Problem-Based Learning (PBL)

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is an instructional method of hands-on, active learning centered on the investigation and resolution of messy, real-world problems.



  • Late 1960s at the medical school at McMaster University in Canada

Key Concepts

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is a pedagogical approach and curriculum design methodology often used in higher education and K-12 settings[1][2].

The following are some of the defining characteristics of PBL:

  • 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 of 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

Rather than having a teacher provide facts and then testing students ability to recall these facts via memorization, PBL attempts to get students to apply knowledge to new situations. Students are faced with contextualized, ill-structured problems and are asked to investigate and discover meaningful solutions.

Proponents believe that PBL:

  • develops critical thinking and creative skills
  • improves problem-solving skills
  • increases motivation
  • helps students learn to transfer knowledge to new situations


PBL’s more recent influence can be traced to the late 1960s at the medical school at McMaster University in Canada[3][4]. Shortly thereafter, three other medical schools — the University of Limburg at Maastricht (the Netherlands), the University of Newcastle (Australia), and the University of New Mexico (United States) took on the McMaster model of problem-based learning. Various adaptations were made and the model soon found its way to various other disciplines — business, dentistry, health sciences, law, engineering, education, and so on.


One common criticism of PBL is that students cannot really know what might be important for them to learn, especially in areas which they have no prior experience[3]. Therefore teachers, as facilitators, must be careful to assess and account for the prior knowledge that students bring to the classroom.

Another criticism is that a teacher adopting a PBL approach may not be able to cover as much material as a conventional lecture-based course[3]. PBL can be very challenging to implement, as it requires a lot of planning and hard work for the teacher. It can be difficult at first for the teacher to “relinquish control” and become a facilitator, encouraging the students to ask the right questions rather than handing them solutions.

Additional Resources and References



  1. Barrows, H. S. (1986). A taxonomy of problem?based learning methods.Medical education, 20(6), 481-486.
  2. Savery, J. R., & Duffy, T. M. (1995). Problem based learning: An instructional model and its constructivist framework. Educational technology, 35(5), 31-38.
  3. Boud, D., & Feletti, G. (1997). The challenge of problem-based learning. Psychology Press.
  4. Barrows, H. S. (1996). Problem?based learning in medicine and beyond: A brief overview. New directions for teaching and learning, 1996(68), 3-12.

Leave a Reply