Problem-Based Learning: Definition, Benefits & Steps

Problem-based learning is a method of instruction that presents students with the kinds of problems faced in the real world in the careers they are pursuing.

When given an open-ended problem to solve, students, often in collaborative groups, follow clearly defined steps to develop potential solutions.

The major steps are 1). encountering the problem and brainstorming or pooling their knowledge about it, 2). researching answers to what they don’t know and forming initial solutions, 3). developing a plan to solve the problem and presenting it to their peers and instructors, and 4). engaging in reflection on their solutions plus hearing feedback from their peers and ultimately the instructor or facilitator of the class.  Each step includes a series of sub-steps.

The benefits of PBL include practical knowledge rather than passive information, increased student interest and motivation, self-directed learning that enhances problem-solving and critical thinking, holistic comprehension of the problems and their solutions, and better retention of the knowledge gained.

What is Problem-Based Learning (PBL)

Problem-based learning is a teaching method that instructs using open-ended problems students might encounter in the real world. PBL presents students with common problems in the subject they are studying, and the students must work out solutions based on the knowledge they are gaining in other class activities such as lectures and discussions.

For example, business students might be asked to develop a plan for restructuring a failing business by analyzing financial data, creating a cost-saving budget, developing new products and services or improving marketing methods.

Problem-based learning is also called experiential learning and experience-based learning.

According to a study in Educational Psychology Review, “The goals of PBL include helping students develop 1) flexible knowledge, 2) effective problem-solving skills, 3) SDL skills, 4) effective collaboration skills, and 5) intrinsic motivation.” SDL skills are self-directed learning skills.

What Are the Benefits of Problem-Based Learning?

There are many benefits of PBL or problem-based learning:

  • Practical application of knowledge: When real-life problems are the basis for educating, students experience deeper learning by applying principles.
  • Interest: Putting knowledge into practice is interesting and motivates engagement.
  • Critical thinking: Facing the kinds of problems students will face in their careers encourages problem solving and effective critical thinking skills.
  • Student-focused and self-directed: Rather than the emphasis being on the instructor, students collaborate and take more responsibility for their education in problem-based learning.
  • Holistic learning: In PBL, students must employ knowledge and skills from all disciplines of their college major.
  • Improve retention: When students are actively learning and solving problems, the learning goes deeper and is retained more effectively.

Additionally, problem-based learning, “encourages the experiential development of a number of skills, including team-work, finding and digesting information, peer teaching (explaining to others), reaching conclusions from data, and reflecting on the learning process. Inter alia, it encourages the accumulation of subject knowledge which is perceived to be relevant, and that is digested or compiled and organized (Capon, Noel, and Deanna Kuhn. “What’s so good about problem-based learning?.” Cognition and instruction 22.1 (2004): 61-79).

A meta-analysis of 43 studies on problem-based learning concluded, “The review reveals that there is a robust positive effect from PBL on the skills of students…Also no single study reported negative effects… the results for skills give a consistent positive picture.”

The same paper noted better retention of knowledge gained through problem-based learning, “students in PBL gained slightly less knowledge, but remember more of the acquired knowledge.”

What Are the Steps of Problem Based Learning?

The steps of problem-based learning are the presentation of the problem, researching solutions to the problem, developing and implementing a problem-solving plan, presentation of the plan to address the problem and feedback from peers and instructors.

Each of these large steps has a series of smaller steps.

1. Problem Presentation. It involves:

  • Encountering or being presented with the problem.
  • Collaborative brainstorming with team members about their knowledge of such problems, key aspects of the problem to address and questions to ask for further understanding of the issue.
  • Discovering what they don’t know – their knowledge gaps – to identify what they need to learn before finding solutions.

2. Research and Investigation. It includes:

  • Engaging in SDL, or self-directed learning, apart from input from instructors, involves research using all available resources.
  • Collaborating on forming initial solutions based on their current level of understanding.
  • Filling in knowledge gaps by gathering additional information, data and resources.
  • Critically analyzing all pertinent information and perspectives to sharpen an understanding of the problem to solve and potential solutions.

3. Developing and Implementing a Problem-solving Plan. Its steps are: 

  • Choosing the best solutions out of the many options.
  • Producing strategies to implement solutions.
  • Assigning tasks to group members to complete as part of the overall strategy.
  • Putting the problem-based learning plan into practice using experiments, simulations, presentations and other forms of testing their effectiveness.
  • Complete one of more additional iterations based on initial data and analysis of results.

4. Presentation and Feedback. It includes:

  • The plan to address the problem is communicated to peers and instructors along with supporting data.
  • Assessment of the results is made initially through reflection by the team presenting the plan. And then their peers offer constructive input. Critical analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the plan are explored.
  • Finally, instructors provide their constructive assessment of the plan’s pros and cons and the likelihood of success.

Which Colleges Have Adopted PBL in Their Curriculum?

Colleges around the world have incorporated problem-based learning or PBL into their instructional methods.

Colleges and universities adopting a problem-based approach to curriculum are:

  • The University of Michigan uses PBL in its business school, school of engineering and other schools.
  • Purdue University offers problem-based learning programs in its engineering and other majors.
  • The Stanford University School of Medicine has integrated PBL into its medical ed curriculum.
  • Northern Arizona University employs PBL in its education, nursing and healthcare programs among other programs.
  • Yale University utilizes problem-based learning in its medical school and other schools.
  • Alverno College uses PBL as a core teaching strategy in all departments.
  • Western University of Health Sciences integrates problem-based learning in its medical school.
  • McMaster University utilizes PBL in the health sciences curriculum.

Yale University’s Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning uses a PBL-style approach called Case-based Learning (CBL) “across disciplines where students apply their knowledge to real-world scenarios, promoting higher levels of cognition.”

Schools outside of North America that make use of problem-based learning are Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, the National University of Singapore, Monash University, Maastricht University, Aalborg University, the University of Surrey, and Utrecht University.

What College Majors Are Suitable for PBL?

Problem-based learning or PBL is beneficially applied to all college majors. Because it focuses on problem-solving, PBL has special benefits for majors involved with solving complex problems.

Majors that utilize PBL to the greatest benefit are:

  • Business
  • Engineering
  • Education
  • Sociology
  • Health Sciences
  • Social Sciences
  • Public Policy
  • Urban Planning
  • Humanities

1 thought on “Problem-Based Learning: Definition, Benefits & Steps”

  1. Problem-Based Learning is a teaching method in which complex real-world problems are used as the vehicle to promote student learning of concepts and principles as opposed to direct presentation of facts and concepts. When real-life problems are the basis for educating, students experience deeper learning by applying principles. For example, a problem-based learning project could involve students putting heads together to create business plans to solve a societal need.


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