Problem-Based Learning

PBL Process


In most courses, students are bombarded with enormous amounts of material to read and display their comprehension by completing related problems. These problems typically have required a neat, pat answer. This method does not prepare our students for professional problem resolution.

Problem-based learning (PBL) begins with students, working in small groups, delving into, determining key issues, and then solving a "real-world" problem under the guidance of a facilitator. By focusing upon a realistic problem, students develop a varied and deeper perspective and knowledge of the subject area. This process is not a new one; indeed, it has its beginnings in the ancient apprenticeship model which is learning by doing.

According to James & Baldwin (1997), PBL alters traditional teaching and learning patterns. This process of presenting a topic piece by piece until students assimilate the various pieces of knowledge and hopefully apply them to personal and professional problems has not been shown to be effective. PBL allows students to explore relevant sources of knowledge. PBL encourages students to take charge of their own learning.

In comparing PBL with other teaching strategies and determine the best method for achieve desired student outcomes, one might view the graph below:

Curriculum as Prescription Curriculum as Experience
Teacher/Expert-centered Student/Learner-centered
Linear and rational Coherent and relevant
Part to whole organization Whole to part organization
Teaching as transmitting Teaching as facilitating
Learning as receiving Learning as constructing
Structured environment Flexible environment

PBL Roles & Responsibilities

Facilitator Role

The facilitator role allows the faculty member or student mentor to act as a/an:

  • Content and procedural resource person
  • Facilitator of group processes
  • Guide to additional resources
  • Sounding-board person
  • Learner, as well

Issues for faculty in delving into PBL, particularly in the learning stages, is the amount of time needed to prepare course materials, develop problems, train other facilitators and determine authentic assessment of student work. The other critical issue is the role reversal. Instead of being the "sage on the stage," the faculty member is now to be the "guide on the side." Instead of lectures, the faculty member now models various methods of problem-solving, sometimes referred to as "cognitive apprenticeship" learning (Brown, Collins & Newman, 1989). Meta-cognitive questions such as "How do you know that?" "What assumptions might you be making?" and "What else might you need to know?" are used by faculty versus dictating how to solve a problem.

Student Role

The student role is altered with PBL. PBL contrasts considerably with the traditional teaching most students have encountered. Students, particularly freshmen, have difficulty with the concept and use of self-directed learning (Schmidt, Henny & de Vries, 1992). Be aware that students may react to the idea of PBL with shock, denial, anger, resistance, acceptance and finally, confidence.

Students also must take responsibility for their own learning. PBL encourages students to identify their learning needs and determine the resources they will need to use to accomplish their learning. With the independent learning comes considerable collaboration with other students and faculty. Collaborative work among students facilitates their comprehension of the problem and the application to future situations. Collaboration is an essential skill for students to gain as they will most likely be working as members of teams in their respective workplaces.

Two often difficult tasks that students encounter in PBL is the process of reflection and peer assessment. Reflection, or self-assessment, allows the student to complete the learning cycle. What did I learn? What more do I need to know? How can I approach this problem in the future? And so forth are key questions we want students to ask of themselves. Students must become proficient in not only assessing their own progression in learning, but that of their peers as well. The ability to monitor one's own learning as well as providing credible feedback to one's colleagues is an important personal and professional skill.

Orienting students to PBL is a must. One approach would be to introduce the concept and rationale for use of PBL in a course (or curriculum). Another would be to have the students work on a sample problem which is followed by a debriefing session.

Curriculum Mapping

A curriculum is an academic plan or strategy in which the total blueprint for action is outlined. Within this blueprint, there are broad and specific objectives, aims and outcomes stated. The processes by which to achieve and assess these objectives are also described (Khoo, 2001). The main purpose behind formulating a curriculum is to foster the academic and personal development of a specific group of students.

PBL can be a portion of the curricular instruction process, the entire focus or a curriculum or only within a course, unit or module. Frequently, resources (i.e. personnel, financial) and facilities place constraints on the breadth and depth of PBL use.

