Problem-based Learning

The following section summarizes, paraphrases, and uses quotes from this article:

Savery, J. R. (2006). Overview of Problem-based Learning: Definitions and Distinctions. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 1(1).
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    • Problem-based learning is a pedagogical method in which students working as a team to solve complicated, ill-structured problems rooted in the real world.
    • The role of the teacher is that of a manager and a facilitator (this approach is student-centered).
    • The teacher must consider the students ability to work collaboratively, be self directed, and to think critically (and be prepared to teach these skills during the learning experience).
    • Proponents of Problem-based learning point to research that shows it promotes critical thinking skills, communication skills, and cooperation.


Problem-based learning:  A pedagogical approach in which students work on a complicated, ill-structured problem or issue and attempt to develop solutions.


The core idea of problem-based learning is that real-world problems capture students’ interest and provoke serious thinking as the students acquire and apply new knowledge in a problem-solving context. The teacher plays the role of facilitator, working with students to frame worthwhile questions, structuring meaningful tasks, coaching both knowledge development and social skills, and carefully assessing what students have learned from the experience. Typically, the instructor presents a problem to solve (e.g. addressing pollution in the school pond), and in some instances, students have a say in which problem they wish address. The problem must be complicated, and do not typically have one solution. This is a main reason problem-based learning is different than case-based and project-based learning.

With problem-based learning, students are in the driver’s seat and take on a lot of responsibility. The approach is student-centered and they utilize the guidance of an instructor when necessary.

With problem-based learning, it is typical to have a lot of cross-curricular content. For example, if students are investigating pollution in the school pond, they will be looking at issues related to science, but will also bring in English skills when they attempt to communicate on the issue. Also, there may be some involvement of social studies if students investigate laws and regulations surrounding the issue. Math would play a part as well, since students could measure pollution levels and use math to calculate potential costs of implementing a solution.

To implement problem-based learning, it is important to understand the “soft-skills” students must possess. The ability to Communicate, think critically, compromise and collaborate are all essential skills when it comes to problem-based learning. The teacher will need to understand this and will most likely need to spend time teaching and evaluating these skills. It is also important for students to evaluate themselves and their peers and be able to articulate what they have learned and defend the solutions they present. In addition, the instructor will need to anticipate when students will get stuck and what things students will need.

Things the Teacher Should Consider

What resources are available to students (e.g. subject experts, technology, books)?
What will the student produce at the end? How will they represent their learning?
What skills will students need to have in order to successfully work in groups?
How will students be assessed?
What roles will students have when they are working in groups?
What common questions will students ask?


When students use technology as a tool to communicate with others, they take on an active role vs. a passive role of transmitting the information by a teacher, a book, or broadcast. The student is constantly making choices on how to obtain, display, or manipulate information. Technology makes it possible for students to think actively about the choices they make and execute. Every student has the opportunity to get involved either individually or as a group.

Instructor role in Project Based Learning is that of a facilitator. They do not relinquish control of the collaborative classroom or student learning but rather develop an atmosphere of shared responsibility. The Instructor must structure the proposed question/issue so as to direct the student’s learning toward content-based materials. The instructor must regulate student success with intermittent, transitional goals to ensure student projects remain focused and students have a deep understanding of the concepts being investigated. The students are held accountable to these goals through ongoing feedback and assessments. The ongoing assessment and feedback are essential to ensure the student stays within the scope of the driving question and the core standards the project is trying to unpack. According to Andrew Miller of the Buck Institute of Education, formative assessments are used “in order to be transparent to parents and students, you need to be able to track and monitor ongoing formative assessments, that show work toward that standard. ” The instructor uses these assessments to guide the inquiry based learning process and ensure the students have learned the required content. Once the project is finished, the instructor evaluates the finished product and learning that it demonstrates


Students learn to work in a community, thereby taking on social responsibilities. Some of the most significant contributions of problem-based learning have been in schools languishing in poverty stricken areas; when students take responsibility, or ownership, for their learning, their self-esteem soars. It also helps to create better work habits and attitudes toward learning. Although students do work in groups, they also become more independent because they are receiving little instruction from the teacher. With Problem-based learning students also learn skills that are essential in higher education. The students learn more than just finding answers, Problem-based learning allows them to expand their minds and think beyond what they normally would. Students have to find answers to questions and combine them using critically thinking skills to come up with answers.

Opponents of Project Based Learning warn against negative outcomes primarily in projects that become unfocused and tangential arguing that underdeveloped lessons can result in the wasting of precious class time. No one teaching method has been proven more effective than another. Opponents suggest that narratives and presentation of anecdotal evidence included in lecture-style instruction can convey the same knowledge in less class time. Given that disadvantaged students generally have fewer opportunities to learn academic content outside of school, wasted class time due to an unfocused lesson presents a particular problem. Instructors can be deluded into thinking that as long as a student is engaged and doing, they are learning. Ultimately it is cognitive activity that determines the success of a lesson. If the project does not remain on task and content driven the student will not be successful in learning the material. The lesson will be ineffective. A source of difficulty for teachers includes, “Keeping these complex projects on track while attending to students’ individual learning needs requires artful teaching, as well as industrial-strength project management. ” Like any approach, Project Based Learning is only beneficial when applied successfully.