Problem-based learning

‘The evidence suggests that PBL is an instructional approach that offers the potential to help students develop flexible understanding and lifelong learning skills.’
(Hmelo-Silver, 2004)

Problem-based learning (also known as 'PBL') uses authentic, loosely structured problems for students to solve. Students receive guidance, but not answers, from facilitators and assessment is based on student performance.

The term 'PBL' is used for different active learning pedagogies—problem-based learning and project based learning. Both strategies can be included as enquiry-based learning but differ in their application: problem based learning focuses on the problem and the process while project based learning focuses on the product.

PBL in the curriculum

PBL is widely used as the basis for curriculum design in medical schools around the world. Some medical schools in the UK have spent considerable effort designing the entire curriculum around PBL. Other medical schools are moving to the case-based learning method as outlined in this comparative study by Srinivasan et al (2007).

Diagnose before Instruction outlines techniques to help diagnose students’ prior knowledge to integrate with the PBL activity as ‘... numerous empirical studies have shown the significance of prior knowledge is in relation to student achievement’ (ANU).

Activities and tools

This video about PBL at Stenden University can be used as a starting point to discussing PBL with new undergraduate students.

Because of their rich storylines, games can be created for instructional purposes following the problem-based learning model (Annetta, Cook and Schultz).

The Transforming Assessment site has a series of eight clips on YouTube: Problem-based Scenarios for elearning using tool such as Scenario Based Learning Interactive (SBLi).

The JISC project Problem-based Learning in Virtual Interactive Educational Worlds (PREVIEW) aims to use Second Life to develop a range of PBL scenarios, strategies and guides.

Sydney Medical School using Second Life for Virtual PBL.

SWIFT: This guide (from the University of Leicester) describes how to access the problem-based learning scenario in Second Life where you will create a medically important protein.

The Learning Designs project from University of Wollongong demonstrates a range of learning design exemplars for appying problem or case-based learning to an online environment.

Reyes, G., & Gabb, R. (2005). Using ICT in a problem-based learning approach. Information and Communication Technologies and Real-Life Learning, 111-121.

Abstract:This paper discusses the problem-based learning (PBL) approach used in a subject called Issues in Tertiary Teaching and Learning that forms part of a Graduate Certificate in Tertiary Education at Victoria University. The first author took the subject as a student while the second author taught the subject and views the experience from the viewpoint of both student and teacher to show how ICT and the PBL approach can support real-life learning. The paper first discusses the PBL approach and then describes the problem-based learning approach used in the subject. The use of ICT was a central component in the approach, and a discussion is presented on how the characteristics of the technology assisted in delivering quality learning experiences. The overall discussion shows that (1) the approach has the potential to encourage deep learning, but this seems to be dependent on the degree of relevance of the problems posed to the individual student; (2) real life learning, in this case, did not revolve around finding one right answer to a situation or to developing expertise in a subject area, but being able to approach a situation using systematic problem solving skills; (3) real life learning implies responsibility on the part of the student to both own and manage their learning; and (4) the use of ICT in this instance supported the process and was an integral part of the learning environment and learning activities.

Aldred, M. J., & Aldred, S. E. (1998). Problem-based learning: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Journal of Dental Education, 62(9), 650-55.

Discussion of issues in the implementation of a problem-based learning (PBL) curriculum at The University of Queensland (Australia) dental school looks at the role of the faculty member in PBL, good problem design, group learning processes, appropriate assessment approaches and techniques, the role of evaluation in improving instruction, student selection, integrating the curriculum through PBL, and faculty development.

Schwartz, P., Mennin, S., & Webb, G. (2001). Problem-Based Learning: Case Studies, Experience and Practice. Case Studies of Teaching in Higher Education. Stylus Publishing, Inc., 22883 Quicksilver Drive, Sterling, VA 20166-2012

Abstract: The case studies in this book consider many of the most important issues perceived and experienced by people who are using or developing problem-based learning (PBL).

Major, C. H., & Palmer, B. (2001). Assessing the effectiveness of problem-based learning in higher education: Lessons from the literature. Academic exchange quarterly, 5(1), 4-9.

Abstract: Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is an innovative educational approach that is gaining prominence in higher education. A review of the literature of PBL outcomes summarizes, across multiple studies, the positive effects of problem-based learning.

Pearson, J. (2006). Investigating ICT using problem-based learning in face-to-face and online learning environments. Computers & Education, 47(1), 56-73.

Abstract: This article reports on the design, implementation and evaluation of a module in the MEd (Business) in the Faculty of Education at the University of Hong Kong in which an explicit problem-based learning (PBL) approach was used to investigate the challenges associated with the adoption and use of information and communication technologies (ICT) in Hong Kong secondary school classrooms. PBL influenced both the way the curriculum was developed and the process by which students (n = 18) investigated topics related to the integration of ICT in business studies classrooms. The evaluation was based on five evaluative questions dealing with the implementation of PBL, the extent to which PBL facilitated academic discourse, the extent of ‘new’ knowledge about ICT that had been created, the role of the tutor, and the online learning environment provided. The evaluation revealed that PBL provided a practical approach to investigating ICT in both face-to-face and online learning environments, leading to ‘new’ knowledge about challenges associated with the adoption and use of new technologies in various educational settings.