Problem-Based Learning (PBL)

by Don Woods


There are 3 topics on this page:

  1. What is PBL?
  2. Our use of small group self-directed PBL
  3. Books and resources to help you with PBL

What is PBL?

Problem-based Learning: PBL is any learning environment in which the problem drives the learning. That is, before students learn some knowledge they are given a problem. The problem is posed so that the students discover that they need to learn some new knowledge before they can solve the problem. Some example problem-based learning environments include:

  • Research projects
  • Engineering design projects that are more than a synthesis of previously learned knowledge.
    The traditional and well-known "Case approach", popular with business schools, may or may not be problem-based learning. Often the case is used to integrate previously-learned knowledge and hence would not be, according to this definition, problem-based learning.
  • What's the big deal about PBL? Posing the problem before learning tends to motivate students. They know why they are learning the new knowledge. Learning in the context of the need-to-solve-a-problem also tends to store the knowledge in memory patterns that facilitate later recall for solving problems.
  • What skills should a student have before entering a PBL program? They should be skilled at problem solving because that skill in needed as the students try to solve the problem.
  • Does using PBL develop problem solving skills? Not without explicit interventions on the part of the teacher. PBL offers an opportunity to develop the skills
  • Is PBL an example of cooperative learning? It depends. If the PBL is an individual project, then it does not require cooperation with others.
  • Why does there seem to be so much confusion about what is and what is not PBL? Problem-based learning, learning because you need to solve a problem, has been around for centuries. Indeed, in the stone age, people learned skills and approaches to solve problems to survive. They just didn't say to each other "Hey, you are using PBL." Similarly, I suggest that all research is PBL, although we don't call it that, we call it research. In the 1960s McMaster Medical School introduced a learning environment that was a combination of small group, cooperative, self-directed, interdependent, self-assessed PBL. Since then this approach has been called "PBL". But PBL, as I suggested previously, can be in any form where a problem is posed to drive the learning. To overcome the confusion, I suggest we use the awkward terminology of small group, self-directed, self-assessed PBL when referring to learning environments similar to the McMaster Medical school approach.

Small group, self-directed, self-assessed PBL is a use of problem-based learning which embodies most of the principles known to improve learning. This learning environment is active, cooperative, self-assessed, provides prompt feedback, allows a better opportunity to account for personal learning preferences and is highly effective.

  • If small group, self-directed, self-assessed PBL is so great for learning, why isn't everyone doing it? Probably, because of fear of the unknown and resources. Using this approach requires that teachers change. Change is not easy. This change, in particular, expects teachers to change their role from being the center of attention and the source of all knowledge to being the coach and facilitator of the acquisition of that knowledge. The learning becomes student-centered, not teacher-centered. For resources, the McMaster medical school model includes a tutor/teacher with each group. The groups are tutored. Hence, there is one teacher for every group of five or six students. This is resource intensive if you do this for only one course. This approach is not so resource intensive ifthe whole program is changed to this format. But what if you want to try small group, self-directed, self-assessed PBL as part of your course? or for only one course in your departmental program? Now, one is faced with classes of 30 to 200 with only one instructor.
  • How can we use this medical school model with only one instructor with large classes of 30 to 300? One answer is to use tutorless groups. Here we provide the students with the training we give to tutors; we empower the student groups to be autonomous and accountable, with the tutor's role being to monitor and hold the individuals and groups accountable for their learning

PBL and Problem Solving

Problem solving is the process used to solve a problem. Since problem-based learning starts with a problem so be solved, students working in a PBL environment should be skilled in problem solving or critical thinking or "thinking on your feet" (as opposed to rote recall). How is this handled? In research programs, we usually have qualifying examinations in which we test the problem solving (thinking skills) of the candidates before they are admitted. In the McMaster Medical school, one of five criteria for admission is a test of the candidates problem solving skills. Regrettably, some teachers embark on PBL without either prescreening or developing their students skill in problem solving.

