Problem Based-Learning: History, Definition, and Procedure

History of Problem-Based Learning

In discussing the origins of PBL, Boud and Feletti (1997) stated:

PBL, as it is generally known today, evolved from innovative health sciences curricula introduced in North America over 30 years ago. Medical education, with its intensive pattern of basic science lectures followed by an equally exhaustive clinical teaching program, was rapidly becoming an ineffective and inhumane way to prepare students, given the explosion in medical information and new technology and the rapidly changing demands of future practice. Medical faculty at McMaster University in Canada introduced the tutorial process not only as a specific instructional method (Barrows & Tamblyn, 1980) but also as central to their philosophy for structuring an entire curriculum promoting student-centered, multidisciplinary education and lifelong learning in professional practice. (p. 2)

Barrows (1994; 1996) recognized that the process of patient diagnosis (doctors’ work) relied on a combination of a hypothetical-deductive reasoning process and expert knowledge in multiple domains. Teaching discipline-specific content (anatomy, neurology, pharmacology, psychology) separately, using a “traditional” lecture approach, did little to provide learners with a context for the content or its clinical application.

Thus, during the 1980s and 1990s, the PBL approach was adopted in other medical schools and became an accepted instructional approach across North America and Europe. Then, the adoption of PBL expanded into elementary, middle, high, university, and professional schools (Torp & Sage, 2002).

  • The University of Delaware ( has an active PBL program and conducts annual training institutes for instructors wanting to become tutors.
  • Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama ( has incorporated PBL into various undergraduate programs within the Schools of Arts and Sciences, Business, Education, Nursing, and Pharmacy.
  • The Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy ( has provided high school students with a complete PBL curriculum since 1985. It serves thousands of students and teachers as a center for research on problem-based learning.
  • The Problem-based Learning Institute (PBLI) ( has developed curricular materials (i.e., problems) and teacher-training programs in PBL for all core disciplines in high school (Barrows & Kelson, 1993).
  • PBL is used in multiple domains of medical education (dentists, nurses, paramedics, radiologists) and content domains as diverse as MBA programs (Stinson & Milter, 1996), higher education (Bridges & Hallinger, 1996), chemical engineering (Woods, 1994), economics (Gijselaers, 1996), architecture (Kingsland, 1989), and pre-service teacher education (Hmelo-Silver, 2004).

This list illustrates the multiple contexts in which the PBL instructional approach is utilized.

Definition of Problem-Based Learning

Barrows (1986) defines PBL as a learning method based on the principle of using problems as a starting point for acquiring new knowledge. Problem-solving is used to achieve learning objectives and develop competencies and skills transferable to professional practice.

These problems are characterized by their originality and missing data or pieces that the student must discover, search, and find; they are partially defined and divergent; that is, they do not have a single correct solution.

Therefore, this PBL methodology changes the role of the student from a passive receiver to an active, responsible, and autonomous role. Moreover, it changes the role of the teacher from the transmitter of knowledge to a guide who provides support and appropriate help to achieve the learning objectives.

Characteristics of Problem-Based Learning

PBL is an instructional learner-centered approach that empowers learners to conduct research, integrate theory and practice, and apply knowledge and skills to develop a viable solution to a defined problem.

Several scholars have described the characteristics and features required for a successful PBL approach in the teaching-learning process.

  • Duch, Groh, and Allen (2001): the specific skill used in PBL includes the ability to think critically, analyze and solve complex, real-world problems, to find, evaluate, and use appropriate learning resources; to work cooperatively; to demonstrate effective communication skills, and to use content knowledge and intellectual skills to become continual learners.
  • Torp and Sage (2002) described that in PBL, students as engaged problem solvers, seeking to identify the root problem and the conditions needed for a good solution and becoming self-directed learners.
  • Hmelo-Silver (2004) described in PBL that the students work in collaborative groups to identify what they need to learn to solve a problem, engage in self-directed learning, apply their new knowledge to the problem, and reflect on what they learned and the effectiveness of the strategies employed.
  • On the website for the PBL Initiative (, Barrows (nd) describes in detail a set of PBL characteristics such as learner-centered approach; PBL is a learner-centered approach—students engage with the problem with whatever their current knowledge/experience affords. Learner motivation increases when responsibility for the solution to the problem and the process rests with the learner (Savery & Duffy, 1995), and student ownership for learning increases (Savery, 1998; 1999).

Furthermore, another characteristic is collaboration. PBL provides a format for the development of collaboration skills. During a PBL session, the teacher will ask questions of all members to ensure that information has been shared between members regarding the group’s problem.

Procedures of Problem-Based Learning

Barrows (1989) Model

The central part of the Barrows model (Barrows, 1989), following setting the climate and defining the problem, summarizes the discussion of the PBL tutorial under the following headings.

Barrows (1989) Model

Students using this model may summarise their discussion under these headings on one shared Learning environment, a whiteboard, or a flipchart. In addition, students will have a second shared learning environment for other work on the problem.

Camp, Kaar, Molen & Schmidt (2014) Model

Another model for scaffolding the PBL process is the seven-jump approach.

Camp, Kaar, Molen & Schmidt (2014) Model
Step 1: clarifying unfamiliar terms

Unclear terms and concepts in the problem description are clarified so that every group member understands the information.

The teacher should: facilitates the group members to understand the unfamiliar terms related to the problems.

Step 2: problem definition

The problem is defined in the form of one or more questions. The group has to agree upon the phenomena that need to be explained.

The teacher should: stimulate group members to formulate possible problem definitions.

