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Problem-based learning (PBL) is a didactic concept of "active learning" in tertiary education, but is currently being adapted for use in K-12 education.

The defining characteristics of PBL are:

  • Learning is driven by messy, open-ended problems.
  • Students work in small collaborative groups.
  • "Teachers" are not required, the process uses "facilitators" of learning.

Accordingly, students are encouraged to take responsibility for their group and organise and direct the learning process with support from a tutor or instructor. Advocates of PBL claim it can be used to enhance content knowledge and foster the development of communication, problem-solving, and self-directed learning skill.

How PBL is doneEdit

PBL is typically done in small discussion groups of students accompanied by a faculty tutor or facilitator. A constructed, but realistic problem is presented in consecutive sections, mimicking the gradual acquisition of potentially incomplete information in real life situations. In some implementations of PBL, students must engage in inquiry to get information about the problem; in others, the information is presented sequentially. The students discuss the case, define problems, derive learning goals and organise further work (such as literature and database research). Results are presented and discussed in the following session. The students then apply the results of their self-directed learning to solve the problem. A PBL cycle concludes with reflections on learning, problem solving, and collaboration. A structured whiteboard is used to help the learners keep track of their problem solving and learning.

Although some predefined aspects of the problem are usually expected to be investigated, not all learning goals are strictly defined in advance. Problems should be ill-structured and should ideally be open to differing approaches and offer thematic sidelines.

The tutor's role is that of a guide rather than a teacher. Tutors are not expected to contribute their factual knowledge or opinions (except as fellow learners). Instead, they should direct the students by asking questions, largely metacognitive. However, this should only be done when students have missed the point, or have failed to recognise an important component of the scenario. Tutors also observe the group interaction and give feedback on the work process. Feedback and reflexion on the learning process and group dynamics are essential components of PBL.


The acquisition and structuring of knowledge in PBL is thought to work through the following cognitive effects (Schmidt, 1993):

  • initial analysis of the problem and activation of prior knowledge through small-group discussion
  • elaboration on prior knowledge and active processing of new information
  • restructuring of knowledge, construction of a semantic network
  • learning in context
  • stimulation of curiosity related to presentation of a relevant problem


  • Armstrong E: A hybrid model of problem-based learning. In: Boud D and Feletti G (editors): The challenge of problem-based learning, 137-149. London, Kogan Page, 1991
  • Barr RD and Tagg J: From teaching to learning - a new paradigm for undergraduate education. Change, Nov/Dec.1995:13-25 (also available online at )
  • Hmelo-Silver, C. E. (2004). Problem-based learning: What and how do students learn? Educational Psychology Review, 16, 235-266.
  • Schmidt HG: Foundations of problem-based learning: some explanatory notes. Medical Education 27:422-432, 1993

External linksEdit

See alsoEdit

fr:Apprentissage par problèmes fi:Ongelmalähtöinen oppiminen sv:Problem-baserat lärande zh:問題導向學習

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