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Problem-Based Learning (PBL)

Problem-Based learning (PBL) is an instructional model (Savery & Duffy, 1995).

Howard Barrows is credited with developing the PBL instructional model.

Heuristics = problem solving strategies.

Problem-based Instruction (PBI) is facilitated problem solving.

  • Rooted in experience-based instruction (Savery, 2009, p. 147 para 5).
  • Organized around a complex problem that does not have a single answer.
  • Begins with presentation of problem rather than lecture or reading assignment.

Six characteristics of Problem-Based learning developed by Barrows:

  1. Learning is student centered
  2. Learning occurs in small groups
  3. Teachers are facilitators or guides
  4. Problems form the original focus and stimulus for learning
  5. Problems are a vehicle for the development of clinical problem solving skills.
  6. New information is acquired through self-directed learning


  • Means-end analysis

Inquiry-based Approaches:

  • Disequilibration (Piaget)
  • Perturbation (Dewey)

Problem-Solving Process

  1. Identify the problem
  2. Investigate the cause(s) of the problem
  3. Specify problem properties
  4. Develop possible solutions(s) to problem

A Summary of the Process of Problem-Based Learning

  1. The problem is encountered first in the learning sequence, before any preparation or study has occurred.
  2. The problem situation is presented to the student in the same way it would present in reality.
  3. The student works with the problem in-a manner that permits his ability to reason and apply knowledge to be challenged and evaluated, appropriate to his level of learning.
  4. Needed areas of learning are identified in the process of work with the problem and used as a guide to individualized study.
  5. The skills and knowledge acquired by this study are applied back to the problem, to evaluate the effectiveness of learning and to reinforce learning.
  6. The learning that has occurred in work with the problem and in individualized study is summarized and integrated into the student's existing knowledge and skills.

Barrows, Howard S., Tamblyn, Robyn M., 1980, Problem-based learning: An approach to medical education. New York: Springer Publishing.

A Summary of the Process of Self-Directed Study

  1. During the problem encounter, all questions, insecurities, or holes in knowledge should be noted down as learning issues
  2. Whenever work with the problem has to stop due to lack of knowledge or understanding, the learning issues should be reviewed and a study plan devised, relative to the goals of the curriculum.
  3. The study plan should be sensitive to the specific learning needs and background of the learner.
  4. Learning resources can be books, monographs, journals, cadavers, specimens, models, faculty experts, field trips, and audiovisual units, as appropriate (those emphasized are available to physicians generally).
  5. At an agreed time, the learning acquired would be brought back to the problem.

Barrows, Howard S., Tamblyn, Robyn M., 1980, Problem-based learning: An approach to medical education. New York: Springer Publishing.

Learning from problems is a condition of human existence. In our attempts to solve the many problems we face every day, learning occurs. In looking for offices in an unfamiliar building, or addresses in an unfamiliar town, we eventually find our way. In filling out income tax statements, learning occurs, just as in trying to find out why the car won't start. Although we may not be consciously aware, these problem situations are all learning experiences that are providing us with information and knowledge that we can apply to future problems. The more opportunity we have to use this information in our day-to-day activities, the more ingrained and unforgettable it becomes. We may recall occasions when we have provided a friend or colleague with very helpful and even sophisticated information about a problem he is attempting to solve. Although that information may seem to have just "popped" into our mind as our friend attempted to solve his problem, a little reflection will reveal that we acquired it from our own experience with a similar problem. No doubt, problem-based learning is the basic human learning process that allowed primitive man to survive in his environment. Facts related to us by others or information we have read ourselves rarely seem to have the tenacity of the information we have gained from our own daily confrontation with problems. It would be safe to say that the great wealth of information we possess in our memory banks has remained there as a consequence of having worked with problems we have been faced with in such life situations as school, work, social situations, and our hobbies. Problem-based learning is the learning that results from the process of working toward the understanding or resolution of a problem. The problem is encountered first in the learning process!

There is nothing new about the use of problem solving as a method of learning in a variety of educational settings. Unlike what occurs in real-life situations, however, the problem usually is not given to the student first, as a stimulus for active learning. It usually is given to the student after he has been provided with facts or principles, either as an example of the importance of this knowledge or as an exercise in which the student can apply this knowledge.

Barrows, Howard S., Tamblyn, Robyn M., 1980, Problem-based learning: An approach to medical education, pp. 1-2. New York: Springer Publishing.