Problem Based Learning

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Photo: A. Mckenzie

Problem based learning (PBL) is an instructional strategy that uses real life problems and case studies to drive the learning (Woods, 2016).

According to the article Problem Based Learning (PBL) some of unique characteristics that define PBL are (para 5) :

  • Learning is driven by challenging, open-ended problems with no one ‘right’ answer
  • Problems/cases are context specific
  • Students work as self-directed, active investigators and problem –solvers in small collaborative groups (typically about five students)
  • A key problem is identified and a solution is agreed upon and implemented
  • Teachers adopt the role as facilitators of learning, guiding the learning process and promoting an environment of inquiry

 Advantages and Disadvantages of PBL

Some advantages from the article Problem-Based Learning (para 1) are:

  • . . .(L)earners develop skills around finding information;
  • (I)dentifying what information they still need and possible sources of that information;
  • Learners are able to connect what they are learning in class to their own lives and important issues in their world.

One criticism about PBL is that student ‘don’t know what they don’t know’ about what is important in an area in which they have no prior experience, therefore instructors need to be careful to assess the student’s prior knowledge. (Problem based Learning (PBL) n.d) .

Wood(2016) states that students need to be strong in their critical thinking skills prior to beginning PBL as being in this type of learning environment alone will not develop these skills.

20 years ago, McMaster University (a long time pioneer in the field of PBL) had this to say about PBL and the benefit to their Chemical Engineering graduates (Wood, 1996, Chapter 3 , para 12):

Process skills are valued; they are built explicitly into the program; they are assessed. Our students know the fundamental core knowledge of Chemical Engineering. They know less Chemical Engineering enrichment areas than students graduating from other Chemical Engineering programs (maybe 20% less). They do have the lifetime learning skills, the problem solving, group and self-assessment skills that will allow them to keep up-to-date and continue to learn on their own or to learn cooperatively. Our graduates are different because they possess a completely different set of well-developed process skills. This decision was made in the late 1970s. We have never regretted it. The responses from employers and alumni are that these process skills are the ones needed by the professional in today’s world.

Please take a look at this digital presentation to learn more about PBL.

What I learned from this presentation is:

  • keep groups small
  • keep problems focused (interestingly, the other resources I found explicitly stated to keep problems open ended)
  • ensure that there are ample resources
  • provide feedback

PBL looks like it is a fantastic way to develop process skills in students and increase motivation but it also seems like it would require a lot of work in terms of: assessing student’s knowledge prior to choosing a problem; finding problems that will be complex enough for the student or students to work on solving on their own versus simply analyzing; ensuring the students have the critical thinking skills they need before they start  PBL and making certain the students take an active part in self-reflection activities like journalling so that their learning can be assessed.


Problem-Based Learning (n.d) Queens University Centre for Teaching and Learning Retrieved from

Problem Based Learning (PBL) (n.d) Learning- learning base and webliography. Retrieved from:

Wood, D. (2016) Problem-Based Learning (PBL) McMaster University. Retrieved from:

Woods (1996) “Problem-based Learning: helping your students gain the most from PBL” 3rd edition, Instructor’s Guide for “Problem-based Learning: how to gain the most from PBL” ISBN 0-9698725-0-X Retrieved from


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