Problem – Based Learning


About 36 miles from my boyhood home, while I was still in high school in the early 70s, Dr. Howard Barrows was retooling the traditional school of medicine curriculum at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He challenged medical students with complex problems that approximated the diagnosis and treatment of patients. He created scenarios that required students to ask questions, plot paths to new learning and discover answers. The success of the problem-based learning approach inspired similar curricula all around the world in any discipline that demanded students think critically.

The challenge facing the school of medicine in the 70s is the same facing universities today. Sociologist Richard Arum followed more than two thousand students from 2005 to 2009 and concluded that nearly one-half of students were no better critical thinkers after two years of university than when they first entered. One-third graduated with no significant gains in the ability to perform complex reasoning, discriminate between fact and opinion, make a reasoned argument, choose between opposing points of view, and engage other critical thinking skills.

When I first started teaching in the early 80s, our department gathered together to design the curriculum for a course on American Literature. I was fresh out of college where my instructors had an enlightened view about designing language arts curricula. I was eager to ply my new-found knowledge in the development of a high school literature course. What I witnessed has stuck with me ever since. The senior faculty member chose the textbook (an anthology and study of literature divided into periods) and the curriculum became the table of contents of that book.

The shift from course-centric to student-centric curriculum

I’m reminded of that time occasionally. I have heard instructors, both resident and adjunct, stress that they must cover the entire textbook in the semester and they were hard-pressed to do so. The textbook is the curriculum, and the instructor must ensure that students ‘understand’ the content and are able to ‘recall’ it. Departments demand it; preparation for professional licensure exams requires it.

In my view, online learning amplifies the shortcomings of a content-centric curriculum and certainly does not improve it. Many authors (Dee Fink, in his Designing Courses for Significant Learning, Pratt and Palloff in their Building Online Learning Communities: Effective Strategies for the Virtual Classroom and Jose Antonio Bowen in Teaching Naked, to name a few) write about the shift from a teacher-centered course experience to a student-centered one; from content as king to the learning experience as king. Developers of online learning can try to replicate the worst of the lecture hall – or they can design courses to engage students with problems and work cooperatively with other students under the careful facilitation of the instructor (the sage on the side).

Problem-based learning as a student-centered constructivist intervention

Problem-based learning is an approach to course design that is antithetical to a content-centric, instructor-centered teaching and learning experience. In problem-based learning, students are presented with a problem so that they chart their own course for learning.

In their Manual of Teaching and Learning in Medicine, Dejan Bokonjic, Mladen Mimica, and others stress that to acquire new knowledge, learners must be stimulated to restructure information they already know, assimilate new knowledge and then do something meaningful with it. Some would recognize this as a constructivist approach to teaching and learning.

Students come into a problem-based learning scenario with some prior knowledge. They must inventory that knowledge to determine what is missing and what they must learn in order to solve the problem at hand. This requires a great deal of sophistication, but one that is commensurate with advanced stages of learning. Rather than follow a set curriculum, students define the learning goals and are helped by the instructor to find resources that will help them achieve those learning goals.

Students are placed in settings where they must use self-directed learning skills, identify and absorb relevant information in order to solve the problem presented by the scenario. In face-to-face settings, problem-based learning involves group work. Online instructors who implement problem-based learning must identify the points in the process where students confer with their group. Two opportunities for this type of student-to-student interaction are when the students form their learning goals, and when they have formed their findings or conclusions. The group work in both cases allows students to gain knowledge from other perspectives and revise their own thinking.

Here are two examples, taken from the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science :

Can Suminoe Oysters Save Chesapeake Bay?

This dilemma case explores the controversy over introducing non-native oysters to the Chesapeake Bay as a means of improving its ecological and economic health.

The Galapagos

Using problem-based learning and role-playing, students analyze the geological origins of the Galapagos Islands, their colonization, species formation, and threats to their biodiversity in this story of a graduate student caught between local fishermen and government officials fighting for control of the islands’ natural resources.

Why it works

PBL originated in medical education but is now used across many professional disciplines such as law, engineering and economics. The above examples were from science.

We easily forget rote knowledge – we forget almost everything we learn if we don’t do things that help students recall that knowledge.

Dr. Will Thalheimer states that “The amount a learner will forget varies depending on many things.  We as learning professionals will be more effective if we make decisions based on a deep understanding of how to minimize forgetting and enhance remembering.”

Periodic recall of learning will reduce lack of retention to be sure, but specific types of learning interventions will improve long-term remembering.

Research shows that periodic recall and activation of prior learning helps the recall of declarative knowledge (facts and figures). Case studies, problem solving scenarios, and decision-making scenarios are the sort of learning interventions that work on higher levels of knowledge.

Students are less likely to forget content that they must draw from in order to solve problems.

Set retention aside for a moment. Students can’t possibly know everything or remember everything. In today’s sophisticated world there is too much demand on knowledge. Students must be able to identify what they need to know and they must learn what they need to learn.

Problem based learning works because students must engage with the content. They must decide what information is relevant to the problem and what information is not. They must think about the information, and evaluate it. In short, they must think critically.

