Problem-based learning is a method of teaching where students are presented with a real or realistic problem, such as a case study or hypothetical situation, and use inductive reasoning to learn both information about the topic and how to think critically about it. Instead of passively listening to lectures or even being led through the Socratic method of teaching through question and answers, it encourages self-directed learning through the exploration of complex, open-ended problems where the instructors facilitate and guide rather than teach. Originally designed as semester-long endeavors for medical students, PBL can be adapted to any field as a long-term or short-term project. PBL is a form of active learning that will encourage students to think deeply and take responsibility for their learning. By closely mirroring real-world scenarios students might face, PBL can help keep them engaged and motivated.
To include problem-based learning in your course, you should start by presenting students with a realistic problem that they might encounter outside of a classroom. Do not prepare them for the specific problem, but do explain the process you will go through. As students work through the problem individually or in groups, identify gaps in their skills and knowledge either by observing students in a classroom or asking them to submit a draft. Close any knowledge gaps and give feedback and then let students apply new skills or knowledge to the problem. Finally, students should summarize what they learned to aid retention .
The following are examples of problem-based learning.
- A philosophy instructor finds an example of a complex moral dilemma from a news article, divides students into small groups, and asks each team to analyze the dilemma from the perspective of a different philosopher they have studied.
- A clinical medicine instructor presents students with a hypothetical case study. Students will diagnose the patient, choose a treatment plan, and explain why they chose it.
- An urban planning instructor chooses a city with several problems for each group and asks them to analyze the reasons behind each problem at the start and end of each unit. At the end of the semester, each group turns in a report with recommendations on how to alleviate the issues.
The following are best practices when implementing problem-based learning in your course.
- Review student learning objectives before choosing a problem and make sure the project aligns with them.
- The problem or problems chosen should mirror real-world scenarios and should require students to analyze the situation and defend their opinions.
- Base the level of complexity on how many students will be working on each problem and how long each project/problem is intended to last.
- Tell students about the process and when they can expect feedback, and prepare them by explaining why you chose PBL for their course to increase student buy-in.
- If students will be working in groups, review best practices for group work.
- When possible, use real-life scenarios that are current and relevant. If none are applicable, use a narrative to engage students.
- Help to further define and understand complex concepts through readings, videos, lectures or discussion boards.
References and Additional Resources
 Barrows and Tamblyn, 1980. “Problem-Based Learning: An Approach to Medical Education.” pp. 191–192
 University of Illinois CITL. Problem-Based Learning (PBL).