Step 3: brainstorm

The preexisting knowledge of group members is activated and determined. This process entails the generation of as many explanations, ideas, and hypotheses as possible. The ideas of all group members are collected without critical analysis.

The teacher should:

  • encourage each member of the group to contribute one by one.
  • ask to summarize at the end of the brainstorm.
  • makes sure that a critical analysis of all contributions is postponed until step four.
Step 4: analyzing the problem

Explanations and hypotheses of the group members are discussed in depth and are systematically analyzed. Ideas from the brainstorming are ordered and related to each other.

The teacher should:

  • makes sure that all points from the brainstorming are discussed.
  • stimulates group members to promote depth in the discussion.
  • makes sure the group does not stray from the subject.
  • stimulates group members to find relations between topics.
  •  stimulates all group members to contribute.
Step 5: formulating learning goals

Based on contradictions, obscurities, and ambiguities from the problem analysis, questions have been formulated that form the foundation for the study activities of the group members. In short, it is determined what knowledge the group lacks, and learning goals are formulated on these topics.

The teacher should:

  • Stimulate members of the group to formulate possible learning goals.
  • Make sure all obscurities and contradictions from the problem analysis have been converted into learning goals.
  • Make sure everyone is satisfied with the learning goals.
Step 6: self-study

In the self-study phase, group members search for relevant literature to answer the learning goals questions. After studying this literature, group members prepare to report their findings in the next tutorial meeting.

The teacher should:

  • stimulates all group members to find out the answer to learning goals from relevant literature.
  • make sure the group has a conclusion of each learning goal with a summary.
Step 7: Reporting

After reporting what sources group members have used in their self-study activities, a discussion of the learning goals is based on the studied literature. Group members try to synthesize what they have found in different sources.

The teacher should:

  • encourage the students to report their findings based on their self-study activities in their group.
  • stimulates the group members to synthesize what they have found.
  • encourage the group member to present their finding in the classroom.

References & Recommended Reading

  • Barrows, H. (1989). The tutorial process. Springfield, Illinois: Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.
  • Barrows, H. S. (1996). Problem‐based learning in medicine and beyond: A brief overview. New directions for teaching and learning1996(68), 3–12.
  • Barrows, H. S., & Kelson, A. (1993). Problem-based learning in secondary education and the Problem-based Learning Institute (Monograph). Springfield: Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.
  • Barrows, H. S. (1994). Practice-based learning: Problem-based learning applied to medical education. Springfield: Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.
  • Boud, D., & Feletti, G. (1997). The challenge of problem-based learning (2nd ed.). London: Kogan Page.
  • Bridges, E.M., & Hallinger, P. (1996). Problem-based learning in leadership education. In L. Wilkerson & W. Gijselaers (Eds.), Bringing problem-based learning to higher education: Theory and practice. New Directions in Teaching and Learning, No. 68 (pp. 53-61). San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
  • Camp, G., van het Kaar, A., van der Molen, H., & Schmidt, H. (2014). PBL: Step by step: A guide for students and tutors. Institute of Social Sciences Erasmus. University of Roldan.
  • Gijselaers, W. H. (1996). Connecting problem-based practices with educational theory. In L. Wilkerson & W. Gijselaers (Eds.), Bringing problem-based learning to higher education: Theory and practice. New Directions in Teaching and Learning. No. 68, Winter 1996 (pp. 13-21). San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
  • Hmelo-Silver, C. E. (2004). Problem-based learning: What and how do students learn? Educational Psychology Review, 16(3), 235-266.
  • Duch, B. J., Groh, S. E., & Allen, D. E. (2001). Why problem-based learning? A case study of institutional change in undergraduate education. In B. Duch, S. Groh, & D. Allen (Eds.), The power of problem-based learning (pp. 3-11). Sterling, VA: Stylus.
  • Kingsland, A. J. (1989). The assessment process in architecture at Newcastle. In B. Wallis (Ed.), Problem-based learning: The Newcastle workshop. Proceedings of the ten-year anniversary conference (pp. 121-130) Faculty of Medicine, University of Newcastle.
  • Savery, J.R., & Duffy, T.M. (1995). Problem-based learning: An instructional model and its constructivist framework. In B. Wilson (Ed.), Constructivist learning environments: Case studies in instructional design (pp. 135–148). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.
  • Savery, J. R. (1998). Fostering ownership with computer-supported collaborative writing in higher education. In C. J. Bonk & K. S. King (Eds.), Electronic collaborators: Learner-centered technologies for literacy, apprenticeship, and discourse (pp. 103–127). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Savery, J. R. (1999). Enhancing motivation and learning through collaboration and the use of problems. In S. Fellows & K. Ahmet (Eds.), Inspiring students: Case studies in motivating the learner (pp. 33–42). London: Kogan Page.
  • Stinson, J. E., & Milter, R. G. (1996). Problem-based learning in business education: Curriculum design and implementation issues. In L. Wilkerson & W. H. Gijselaers (Eds.), Bringing problem-based learning to higher education: Theory and practice. New Directions For Teaching and Learning Series, No. 68 (pp. 32-42). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
  • Torp, L., & Sage, S. (2002). Problems as possibilities: Problem-based learning for K-16 education (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  • Woods, D. R. (1994). Problem-based learning: How to gain the most from PBL. Waterdown, Ontario: Donald R. Woods.
Tenry Colle
Tenry Colle

Hi! My name is A. Tenry Lawangen Aspat Colle. I am a motivated and resourceful English educator. In addition, as the owner of @rymari.translation17 has shaped me to be a punctual and dependable translator of Indonesian to English and vice versa.

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