned how to apply it realistically. What should you do?

One strategy is to use a problem-based learning (PBL) approach. In a PBL curriculum, a problem sits at the center of the instruction students (usually in teams) are charged with coming up with a solution. The instructor acts as a facilitator to guide the process.

The goals of PBL are that the student (Hmelo-Silver, 2004, p. 240):

  • construct an extensive and flexible knowledge base
  • develop effective problem-solving skills
  • develop self-directed, lifelong learning skills
  • become effective collaborators
  • become intrinsically motivated to learn

Problem-based learning departs from typical, lecture-based instruction in a few ways.

First, it's 'student-centered', meaning the focus is not on the instructor as a dispenser of information, but on the student's activity and work. If it's planned well, the students will go through at least as much content as they would with a traditional curriculum, but will see it in relation to the problem and the other information they need to solve it, and not as packets of information to memorize for a test. It also means that students are asked to take a more active part in their learning.

Second, it's less structured. Because students are in control of their solution, their approaches and difficulties will be unique. The role of the instructor changes from someone who knows everything to someone who knows where to find everything, and knows how to help individuals and teams solve their own small problems as they seek to solve the big one. Planning to meet specific objectives in a given class period becomes a challenge, as does being adequately prepared for any given day, and instructors have to think on their feet. Typical class activities change from lecture to discussion and intensive group-work.

Third, if done right, it may be more effective and motivational. "A good problem affords feedback that allows students to evaluate the effectiveness of their knowledge, reasoning and learning strategies", writes Hmelo-Silver (2004, p. 244). A lot of the motivation can come from the problem — a realistic, pertinent messy question that's the right size for the timeframe (a unit, a semester, etc.).

This process may take part of all of the semester. During this process, the role of the instructor is dramatically changed to act as a "guide on the side" instead of the traditional "sage on the stage" and it is left to the students to come up with questions and answers. The facilitator guides and structures activities and gives encouragement, helping the students monitor their own progress and decisions.

The problem itself needs to be the kind of messy, complex problem they may encounter in the "real world."


  • Hmelo-Silver, C. (2004). Problem-based learning: What and how do students learn? Educational Psychology Review, 16(3), 235-266.
  • Savery, J. R. (2004). Overview of problem-based learning: Definitions and distinctions. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 1(1), 9-20.


Words of Wisdom

  • PBL is not an approach to take lightly. It requires a great deal of work from students, the instructor/facilitator and administrative support. While the solution itself always can't be, the process needs to be very carefully planned.
  • Implementing PBL in a class for the first time generally causes a lot of confusion for everyone. Be careful.
  • It's easier for students to take a more active part in their learning when they are motivated by the problem.