Problem-Based Learning

From E-Learning Faculty Modules


Module Summary

One design approach for online learning involves the use of problem-based learning—for both stand-alone assignments and cumulative projects in a course. Problem-based learning (PBL) is an approach which helps learners incorporate and synthesize complex information in a practical and applied way. The problems used in PBL are focused around challenges which integrate both theory and practice (Lee, 2006, p. 393), and which are central to the troubleshooting and professional work in a particular domain field. Early in a curriculum, these selected problems may be fairly simple; later in a course of study, these become more complex and may require teamwork to solve.


Learners will...

  • Define problem-based learning (PBL)
  • List the strengths and weaknesses of problem-based learning (PBL)
  • Identify the features that make a problem effective in PBL
  • Consider ways that PBL may be effectively facilitated by an instructor
  • Locate some electronic resources available for problem-based learning in your field

Module Pretest

1. What is problem-based learning? (PBL) What are the main features of PBL?

2. Why is PBL considered to enhance learner self-efficacy, communications, coordination with colleagues, and troubleshooting and analysis?

3. What features help make a defined problem effective in PBL? Why?

4. How may problem-based learning (PBL) be effectively facilitated by an instructor?

5. What are some electronic resources available for problem-based learning?

Main Contents

1. What is Problem-Based Learning (PBL)? What are the main features of PBL?

Problem-based learning is part of an active learning approach that emphasizes the need for a curriculum to prepare learners for real-world challenges. Using a “problem” as a framework, instructors strive to help learners …

  • Become aware of the types of problems in a field
  • Use the professional terminology and technologies in a field
  • Conscious of how to integrate the various learning they’ve covered in a program
  • Work together with peers on a team (whether virtual or face-to-face)
  • Develop self-efficacy and discipline in pursuing research and learning, and
  • Engage in multi-disciplinary work

Problems have to be designed around specific learning objectives. The learning has to be measurable and observable.

Structured Problems: Problems may be close-ended (convergent), which means that they have a pre-defined “correct” answer. Story-problems in mathematics are this type of problem.

Ill-Structured Problems: Other types of problems may be open-ended (divergent and ill-structured), which means that they may have a variety of appropriate solutions and designs—with varying levels of effectiveness based on different factors and matrices. The problems may be stand-alone, or they may be part of a cumulative project, with clearly defined strategies and steps for solving the problem. Live from-the-environment problems may offer those with bases of expertise…beneficial challenges. PBL involves learner meta-cognition, which is learner self-awareness of their own learning. This is a kind of “cognitive apprenticeship,” where learners can engage the learned materials in a practical and applied way. Tools like personal learning journals, lab notes, research journals, and other recording devices help learners to be self-aware as they problem-solve an issue.

PBL may be achieved singly by independent learners. They may be achieved in learner groups. They may also involve real-world clients, in “apprenticeship” or “service learning” or “practicum” situations.

Another type of “PBL” is project-based learning, and generally, that approach is more complex than for problems (which are more focused). That topic will be discussed in a different module.

‘’’2. Why is PBL considered to enhance learner self-efficacy, communications, coordination with colleagues, and troubleshooting and analysis?’’’

The Main Rationales for PBL: Problem-based learning is seen as helping weave together academic and professional realms, by encouraging learners to apply their skills in a simulation of a professional environment. Learners have the safety and scaffolding permitted by an academic environment, but they also sample what it may be like to work in a live environment with different people with different skill sets …or with problems that are non-trivial and do not have easy answers. Lifelong learning requires learner self-efficacy, self-discovery, troubleshooting, and drive, and PBL is used to encourage self-directed learning (Hmelo & Coté, 1996). PBL optimally helps learners have an egocentric sense of their own roles but an exocentric sense of others’ roles and how those professional roles mesh in a live environment. Many faculty would agree that textbook functions may vary widely from how things work in the real world.

And Problem-Centered Learning: “Problem-centered learning (PCL) is more explicit and structured than PBL. These teaching strategies can encourage other learning outcomes beside developing problem solving skills, including high student motivation, teaming skills, ability to organize, plan and execute, problem solving (technical, procedural and social), greater appreciation of course content utility, longer knowledge retention, knowledge of the real world, positive community awareness and civic responsibility, and the value of teamwork,” suggest some writers (Laware & Walters, 2004, p. 6). In a university context, non-trivial PBL is sufficiently ambitious to encompass problem-centered learning and the ambitious goals mentioned above.

