Problem-Based Learning Research Paper Starter

Problem-Based Learning

(Research Starters)

The following article is a summary of problem-based learning, an instructional approach first developed in the field of medical education in the late 1970s. Concerned that traditional methods of instruction weren't adequately preparing doctors for their profession, two medical educators developed an alternative approach to teaching, now known as problem-based learning. Although problem-based learning takes many different forms, they often share core characteristics: instruction centered around a 'messy' problem; the utilization of methods that engage students, such as teamwork; and a focus on outcomes such as self-directed and lifelong learning. Within this structure, the role of students, the role of teachers, and the role of assessment are all redefined. Problem-based learning has been shown to improve student and teacher satisfaction, and lead to more self-directed learning, but research suggests student performance is, at best, equal to the performance of students taught in traditional classrooms.

Keywords Constructivism; Formative assessment; Peer assessment; Problem-centered instruction; Self-directed learning; Summative assessment; Teamwork; Traditional teaching methods; Tutor


In the early 1980s, medical educators became concerned that traditional curricula and teaching methods weren't adequately preparing doctors for their profession. The separation of the study of the biological sciences - typically the first two years of medical school - from clinical practice - typically the last two years of medical school - seemed artificial and counterproductive. Many believed doctors graduated from medical school lacking good problem-solving skills, and without the motivation to continue learning on their own. As a result, Barrows and Tamblyn (1980), two professors at McMaster Medical School in Canada, developed an alternative approach to teaching medicine. This alternative approach - called problem-based learning - was quickly adopted by other medical universities, and then spread to the teaching of other professions as well. Problem-based learning is now practiced in postsecondary and secondary schools throughout the United States and around the world.

Although developed in a specific context and for a specific purpose, problem-based learning cannot be narrowly defined. Proponents of the approach stress that "problem-based learning is not to be seen as a particular way or method of learning; rather it is to be seen as learning that has a number of differing forms" (Savin-Baden & Major, 2004, p. 4). Others have argued that it should be thought of as a general educational strategy or philosophy, as opposed to a teaching method or approach. Even Howard Barrows, one of the founders of problem-based learning, argues that it must "be considered a genus from which there are many species and subspecies" (cited in Savin-Baden & Major, 2004, p. 5).

Nevertheless, problem-based learning methods share several core criteria. Walton and Matthews (1989), for example, define problem-based learning according to three characteristics, none of which, they argue, compromises the variety and complexity of the approach (as cited in Savin-Baden & Major, 2004). The three criteria are: the organization of the curriculum around a problem as opposed to a content area; the utilization of methods that engage students, such as small groups, tutorial instruction, and active learning; and a focus on outcomes such as critical thinking and self-directed learning. Boud (1985) adds several other identifying characteristics - although these may or may not be present in all forms of problem-based learning - such as interdisciplinary study, an emphasis on peer and self-assessment as opposed to teacher-assessment, and a focus on process as opposed to knowledge acquisition.

Although the lack of a single, fixed, agreed-upon definition of problem-based learning makes it difficult to describe exactly what problem-based learning is, there is less ambiguity in defining what it is not. In short, problem-based learning developed in opposition to traditional teaching methods, with some arguing that the shift from one to the other is nothing less than a 'paradigm shift' (Uden & Beaumont, 2006). Traditional methods are typically lecture-based, and teachers are viewed as experts transmitting knowledge to others. Accordingly, students are viewed as passive recipients of knowledge, the measure of their learning the ability to recall the information imparted to them at a later point in time. As Uden and Beaumont (2006) argue, "While this may have worked in the past, this method of learning is no longer adequate…" in today's world (p. 27).

While problem-based learning is a relatively recent development, especially when compared to traditional methods of teaching, it nonetheless has strong historical roots in a variety of philosophical perspectives. Savin-Baden and Major (2004) outline connections to at least eight distinct philosophies - sometimes competing philosophies - including naturalism, metaphysics, rationalism, empiricism, phenomenology, positivism, existentialism, and postmodernism. From naturalists, for example, problem-based learning draws upon the notion of developing knowledge through critical questioning. With existentialists such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, problem-based learning advocates share the idea that education should empower students to become free and authentic selves. "Nietzsche believed no one could educate anyone else, that education must necessarily be self-education" (Savin-Baden & Major, 2004, p. 15). And postmodernists emphasize fragmentation and ambiguity - the rejection of objective truths and grand narratives - in much the same way problem-based learning rejects the idea of one 'right' solution to any problem.

In addition to its philosophical roots, problem-based learning has a foundation in modern theories of learning as well. It is more closely aligned with some theories than others - particularly those with cognitive or constructivist leanings - but Savin-Baden and Major (2004) argue it shares basic principles with even the earliest and simplest behavioral theories of learning. Behaviorists Thorndike and Hull, for example, emphasized the importance of feedback, goal-setting, and motivation, all of which manifest themselves in various forms of problem-based learning. Cognitive theorists emphasize the importance of pre-existing knowledge and cognitive structures in the learning process; similarly, the success of problem-based learning depends, in part, on what students 'bring' to the problem. Humanists view learning as a personal process that involves the whole person - intellectual, emotional, and spiritual - the end result of which is self-actualization. Problem-based learning, too, is designed to give students the freedom to explore and maximize their true potential.

While problem-based learning may draw upon the wisdom of many different learning theories, some argue it is most heavily rooted in constructivism. Hendry, Frommer, and Walker (1999) write "recently it has been suggested that constructivist teaching-learning approaches underpin problem-based learning" (p. 360). They go on to define constructivism as "the fundamental assumption that knowledge cannot exist outside our minds. Knowledge cannot be given from one mind to another. New knowledge is constructed or created within individuals through experience" (p. 359). In other words, it is our interpretation of external reality that matters most. Translated into practice, constructivism supports three instructional principles: learning occurs through interactions with the environment; cognitive conflict is the stimulus for learning; and knowledge evolves through the negotiation of meaning with others (Savery & Duffy, 1998).


In order to better understand how problem-based learning might be implemented in the classroom, a closer look at the types of problems that facilitate problem-based learning, the role of students and teachers, and the ways in which students can be evaluated and assessed is needed.

Developing Problems

According to many educators, the success of problem-based learning as an instructional method hinges on the appropriateness of the problem. More specifically, the problem must be messy, ill-structured, and not amenable to a single solution. Slavkin (2004) writes, "Using ill-structured problems is the key element of problem-based learning. Problems should not be the traditional issues that were written on the board or that are easy enough for everyone in the class to understand. Rather, these are real-world problems that students will be faced with outside the classroom; they are likely to be issues or events facing their local communities and are unlikely to be solved through only one process or solution" (p. 78).

Amador, Miles, and Peters (2006) provide guidance for teachers on the development of good problems, with a specific focus on the content, the story, and the structure. They argue good problem building begins in much the same way other instructional materials are prepared, by first thinking about what students should learn. Thus, although often criticized for emphasizing process at the expense of content, advocates of problem-based learning stress the importance of both. Savin-Baden and Major (2004) suggest, for example, "that when designing problems it is essential to consider the balance between discipline...

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