What is PBL?

Problem Based Learning (PBL) is an educational method that engages students in inquiry-based real world problem-solving. Used extensively in medical education since the 1970s, PBL is an instructional approach that teaches students “how to learn” by collaboratively solving authentic industry problems. While already adopted in fields including business and law, it is only beginning to emerge in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.

PBL is an exciting and challenging alternative to traditional lecture-based instruction that provides students with learning experiences that engage them directly in the types of problems and situations they will encounter in the 21st century workplace. Students of PBL become active participants in their own learning as they encounter new and unfamiliar learning situations where problem parameters are ill-defined and ambiguous — just like in the real world.

When utilizing the PBL approach, learning occurs collaboratively in small groups, problems are presented before any formal preparation has occurred — the problem itself drives the learning — and new information is acquired via self-directed learning.

Research shows that compared with traditional lecture-based instruction, PBL improves:

  • Student understanding and retention of ideas.
  • Critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
  • Motivation and learning engagement.
  • The ability to work in teams.
  • The ability to transfer skills and knowledge to new situations.

The PBL Challenge model is designed to scaffold student learning by acclimating students to PBL through their own learned experience. Instructors have the option to choose an implementation approach to PBL that range from the structured (entirely instructor-led, least student autonomy), to guided (instructor-guided, increased student autonomy) and open-ended (instructor as facilitator, most student autonomy) levels based on students’ experience with PBL.

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