Problem Based Learning

team at work on a problem


Problem Based Learning is a teaching method used to facilitate student knowledge acquisition. This teaching method is often confused with Project Based Learning, which centers on students applying knowledge. The focus of Problem Based Learning is students acquiring the knowledge. Since the two methods use the same acronym, they are easily confused, but have different objectives for students. Problem Based Learning is a student-centered approach to teaching that enables teachers to act as facilitators rather than purveyors of knowledge (Jamiko et al., 2018).


Problem Based Learning centers around experiential learning (Rooks & Holliman, 2018). This means that students learn through accomplishing tasks and finding solutions. Simply put, Problem Based Learning is where a teacher creates a problem for students to resolve. This approach takes different objectives that the students should accomplish throughout the class and interweaves them into a problem. In addition, the problem should harness multiple skills that student should develop from meeting objectives. The problem can then be approached from multiple perspectives and customized by the student (Laprise, 2018).

This approach to teaching was first developed in the medical field. It was meant to be used as a bridge between controlled practice and real-life environments. Problem Based Learning has since developed and spread to other fields including engineering, computer science, business, and English as a Second Language (ESL), as a means to develop authentic skills used beyond the classroom.

How the students resolve the problem is entirely their choosing (Laprise, 2018). The students have the ability to use whatever tools are at their disposal. This leads to a variety of solutions to the same problem, but ultimately accesses the same outcome. This method of teaching revolves around the students and is controlled by the students.

In addition to the shorter time frame of Problem Based Learning, it also has more controlled outcomes. An instructor constructs the problem that students seek to resolve. As such, the end result is more predictable in the sense that students are able to accomplish the task. The resolution may look different for each student and that is where their ability to choose the path to resolution comes in, but the expectation for each student is more predictable (Mills & Treagust, 2003). Since it is more predictable, teachers can continue to build on the skills they intend for students to build within the problem, making it easier to plan their courses around this type of teaching method.

A well-designed problem can be resolved within a course, rather than being spread over an entire program as Project Based Learning is. These smaller problems can be incorporated into Project Based Learning and allow students to accomplish smaller goals on the pathway to accomplishing their Project. Ultimately, this builds their confidence in their own skills, allowing them to accomplish more and progress to more difficult skills (Jamiko et al., 2018).

As this teaching method continues to evolve beyond its previous history in the medical field, the iterations of the method will continue to improve for different learning environments, including online education. Since the method focuses on the acquisition of 21st century skills, learners will have the benefit of knowledge acquisition as their primary objective, but softer skills such as collaborating, time management, planning and teamwork will be garnered from the use of Problem Based Learning (Dunsmuir, Frederickson, Lang, 2017). These skills will help learners move beyond theoretical knowledge to more pragmatic and applicable information that works beyond the classroom.

Designing Problem Based Learning

  1. Develop a Problem (should be applicable beyond the classroom).
    1. Examples:
      1. Medical Field: Patient presents with a several aliments. Students must assess patient complaints, diagnose and propose a treatment.
      2. Computer Sciences: Program is not working. Students must analyze the code, identify the problem and propose a manner to fix issue.
      3. Teaching: Students are not understanding a topic. Students must examine and understand the topic, create an activity, design assessment to evaluate student skills.
      4. Law: Client presents a legal case Students must research the laws, construct a case and/or brief, construct an argument, present legal defense.
  2. Present “Problem” activity to students
  3. Allow students to resolve “Problem.”

Try It!

Problem Based Learning can be applied to your whole course, culminating in a final project, or it could be one project that spans several classes. Take a look at a course you are currently teaching and ask yourself the following questions to see if you could incorporate Problem Based Learning into your course:

  1. What skills would like your students to achieve?
  2. How might this knowledge be applied outside the classroom?
  3. What is a problem that could be resolved using the skills your course teaches? Could this problem be solved multiple ways while reaching the same outcome?


Dunsmuir, S., Frederickson, N., & Lang, J. (2017). Meeting current challenges in school psychology training: The role of problem-based learning. School Psychology Review, 46(4), 395–407.

Jatmiko, B., Prahani, B. K., Munasir, Supardi, Z. A. I., Wicaksono, I., Erlina, N., ... Zainuddin. (2018). The comparison of oripa teaching model and problem based learning model effectiveness to improve critical thinking skills of pre-service physics teachers. Journal of Baltic Science Education, 17(2), 300–319. Retrieved from

Kim, Y. H., Hwang, K. H., & Cho, O. H. (2018). Simulation education with problem-based learning: Effect on nursing students’ communication apprehension. Social Behavior and Personality, 46(1), 151–160.

Laprise, R. (2018). What’s the problem? Exploring the potential of problem-based learning in an ensemble setting. Music Educators Journal, 104(4), 48–53.

Rooks, R. N., & Holliman, B. D. (2018). Facilitating undergraduate learning through community: Engaged problem-based learning. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching & Learning, 12(2), 0–14.