How do I create it

The problem lies at the center of the problem-based learning scenario. M. David Merrill includes the problem in his work on the first principles of instruction: “Learning is promoted when learners are engaged in solving real-world problems.” In his work, Merrill looked at several instructional theories in an attempt to identify principles that they had in common. Engagement with real-world problems was at the heart of multiple instructional design theories. In a video clip, Merrill laments the fact that the content-centric approach that dominates much of online learning results in ‘shovelware’. We are now well beyond the miracle of transporting the written word through the internet. That’s old hat. We are no longer in awe of text on a screen. Our challenge now is to engage students in actively thinking rather than passively reading…or skimming…or worse.

Again, at the center of problem-based learning lies the problem. It can be a well-defined problem or an ill-structured problem. Well-defined problems are problems that students can easily identify. The activity makes it clear what the problem is and may even provide links to all of the information students need to solve the problem. On the other end of the continuum, the scenario may present a situation that does not clearly define a problem to solve. Part of the challenge is for students to identify the problem or problems. The activity may not include links to information but leave the students on their own to work out what they need to know and where to find the information.

A problem-based learning scenario can be anywhere on the continuum. The course may begin with a well-defined problem and end with an ill-structured problem.In order to prepare a problem-based learning scenario, faculty should be clear that the scenario is in alignment with the learning objectives of the module and course. The instructor must decide whether or not the student has sufficient understanding of the subject and his own level of learning to be able to chart his/her own course through new material. The instructor must decide to what degree the problem scenario is well-defined and what types of scaffolding or level of support the scenario will provide. The problem should be interesting. It should be based on real issues or an authentic task that students would encounter outside of the classroom – especially in the profession. The activity should require students to work with other students, at least at critical points. The activity should in varying degrees guide students on where to find the information that they need.
Problem based learning differs from problem solving. Learning situations that present content to students then challenge students to solve problems with the help of that content knowledge are examples of problem solving learning. Learning situations that help student discover the content to help them solve problems are examples of problem based learning. In the former case, the curriculum is said to be bounded. Instructors carefully choose the content that will be presented to students. In the latter case, the curriculum is unbounded. Students go off into the wild in search of the content that will help them with the problem. (The skilled facilitator ensures that students don’t die in the wild.)

What matters, then, is the ability to ‘learn to learn’ .

The University of Maastricht has chosen problem-based learning for its students. It proposes a pattern for designing a problem-based learning scenario beginning with the presentation of a case, a brainstorming session about the problem, activation of prior knowledge (what do the students already know and what are they missing), identification of learning goals, and student group work to combine findings and achieve consensus.

Bokonjic, Mimica, and their co-authors tell us in their Manual of Teaching and Learning in Medicine that “The extent of prior knowledge, the quality of the problems and the tutor’s performance are the key elements determining group functioning and outcome of the tutorials.”

An example

The example I show is a problem-based learning scenario in a very simple form. It is based on a case study from the University of Ghana. The university’s College of Health Sciences aspired to use open education resources and eLearning to solve some critical instructional challenges in their curriculum. One example of a problem was that surgical procedures in an operating room were difficult for students to view. Educational resources that captured the procedure could be replayed by students. Similar procedures recorded in western universities involved expensive equipment that the students would never see in their professional settings.

Despite the value of these educational resources, the college was challenged with network issues, power issues, infrastructural issues, lack of faculty training in multimedia development and so forth.

The issues facing the College of Health Sciences would be of interest to students in Management of Information Systems or Information Technology, or Information Science. Students who are presented with the problem are challenged to examine their own knowledge and define what they need to learn. For example, the concept of ‘mesh networking’ often comes up in conversations about communities that lack broadband internet. Does a mesh network provide any benefit in this situation?

Once the student determines what s/he knows and needs to know, s/he follows links and consults resources provided by the module. This is a very simple scenario. The problem is fairly well-defined and information is provided. Some of the answers lie in the link to the College of Health Sciences case study. Other answers lie in the link to a website dedicated to open education resources. This site presents a sampling of some of the best thinking on open education resources from OpenStax founder, Richard Baraniuk, and David Wiley, an early evangelist for open content, as well as others.

After consulting the resources, the student submits his or her findings. These are recommendations to the College of Health Sciences. Once the findings are submitted, the student is asked to choose an option that best matches her recommendations. Once the student commits, the activity displays the ‘experts’ answer – which is just one perspective on the problem.

When used in the context of a course, students have the opportunity of sharing their learning goals with other students in a discussion forum and they have the opportunity of sharing their findings. If students have expended any effort on the recommendations, they will pay attention to their colleagues’ points of view. Those ideas will either be assimilated, questioned or rejected. In any case, students are engaged in thinking about the problem.

Screenshot of Problem-based learning scenario created with LodeStar


Problem-based learning is an effective strategy for engaging students in higher-order, critical thinking. Problem-based learning in an online learning environment presents faculty and students with something more than the ‘shovelware’ presentation of content. It begins to realize the tremendous potential of engaging students in a manner that has been successful in traditional face-to-face settings for decades.

Additional Resources

Thalheimer, W. (2010, April). How Much Do People Forget?
Retrieved March 29, 2016, from