Initiating PBL within a curriculum can create anxiety for administrators, faculty and students. Anxiety comes from change and uncertainty as to efficacy of PBL. Anticipate this and meet it with:

  • Explanations regarding the use of PBL and provide to all relevant constituents of the curriculum.
  • Provisions for faculty development
  • Orientations for the students

Once the decision is made to use PBL within/to guide a curriculum, consider centralizing the curriculum management of PBL. Determine who has the power and authority for designing, implementing and evaluating PBL. Explore the essential content. This is relevant to the success of PBL as you will not have sufficient time to cover all content pare down to the absolute "need to know."

At this juncture, you may wish to develop a template or prototype PBL problem that will serve as a guide for PBL problem development. One example of this is the following worksheet.

Problem-Based Learning Problem Development Worksheet

Course: __________________________________________________ Date: ____________________

Problem Author(s): __________________________________________________________________

1. Context:

A. What school level? _______________________________(ex. Freshmen)
B. What curricular phase? ___________________________(ex. Gen'l Education)
C. What rationale? _________________________________(ex. Communication)

2. Learning Issues:

A. Identify primary learning issues and educational objectives to be addressed in the problem.
B. Delineate sub-topics related to the aforementioned primary learning issues.
C. Sketch out the introductory scenario or problem.
D. Identify and evaluate diagnostic efforts.
E. Delineate planning and intervention efforts.
F. Determine, if feasible or necessary, the resolution of the scenario.

3. Tutorial guide: Using the above information, write a tutorial guide. Example of such guides include Maricopa's UBUYACAR Tutor Guide

4. Student guide: Write a student guide. If time allows, conduct a pilot of the problem and then refine the student guide. Example of a PBL student guide can be found at: Maricopa's UBUYACAR Student Guide and Southern Illinois School of Medicine.

5. Incorporate PBL into the course syllabus.

This worksheet was adapted by Baldwin, M. S., Alexander, J. A., & McDaniel, G. S. (2000) from W. D. Hendricson's PBL case writing workbook, Mississippi State University's College of Medicine Developing a problem-based learning case: A How-to-Guide,' and B. Duch's Problems: A key factor in PBL.

In your endeavor to use PBL within your curriculum, be aware that PBL can take more time than traditional teaching strategies, like lectures. Novice learners require more structure and time to approach and solve problems; problems are complex, open-ended and thus take more time for students to process.

Examine your resources. Ensure students have access to the personnel and materials they will need. And finally, though extremely important, determine your assessment methods (please refer to the assessment portion of the website for additional information). As Khoo (2001) states: To PBL or not to PBL? That is the question! Each school, discipline and faculty need to decide if this is in alignment with their respective teaching and learning philosophies. There are numerous difficulties and problems to overcome in implementing PBL. Once the decision is made to use PBL, make certain that all the correct components are present.

Examples of PBL in a Curriculum

Course Mapping

There are various methods of incorporating PBL into a course (Deckard, 2002). These include:

Problem, Problem, Problem In this situation, PBL is used from the course beginning to end. Educational objectives for students focus on the discovery of knowledge and skills. Students in this type of course are continually challenged to discover new knowledge and follow their "need" to know.
Specific Problem, Specific Problem, Comprehensive Problem As above, PBL is used from the course's start to finish. Educational objectives for students revolve around the students' integration of knowledge and skills. The final comprehensive problem can only be solved by building upon previous specific problems.
Level A Problem, Level B Problem, Level C Problem Educational objectives for students deal with developing critical thinking, problem solving skills and decision making skills in greater depth. In this course, simple, easily completed problems occur at the onset of the course and build in complexity and time needed to solve.
Problem, Lecture, Problem, Lecture Educational objectives for students in this type of PBL course ask for students to discover the need for specific knowledge. A problem needing specific knowledge is followed by lecture(s).
Case Study, Problem Students needing extra assistance in determining and finding appropriate resources to discover knowledge and skills can use this format. A decision making case study that provides exhibits as to finding necessary resources opens the course. As the course progresses, problems where students must identify learning issues and resources are presented.

The selection of problems determines the success of the course. There are a variety of sources one can use for problem content. News articles, movies, novels, community issues, case histories and so forth. Although the content can be unique to its respective discipline, one can generally use the same process for writing a problem. Allow yourself (and your team) time to develop and trial the problems. Barbara Duch of the University of Delaware recommends the following process to design, implement and evaluate a problem:

  • Identify a central idea, concept or principle commonly incorporated in the course.
  • Delineate learning outcomes for the problem.
  • Brainstorm and then . . . outline an ill-structured, complex problem.
  • Divide the problem into stages to allow for progressive disclosure.
  • Develop a tutorial guide.
  • Assist students in identifying resources.

