PBL Defined

Problem-based learning (PBL) is a pedagogy that uses real-world problems to direct students towards the learning objectives of a course. Solving the problems requires that students build upon their background knowledge and gain new subject knowledge of the material that they have not yet studied. They gain this knowledge on a need to know basis in order to solve the problem.

The general structure of a PBL environment takes the following form.

  1. Students are supplied with a real-world problem.
  2. Working in small groups, the students identify what they think needs to be known to solve the problem.
  3. They assess what relevant knowledge they do possess and what they do not.
  4. Individuals within the group are assigned to search for the missing material.
  5. Students reconvene as a group to share their newly gained knowledge.
  6. The process is iterative until the students collectively are able to come to a final conclusion.

The role of the instructor in PBL is firstly to create problems that will lead students to meet the learning objectives of the course.  As well, the instructor acts as a facilitator of the work of the group, providing direction and feedback to the students as they work through the problem.

The role of the problem is to stimulate students' curiosity about the material needed to solve the problem. Good problems may be open-ended ones that do not necessarily have a single, unique solution, thus making PBL a valuable tool for developing critical thinking skills.

For instructors, a key challenge in implementing PBL is developing effective problems such that when students determine what they need to learn in order to address the problem, their list corresponds to the instructor's intended curriculum. The problems provided here are intended to make it easier for you to begin implementing PBL in your classroom.