Problem-based learning (PBL) is an approach to learning that challenges students to learn by engaging them in a real problem. This form simultaneously develops problem-solving strategies and disciplinary knowledge bases and skills. PBL places students in the active role of problem-solvers who are confronted with an ill-structured situation, simulating the kind of problems they are likely to face during their future careers.
This approach originated from a curriculum reform by medical faculty at Case Western Reserve University in the late 1950s. The practice of PBL continued to evolve through innovative medical and health science programs, especially the specific small group learning and tutorial process developed by medical faculty at McMaster University in Canada. These innovative medical school programs believed that the pattern of basic science lectures followed by a clinical teaching program was an ineffective and dehumanizing way to prepare future physicians.
As a result of the boom of medical information and new technology and the rapidly changing demands of future medical practice, they developed a new mode and strategy of leaning that would better prepare students for professional practice. Since then, PBL has spread to over 50 medical schools. The approach has also diffused into many other professional fields, such as law, economics, architecture, mechanical and civil engineering and in K-12 curricula.
PBL is student-centered and shifts the focus from teaching to learning. The process is aimed at engaging students and enhancing their learning and motivating by using the power of authentic problem-solving. The PBL approach is characterized by the fact that learning takes place within the contexts of authentic tasks, problems and issues that are aligned with real-world concerns. Students and the instructor become co-learners, co-planners, co-producers and co-evaluators as they design, implement and continually refine their curricula.
The PBL approach stimulates students to take responsibility for their own learning because there are few lectures and no structures sequence of assigned readings. It fosters collaboration among students and stresses the development of problem-solving skills within the context of professional practice. PBL also promotes effective reasoning and self-directed learning. The approach is aimed at increasing students' motivation for life-long learning.
At the beginning of PBL, an ill-structured problem on which all learning is centered is introduced. Students' expertise is developed by engaging them in progressive problem-solving and problems drive the organization and dynamics of the course. Students, both individually and collectively, assume major responsibilities for their own learning and instruction. Most of the learning occurs not in lectures but in small groups.
The teacher acts as a facilitator and coach of student learning. The teacher is no longer knowledge-holder and disseminator but a resource person. Meanwhile, the student has a more active role than that of a passive listener and note-taker. He or she is engaged in problem-solving, decision-making and meaning-making.
According to research in educational psychology, traditional educational approaches do not lead to a high rate of knowledge retention. In addition, traditional education practices often leave students disenchanted and bored with their education. Motivation in traditional classroom environment is also usually low.
PBL, on the other hand, makes students genuinely enjoy the process of learning. It is a challenging program that makes studying intriguing for students because a need to understand and solve real problems motivates them to learn. They easily see the relevance of the information they learn and become aware of a need for knowledge as they work to resolve the problems.
As part of PBL, students first entertain a problem they are given in light of the knowledge they already have from their own experience. Then they list questions or learning issues that they need to answer to address missing knowledge or to shed light on the problem. Students analyze the problem into components, discuss implications, entertain possible explanations or solutions and develop working hypotheses. They also formulate learning goals that outline what further information is needed and how they can obtain it.
Finally, students discuss, evaluate and organize hypotheses and tentative hypotheses. They make a list of issues such as what resources to consult, people to interview, articles to read and specific actions to be performed by team members. After identifying and allocating learning tasks and developing study plans to discover needed information, students gather information from the classroom, resource readings, texts and library sources, as well as from external experts on the subject. Unlike traditional and standard classes, in PBL learning objectives are not stated up front. Rather, the students and the instructor are responsible for generating their own learning issues or objectives based on the group's analysis of the problem.