A Newsletter of the Center for Teaching Effectiveness
January 1995 Issue Editor -- Barbara J. Duch
What is Problem-Based Learning?*
Problem-based learning (PBL), at its most fundamental level, is an
instructional method characterized by the use of "real world" problems as a
context for students to learn critical thinking and problem solving skills,
and acquire knowledge of the essential concepts of the course. Using PBL,
students acquire life long learning skills which include the ability to find
and use appropriate learning resources. The process used in PBL is the
Students are presented with a problem (case, research paper, video
tape, for example). Students (in groups) organize their ideas and previous
knowledge related to the problem, and attempt to define the broad nature of
Throughout discussion, students pose questions, called "learning
issues," on aspects of the problem that they do not understand. These
learning issues are recorded by the group. Students are continually
encouraged to define what they know - and more importantly - what they don't
Students rank, in order of importance, the learning issues generated
in the session. They decide which questions will be followed up by the whole
group, and which issues can be assigned to individuals, who later teach the
rest of the grouop. Students and instructor also discuss what resources will
be needed in order to research the learning issues, and where they could be
When students reconvene, they explore the previous learning issues,
integrating their new knowledge into the context of the problem. Students are
also encouraged to summarize their knowledge and connect new concepts to old
ones. They continue to define new learning issues as they progress through
the problem. Students soon see that learning is an ongoing process, and that
there will always be (even for the teacher) learning issues to be explored.
What is the faculty role in PBL? The instructor must guide, probe and
support students' initiatives, not lecture, direct or provide easy solutions.
The degree to which a PBL course is student-directed versus teacher-directed
is a decision that the faculty member must make based on the size of the
class, the intellectual maturity level of the students, and the instructional
goals of the course. When faculty incorporate PBL in their courses, they
empower their students to take a responsible role in their learning - and as a
result, faculty must be ready to yield some of their own authority in the
classroom to their students.
Albanese, M.A. and Mitchell, S. (1993) Problem-Based Learning: A Review
of Literature on Its Outcomes and Implementation Issues, Acad. Medicine.
68(1), pp 52-81.
Engel, J. (1991) Not Just a Method But a Way of Learning. In The
Challenge of Problem-Based Learning, Bould and Felletti, eds. pp. 21-31, New
York: St. Martin's Press.
Last updated Feb. 20, 1997.
Copyright Center for Teaching Effectiveness, Univ. of Delaware, 1995.