Monash University uses a three stage approach. This approach can also be utilized to explain the PBL problem process to students.

Understanding the Problems What do I know about this?
What is the problem?
How can we model this?
What solutions are possible?
What are the evaluative criteria?
Learning What do we need to know?
Who will collect the information?
Where will I find the information?
Is the information useful/reliable?
How can I teach my group?
What can they teach me?
Solving How to apply my new knowledge?
What documentation is needed?
What similar problems can I solve?
Problem, Lecture, Problem, Lecture Educational objectives for students in this type of PBL course ask for students to discover the need for specific knowledge. A problem needing specific knowledge is followed by lecture(s).
Case Study, Problem Students needing extra assistance in determining and finding appropriate resources to discover knowledge and skills can use this format. A decision making case study that provides exhibits as to finding necessary resources opens the course. As the course progresses, problems where students must identify learning issues and resources are presented.

Problem Design

A good PBL problem has the following characteristics.

  • Is engaging and oriented to the real-world
  • Is ill-structured and complex
    Well-structured Ill-structured
    What are the roles of a nurse in critical care? Euthanasia: Allowing dignity or committing a sin?
    What are the start-up costs for a daycare? As the supervisor, you have noticed there has been a significant amount of absences in the women who work in your department.
  • Generates multiple hypotheses
  • Requires team effort
  • Is consistent with desired learning outcomes
  • Builds upon previous knowledge/experiences
  • Promotes development of higher order cognitive skills (Bloom 1956)

Evaluating Your Problem

Sample rubic: Formulation of design problem (Univ. of Delaware, 2001)

Criteria Excellent Good Needs Improvement Not Acceptable
Formulation & Scope of Problem Clear, well thought out; scope well-defined. Formulation clear, but scope not well-defined. Formulation somewhat unclear, not well thought out. Problem not formulated clearly.
Significance Problem represents current challenge; large potential market. Problem represents current challenge, but small, vaguely defined market. Problem not a current challenge; market small or not clearly defined. Problem not a current challenge. No market analysis.

Approaching the Problem(s)

Using a modification of a process developed by the Department of Medical Education at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, your students can be introduced and solve a PBL problem. The process involves:

1. Introducing the concept and rationale for use of a PBL problem within the course/module/unit.

2. Setting the stage.

a. Roles and responsibilities of the various group members. In PBL, the recommended group size is from 4 to 6 students. Each student can take (and hopefully rotate) the role of leader, encourager, skeptic, presenter and scribe.

b. Rules of Trust. An example of this tool originally designed by Amos and White (1996) can be found below.

Samford University


Course Title & Number
Semester & Year

Rules of Trust

Instructions: Discuss and write down the group's rules of trust. An example of a rule might be "Be on time," or "Comes prepared with copies of materials for all group members." Delineate possible consequences for rules that are broken. The course instructor reserves the right to review and approve the rules and consequences stated below. Once this sheet is completed, each member of the group should sign thus signifying agreeance with the rules. Finally, determine the group's contact person. Write their name and e-mail address in the space provided.

Rules & Consequences:

Group Members:

Contact Member:
Name: _________________________________ Email: __________________________________

3. Encountering and working on the problem.

Hypotheses Information Learning Issues Action Plan Evaluation
Brainstorming What data do you have? List of what is needed to acquire additional data and complete the problem. Activities needed to be done in order to complete the problem. Is the problem solved? Does the process need to be repeated?

4. Self-directed study

5. Problem follow-Up

a. Resources identified and evaluated

b. Summary of problem

c. Reassessment of problem

6. Group evaluation

7. Knowledge abstraction and summary

a. Definitions, concepts, abstractions & principles outlined

b. Diagrams, lists, concept maps, flow charts generated

8. Self and peer assessment

9. Facilitator assessment

Printed & Electronic Resources

Additional information related to use of PBL in a curriculum or course as well as problem design and implementation can be found in the materials listed below:

PBL Problem Development Websites

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