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Problem-Based Learning

Stimulating curiosity can drastically influence engagement.

Successful real-world careers are flooded with real-world problems requiring individuals to think critically, analyze information from multiple sources, adapt in novel situations, and collaborate inter- and intraprofessionally to develop solutions. Problem-based learning (PBL) is a powerful student-centered pedagogy recognized for supporting students in creating knowledge and comprehension of a subject and developing the skills necessary to become life-long, self-directed learners. Historically based in clinical preparation and professional schools including medicine and business, PBL has since been infused in many other fields of study with positive learning outcomes for students at all levels.

Learning Outcomes of PBL

In contrast to traditional didactic teaching approaches, problem-based learning challenges students at the start of the learning experience by presenting a real-world, complex problem. Students work in small groups to analyze the given information and with the support of a faculty facilitator, begin the PBL cycle.

Problems can be sourced from a variety of places: newspapers, magazines, journals, books, textbooks, case studies, or adapted from lived experiences of the problem designer. While the core problem will vary among discipline areas, key characteristics of a good PBL problem do exist. A good problem should:  

  • Include a relatable scenario that will motivate students to engage with the information.
  • Encourage students to make decisions and defend them.
  • Demonstrate a level of complexity that requires collaboration.
  • Be open ended/ill structured.

Integrating PBL in course design can be accomplished in different ways. PBL can be the primary pedagogy in a course, used to teach a unit or module, or only over the course of one to two class meetings. The mode of use will determine the complexity and staging of the problem during the design process.

Assessment of student learning in the context of PBL should be in alignment with student learning objectives (SLOs) for both content knowledge and skill development. Consideration of Bloom’s Taxonomy levels and professional skills appropriate for the course discipline, can help guide the development of meaningful assessments. In addition to assessing progress toward SLOs, self and peer assessments and a closing analysis, or debrief are essential to the PBL cycle and facilitating student reflection on knowledge gains.