3. What features help make a defined problem effective in PBL? Why? Strengths

Breadth of Learning. Problem-based learning may enable a wide breadth of learning. Properly designed problems may highlight various learning objectives and outcomes. These may accommodate the interests of “outliers,” especially those who already have some expertise in the field.

Learner Motivation. Using a problem-based learning framework may enhance learner motivations. It may make the learning in a field more real and engaging.

Learner Interactivity. Group-based PBL may enhance learner interactivity. It may focus learner communications towards particular work and defined aims. With the wide range of intercommunications that may be done online, learner interactivity may be more broadly enhanced.

Learner Creativity. In a few rare cases, PBL may lead to innovative solutions to long-standing professional problems. Students, even with novice or amateur or naïve approaches, may offer fresh insights in a way that experts in a field may not have seen before.


Types of Learners. Problem-based learning is built on a body of prior acquired knowledge and a set of skills for attaining further knowledge for analytical purposes. This means that learners have to have achieved a certain level of sophistication and expertise before they may successfully take part in problem-based learning. The fit to the particular learners will be critical for the successful use of problem-based learning.

Few Repositories of Problems for PBL. Different fields have different resources for PBL. However, many academic fields have not defined the problems that would be helpful except in an ad hoc way at the instructional levels at various institutions of higher education. Very few shared repositories of defined and effective problems exist. For problems to be relevant, they have to come from the interaction between academia and the professions…and there must be continuing changes and tweaks to address problems.

Educational Research. The amount of educational research on problem-based learning is often piecemeal and case-based. Very little has been done in terms of large-scale research.

Instructor Investment. A high level of instructor support is necessary particularly for more complex learning and difficult and ill-structured projects.

4. How may problem-based learning (PBL) be effectively facilitated by an instructor?'

Different fields have different factors that make for effective problem-based learning. What may work in one field may not in others, depending on the learning objectives, the complexity of the field, the preparedness of the learners, the availability of electronic and other resources, and other elements.

Generally speaking, problems need to achieve the following aims:

  • Capture students’ interests and engagement
  • Build on students’ existing knowledge
  • Provide opportunities for hands-on learning
  • Add to students’ self-awareness of their learning and problem-solving
  • Be broken down into multiple stages for solving
  • Integrate relevant prior and future learning (often in an interdisciplinary way)
  • Relate to real-world challenges in the particular field
  • Help students create a sense of inquiry into their respective fields

Assessments need to...

  • Assess the process of the learning (the decision-making, the analysis, the research, the collaboration, the communications with clients, the design, etc.)
  • Evaluate the defined learning objectives
  • Assess the digital artifacts created by the student(s)
  • Consider individual work
  • Consider group or team work
  • Evaluate the uses of technologies for the learning

Essentially, PBL has to be sequenced properly for the developmental levels of learners. The problems have to be somewhat aspirational, so they have to push learners to go somewhat beyond their current skill set but not so far beyond that the learners are lost. Instructors play a critical role in problem-based learning. They often create the environment or context for the problem-based learning. This may involve a simulation of the workspace. Or there may be a virtual immersive environment in which the work is done and presented.

Creating, Defining, or Selecting / Adapting Problems. The problems are defined by the instructors, or they are selected by them. They may also assign and set up the student teams or dyads for the learning. Individualized topics may be assigned by the faculty member—or at least the structure of the selection or assigning of the topics. (In some cases, problems are defined by learners…based on certain constraints set up by the instructors.) The lead-up learning, the work during the problem-solving, and the debriefing afterwards are often conducted by the instructor.

Structuring the Problem Solving. Instructors also “scaffold” or set up a structure for the solving of the problem, with sequenced stages of work. In the literature, there are two types of scaffolding—one for instruction (developmental learning) and one for management (how decisions get made) (Zumbach, Schönemann, & Reimann, 2005).

For example, the stages may be something as follows: defining the general problem, building a team, meeting with a client, conducting research, creating a proposal, proposing the solution to the client, and then summarizing the learning that occurred based on record-keeping throughout the project.

Encouraging Collaboration. Collaborative groups need to work together to trouble-shoot and solve a problem. Instructors often have to create ice breakers to help people get familiar with each other. They may intervene to help people communicate and work together, particularly if team members are cross-disciplinary or have widely divergent backgrounds and personalities.