Doesn't putting students in a PBL environment develop their problem solving skills? Regrettably no. Giving students an opportunity to solve problems rarely develops their skill in problem solving.

Can you have problem solving skill development without using PBL? Sure. We have lots of examples. Conventionally, students learn the material in Chapter 5 of a text, and then use problem solving to solve the homework problems. Here students are using problem solving skills in a "subject-based" learning environment compared with a problem-based learning environment.

PBL and cooperative learning

Cooperative learning is a learning environment where students work together to learn, as opposed to competing with each other for marks.

Can you have cooperative learning without PBL? Sure. Cooperative learning can be used for subject-based learning. Here, you ask students to work together to solve problems, discuss ideas, compare ideas about a concept, or do any task. You do use cooperative learning when you use small group, interdependent, self-directed PBL.

Can you have PBL without cooperative learning? Sure. Individual research or tasks in the PBL mode do not require cooperative learning.


Our use of small group, self-directed PBL

Our experience has been with small group, self-directed, self-assessed PBL in tutorless groups. In the chemical engineering program, we use PBL as part of two courses: one topic or problem in a junior level course; and five topics in a senior level course (Woods, 1991). The students concurrently are taking five to seven required courses presented in the conventional format. Both PBL courses have about 30 to 50 students with one instructor. Hence, we use five to ten tutorless groups with five students per group. Before the students they have received about 50 hours of workshop style training in the processing skills. The outcomes for the PBL activity are the Chemical Engineering subject knowledge (process safety and engineering economics), lifetime learning skills and chairperson skills. Each problem is studied for about one week. Before the first PBL activity, the students have workshops introducing them to this PBL approach to learning and workshops on managing change. The students are required to submit journal reports frequently that make explicit their progress and activities within the PBL tutorless groups. The elaboration is done by having three meetings: a goals meeting, a teach meeting and an elaboration/feedback meeting. Student-generated learning issues are validated by the instructor during the goals meeting. The students' assessment of the partial PBL learning environment, as measured by the Course Perceptions Questionnaire (Knapper, 1994 and Ramsden, 1983), is d= +1 more positive than the responses from a control group of engineering students in a conventional program (N=47).

At McMaster University, the theme school program was created. This is a program for interdisciplinary learning that students from all disciplines may elect to take on overload. Based on the research expertise at McMaster, one of the theme schools is on new materials and their impact on society. This school has five 3-credit courses, three 2-credit seminar courses and two 6-credit research internships. Enrolment is limited and by application. About 35 students were admitted in both the first and second year since it was started. Students are from English, biology, physical education, nursing chemistry, mathematics and engineering. The 3-credit courses use the small group self-directed problem-based format. For each course has two instructors and 1 teaching assistant. The first course is sophomore level. In each 13-week course the tutorless student groups handle 2 to 3 cases or problems. Concurrently they are taking 5 to 7 required courses in their major area. Except for the nursing program, all the other courses the students take are presented in the conventional lecture format. The students have received no formal training in the processing skills before they enroled in the theme school. Our approach has been to develop these skills concurrently. We have five explicit, 1½ hour workshops that are given during the second semester of their sophomore year. The topics are understanding PBL and its expectations, managing change, problem solving, group skills and self-directed-interdependent small group learning. The student evaluations of the program have identified the importance of these explicit workshops and have recommended that these be given before the students encounter their first case problem. Currently, this program does not explicitly include the development of processing skills as valued outcomes nor are these skills formally assessed. I believe that the program would be strengthened if it did. The students are not required to do extensive journal writing. However, their written reports must demonstrate that they have synthesized information and material learned from other members of their group. Student's assessment of the PBL learning environment in the Theme school, as measured by the Course Perceptions Questionnaire is d = +2 more positive than their assessment of their "home" departments. Their responses for their home department were consistent with the responses from a control group of students in a conventional program that has enrolment limited and is by application.

