Problem based learning (PBL)

“True learning is based on discovery guided by mentoring rather than the transmission of knowledge.”

John Dewey

Introduction and History

In simple terms Problem-based learning (PBL) is a student centred education in which students learn about a subject through the experience of creating a problem. Problem- based learning or what we simply called PBL is based on research in the cognitive sciences on how we learn.
This educational strategy was developed at the McMaster University Medical School in Canada in the 1960s in medical education. Efficacy of this revolutionary learning method has made it popular among educationists and It is one of the big success stories in the education in the past few years.   But nowadays PBL is developed and implemented in a wide range of domains around the world. This approach empowers learners to conduct research, integrate theory and practice, and apply knowledge and skills to develop a viable solution to a defined problem .In simple words this simple revolutionary idea that problems should come before answers drives PBL.  Beginning with a problem puts you in the driver’s seat.  You can use your previous knowledge, your hunches, and your wildest ideas to try for a solution.  In the process you can develop an inventory of what you know and what you need to know to get to a solution.  Once you know that you can start questioning your instructor or your classmates, plundering the library, surfing the net, or bugging the many excellent experts to fill your needs. 

What is the difference between Subject based learning and Problem Based learning

What is wrong with the old teacher stand up and talk student sit and listen learning?  It doesn’t meet the needs.  It is too slow, too shallow, too inefficient and not much fun.  Students retain little of what they learn after even a few weeks.  Students rarely can apply what they have learned to the unpredictable problems of life and work. Students get little practice in developing their thinking skills and intellectuality or framing problems that interest them. As a result, students come to see learning as something grim to be avoided.
Problem based learning gives you opportunities to examine and try out what you already know; discover what you need to learn; develop your people skills for achieving higher performance in teams; improve your writing and speaking abilities, to state and defend with sound arguments and evidence your own ideas; and to become more flexible in your approach to problems that surprise and dismay others. Despite the work and effort it requires, PBL is never dull and is often fun.
Here is a diagram of the basic difference between subject based and problem based learning.

What is expected in Problem Based Learning?

According to the epistemological literature four types of knowledge can be identified.
  • 1     Explanatory knowledge-Theories
  • 2.       Descriptive Knowledge-Facts
  • 3.       Procedural Knowledge-Knowledge of how to do things
  • 4.       Subjective Knowledge- Personal convictions or attitudes of the learner

The PBL problems are in two varieties with regards to acquisition of above mentioned aspects of knowledge.
  • 1.       During the course of their study, students acquire different kinds of, or categories of knowledge about relevant aspects of their domain of study.
  • 2.       The problem types to be distinguished are meant to guide the learners towards these different knowledge categories.

In a problem based curricula four different kinds of problems have been identified.
  • ·         Explanation problems
  • ·         Fact-finding problems
  • ·         Strategy problems
  • ·         Moral dilemma resolution problems

Respectively they are effective in achieving explanatory knowledge, descriptive knowledge, procedural knowledge and subjective knowledge. Teacher, Mentor, or Guiding body has the freedom of designing the problems to drive learners to achieve the desired aspect of knowledge. Ideally it should be the combinations of all.

Characteristics of PBL

According to Barrows in 1996 there are six core characteristics of PBL are distinguished.
  • The first characteristic is that learning needs to be student-centred.
  • Second, learning has to occur in small student groups under the guidance of a tutor.
  • The third characteristic refers to the tutor as a facilitator or guide.
  • Fourth, authentic problems are primarily encountered in the learning sequence, before any preparation or study has occurred.
  • Fifth, the problems encountered are used as a tool to achieve the required knowledge and the problem-solving skills necessary to eventually solve the problem.
  • Finally, new information needs to be acquired through self-directed learning.

It is generally recognized that a seventh characteristic should be added: Essential for PBL is that students learn by analysing and solving representative problems. However authors also describes following features as essential components in PBL as well.
Students must have the responsibility for their own learning. The tutor is only a facilitator in this learning process.
The problem simulations used in problem-based learning must be ill-structured and allow for free inquiry. The real world problems are ill-structured and PBL should allow the trainers to develop their skill to identify the problem and develop realistic solutions.
Learning should be integrated from a wide range of disciplines or subjects. During PBL students should be able to access, study and integrate information from all the disciplines and reach to a more robust solution. The development of information systems and multidisciplinary approach in the present world support this task more than ever before.
Collaboration is essential. PBL provides the platform to share information and work productively with fellow people.
What students learn during their self-directed learning must be applied back to the problem with reanalysis and resolution.
A closing analysis of what has been learned from work with the problem and a discussion of what concepts and principles have been learned are essential.
Self and peer assessment should be carried out at the completion of each problem and at the end of every curricular unit.
The activities carried out in problem-based learning must be those valued in the real world.
Student examinations must measure student progress towards the goals of problem-based learning.
“Problem-based learning must be the pedagogical base in the curriculum and not part of a didactic curriculum.”

Rules in problem design

  • ·         Problem should consist of a title
  • ·         Well-formed problem consist of a concrete body text
  • ·         Each problem needs and instruction as to what to do with it
  • ·         A problem should be connected to the prior knowledge base students have
  • ·         A problem should raise students curiocity
  • ·         A problem should only introduce a limited number of issues for learning
  • ·         A problem should not take too much self-directed study time to acquire a fair understanding of the issues at hand

Advantages and Disadvantages of PBL

As in any educational theory there are advantages and limitations found in literature when creating or implementing problem based learning curriculum. Some of the advantages which were perceived by several authors are as follow.
  • ·        Students interest and benefit
  • ·        Minimizing faculty workload
  • ·        Long-term knowledge retention
  • ·        PBL provide a more challenging
  • ·        Motivating and enjoyable approach to education
  • ·        Students become actively engaged in meaningful learning rather than traditional memorization
  • ·        Increased responsibility for their learning and self-direction

Higher levels of comprehension and skill development occur than in traditional instruction and develop interpersonal collaboration and team work.

Following disadvantages has been encountered in PBL according to literature.

 Lack of systematic learning as in traditional learning in which the information is delivered in a well arranged manner

Difficulty in allocating time required in a course schedule

Students often express difficulties with self-directed learning whereas the teachers may have difficulties to break their traditional teaching habits.

Also selecting the appropriate question will be critical and challenging too.

However the traditional student assessment systems should be changed in assessing a student who was trained on PBL.


PBL has becoming a revolutionary method of leaning in the context of student centred learning. At the heart of PBL stands a problem. PBL process can be designed in the way the students achieve the different aspects of knowledge. As in any learning method PBL also has its own advantages and disadvantages.

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