Such scaffolding is necessary, suggest some researchers:

“The main reason is that individuals in a group do not automatically cooperate and act as a group. This is particularly the case for groups where the members have not worked together as a team before, are formed for a comparatively short time, and work under conditions where individual learning goals are predominant. These are all characteristics typical of group work in classrooms and other instructional settings, face-to-face or net-based. Under such conditions, scaffolds are needed in order to get group work going, to mitigate disorientation and reduce cognitive load” (Zumbach, Schönemann, & Reimann, 2005, p. 758).

Coaching and Mentoring. Instructors support learner work throughout the length of the problem-solving; they highlight mistakes and dead-ends; they propose other methods. Those learners who are ambitious and making good progress may be encouraged to push their research further. Those who are struggling may find that the instructor will provide more help. In other words, they serve as coaches and mentors.

Debriefing the PBL Experience. A critical part of studio-based learning involves peer collaboration, analysis and feedback by peers and subject matter experts (Hendrix, Myeni, Narayanan, & Ross, 2010, p. 505).

Non-human Facilitation. In some circumstances, communities of interest and networks of interest (people connected through virtual communications means) may define problems and solve them together…and share their knowledge on collaborative sites like wikis or computer-supported collaborative work (CSCW) spaces. In this case, select or all members of the group serve as the facilitator role for each other.

5. What are some electronic resources available for problem-based learning?

Please reference the resources listed below.


In a web design course, students work with clients from local non-profit agencies or smaller family businesses to create a website that meets particular needs—while focusing on branding, aesthetics, information structuring, and business competition.

In a government course, students collaborate around creating a policy to solve a real-world and timely issue.

In a virtual lab situation, students set up an experiment that will help them arrive at the particular answer to a difficult question. They must use the tools that are in the lab, and there are other constraints to their work.

How To

What are some electronic resources available for problem-based learning in your field?

Do a generalized web search for problem-based learning *and* your particular domain field (and / or related interdisciplinary fields).

Check out educational repositories like MERLOT to see if there are problem-based contents there for your field.

Define some professional roles in your field that may be used as a framework for the problem-based learning. (Make sure that the problem falls within the purview of that professional role. Make sure that the students have the information and the tools needed to solve the problems.)

Draft some potential problems, and run them by colleagues who are aware of problem-based learning. Critique the problems together.

When you dry-run the use of problems in problem-based learning, take notes about what works and what doesn’t. Get feedback from your students about what works for them.

Probe the educational research to find out what is being done in the field. Glean what you can for your own work.

Possible Pitfalls

Various researchers highlight the fact that not all active learning environments are successful. Problem-based learning may be appropriate for some circumstances but not others, for some students, and not others, and for some learning contexts but not others.

Module Post-Test

1. What is problem-based learning? (PBL) What are the main features of PBL?

2. Why is PBL considered to enhance learner self-efficacy, communications, coordination with colleagues, and troubleshooting and analysis?

3. What features help make a defined problem effective in PBL? Why?

4. How may problem-based learning (PBL) be effectively facilitated by an instructor?

5. What are some electronic resources available for problem-based learning?


Hendrix, D., Myeni, L., Narayanan, H., & Ross, M. (2010). Implementing studio-based learning in CS2. In the proceedings if Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education (SIGCSE 2010): Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Association of Computing Machinery. 505 – 509.

Hmelo, C.E. & Coté, N.C. (1996) The development of self-directed learning strategies in problem-based learning. In the proceedings of the 1996 International Conference on Learning Sciences: Evanston, Illinois. 421 – 426.

Laware, G.W. & Walters, A.J. (2004). Real world problems bringing life to course content. In the proceedings of SIGITE ’04: Salt Lake City, Utah. ACM. 6 – 12.

Lee, S. W-Y. (2006). The interplay between self-directed learning and social interactions: Collaborative knowledge building in online problem-based discussions. In the proceedings of the International Conference of the Learning Sciences (ICLS 2006): Bloomington, Indiana. 390 – 396.

Zumbach, J., Schönemann, J., & Reimann, P. (2005). Analyzing and supporting collaboration in cooperative computer-mediated communication. In the proceedings of the 2005 conference on Computer Support for Collaborative Learning: Taipei, Taiwan, 758 – 767.

Extra Resources

North Carolina State University’s Problem Based Learning / College of Education & Psychology

University of Washington’s Center for Instructional Development and Research Teaching and Learning Bulletin (Vol. 7, No. 3, 2004) on Problem-Based Learning