In Civil Engineering, Fred Hall uses small group, self-directed, self-assessed PBL in a junior level course; in Geography, Caroline Eyles and Fred Hall use this approach for a senior level project course.

In summary, these are examples of the use of small group self-directed PBL where tutorless groups of five to six students function effectively. The class sizes are in the range 30 to 50 with one or two instructors. The students concurrently take conventional courses. In these examples, the students work in tutorless groups of about 5 to 6 students.


Knapper, C. (1994) Instructional Development Center, Queen's University, personal communication of the short CPQ version used in the paper D. Bertrand and C. Knapper (1993) "Contextual Influences on Student's Approaches toLearning in Three Academic Departments", Queens University, Kingston ON.

Ramsden, P. (1983) "The Lancaster Approaches to Studying and Course Perceptions Questionnaires: Lecturer's Handbook," Educational Methods Unit, Oxford Polytechnic, Oxford, OX3 0BP

Woods, D.R. (1991) "Issues in Implementation in an Otherwise Conventional Programme", Chapter 12 in "The Challenges of Problem-based Learning" D. Boud and G. Feletti, ed., Kogan Page, London, 122-129.

Books to Help you with PBL

For students

To help our students in our own program, we wrote the book "Problem-based Learning: how to gain the most from PBL". To order any of these books use your favourite bookseller and request them using these ISBNs

  • PBL: How to Gain the Most - 9780666239617
  • PBL: Resources to Gain the Most - 9780666242129
  • PBL: Helping your Students - 9780666242112 .

Table of Contents for "Problem-based Learning: How to gain the most from PBL"

  1. Are you ready for change?
  2. What is problem-based learning?
  3. Problem solving skills.
  4. What is small group, problem-based learning?
  5. Group skills.
  6. What is self-directed, interdependent, small group, problem-based learning?
  7. Self-directed learning.
  8. What is self-assessed, self-directed, interdependent, small group, problem-based learning?
  9. Self-assessment skills.
  10. Putting it all together.

Appendix, Student Feedback Forms and Annotated index.

Prices excluding taxes and shipping and handling: for orders from Canada: C$

For teachers

The above book has been very popular with teachers. Thank you for your interest and support. However, to help teachers get an idea about PBL, sample it, implement some form of PBL, we have written a separate book for teachers that

  • addresses many of the questions teachers have about implementing PBL;
  • guides teachers in the use of "How to gain the most from PBL" to enrich their courses.

This book we call "Problem-based Learning: Helping your students gain the most from PBL". It's table of contents is:

  1. Why PBL? Improving learning and selecting a version of PBL that is suitable for you
  2. On being a coach/facilitator
  3. What about processing skills used in PBL?
  4. Issues about setting up small group, self directed, self assessed PBL
  5. Questions and answers about assessment
  6. How might I use the companion book "How to gain the most from PBL"
  7. Literature resources for PBL

This book was published in late 1994, revised in 1995, sent to about 40 educators for comments and is now revised (1996) and available free via the web.

Sample, browse, copy and use any of this book that you want. We would appreciate receiving comments and suggestions for improving it.


The book "Problem-based Learning: Resources to gain the most from PBL" - written for teachers and instructional development people to give the how to details for most issues that students and teachers encounter in implementing a PBL program. This gives nitty-gritty, how-to details. This was initially published as part of the teacher's guide in 1994. It was expanded and revised in 1995 and sent out to about 40 educators for comments and suggestions. The book has been subsequently revised in 1996.

Table of contents for "Problem-based Learning: Resources to gain the most from PBL"

  1. How to... move toward PBL
  2. How to... run the core "processing" skills workshops
  3. How to... run the enrichment "processing" skills workshops
  4. How to... set up courses and course objectives
  5. How to... select instruments for assessment and program evaluation
  6. How to... assess
  7. Table of contents of related books
  8. Author index
  9. Annotated index