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Problem-Based Learning


Problem-based learning, or PBL for short, is a teaching strategy in which complex real-life “problems” are used as the vehicle to promote student learning of concepts and principles. This method is used as opposed to direct instruction, which is often a teacher-led presentation of facts and concepts. Problem-based learning is meant to provide students with real-world problems that more closely mirror what they would experience in an actual situation.


In PBL, the learning process begins by presenting the learner with an engaging problem. As they explore the problem, students then discover for themselves how course concepts provide the means for resolving the problem (Anderson & Lawton, 2004). Instead of teaching relevant material and subsequently having students apply that knowledge to solve a problem, the problem is presented first. This problem is what drives the motivation and the learning. In essence, PBL reinforces a student-centered (or student-led) approach to learning. This pushes students to become the drivers of their education, through innovation, creativity, open-mindedness, and logical thinking. It also offers opportunities to collaborate with others in an active, hands-on way.

There are many benefits of PBL such as: decision-making, team-based skills, and self-directed learning. With this type of learning, there is not only one correct answer nor is there a single solution path. The end result should be that these real-life experiences will show deep, meaningful learning. As students explore the problem, students then discover for themselves how course concepts provide the means for resolving the problem.


PBL can be incorporated across various disciplines and into any learning situation. For example, PBL strategies can be used over an entire semester as the primary method of teaching, or it could be used for select labs, tutorials and design classes. Additionally, PBL could be used to start or guide a single discussion or to create assessment items. The underlying thread connecting these various uses is the incorporation of real-world problems.

Components of Problem-based learning

Any subject area can be adapted to PBL with a little creativity, thought and of course intentional outcomes. While the core problems will vary among disciplines, good PBL approach should embody features such as (Duch, Groh, and Allen, 2001):

  • The problem must motivate students to seek out a deeper understanding of concepts.
  • The problem should require students to make reasoned decisions and to defend them.
  • The problem should incorporate the content objectives in such a way as to connect it to previous courses/knowledge.
  • If used for a group project, the problem needs a level of complexity to ensure that the students must work together to solve it.
  • If used for a multistage project, the initial steps of the problem should be open-ended and engaging to draw students into the problem.


Typically, the method for distributing a PBL problem falls under three closely related teaching techniques: Case studies, Role-plays and Simulations. In the table below, we explore different examples of how each could be incorporated in a course.

PLB Technique

Case studies

Have students take on an existing, real-life case, to solve problems. The problems can come from a variety of sources, such as: newspapers, magazines, journals, books, textbooks, television and even movies. Some cases may be in such form that they can be used with little editing, while others may need to be tweaked or rewritten to be of use. Students could work independently or in groups to conceptualize, design or launch solutions to the problems presented.


Have students improvise scenes based on character descriptions or role-play within their respective fields of study. This is a great and fun way to incorporate PBL. Students can be given the opportunity to make critical decisions and solve problems within their field, as they will need to do on the job. This approach presents the perfect opportunity to bridge existing gaps between theoretical and practical knowledge.


Have students work through problems using computer-based programs or computer-generated scenes. For example: virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) or games.

Regardless of which technique is used, the heart of the method of PBL remains the same: the real-world problem.


Anderson, P. H., & Lawton, L. (2004). Simulation exercises and problem based learning: is there a fit? Developments in Business Simulation and Experiential Learning, 31, 183-189. Retrieved from

Duch, B. J., Groh, S. E, & Allen, D. E. (Eds.). (2001). The power of problem-based learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus.