The steps in the PBL process begin, of course, with a problem. This problem becomes more defined as students separate known facts about the problem topic from unknown issues. A problem statement or research question is written. Data collection begins and group analysis of these data are now incorporated into the process. After several cycles of data collection and analysis, possible solutions to the problem are formulated. The potential solutions are examined in the light of all the evidence collected and the most viable solution is then selected. The PBL experience culminates with the public sharing of the solution and some type of evaluation. This evaluation may be formal or informal; self-, peer-, or instructor-initiated; written or oral.


The student in a PBL classroom begins with a problem. This is one way in which the traditional classroom differs from the PBL classroom. In the traditional classroom, instruction usually comes before problem presentation. In this classroom, the usual order of operation is theory, then practice. The problems in traditional classrooms, when presented, may be in the form of exercises (as math problems which reinforce a particular concept), or in the form of experiments (which illustrate a scientific principle). There is usually a "right" answer for such problems, so students are evaluated on the accuracy of their responses. That is, they are evaluated on how well their responses match an expert's answers.

Alternatively, PBL students are presented with a problem before any instruction is given. The problem is meant to engage the student as an active participant in the learning process. The problem serves as a focal point for knowledge acquisition and application and drives the instruction. PBL problems are not simple exercises to illuminate one particular concept. Since the problems have more than one correct solution, students are not judged on how well their answers match an expert's, but on the viability of the solution. They are required to justify their reasons for choosing one particular solution over another.

Characteristics of Problems

Problems presented to students in the PBL classroom should be complex and should attempt to exemplify real world scenarios. PBL problems should be chosen from topics that are concrete enough for students to investigate thoroughly, but narrow enough for students to grasp important details. They should also be of sufficient complexity to lack obvious solutions. They should not contain factors which give too much information about the problem. PBL problems should be "ill-defined" or "ill-structured." Some authors divide PBL problems into "high ground" and "swampy" problems. High ground problems are of a technical nature, where a well-rehearsed procedure for solving is available. These problems should not be used in the PBL experience. Swampy problems are more complex and occur when one only vaguely understands the situation and has no clear way of knowing what would be better, and lacks procedures for addressing obstacles. Swampy problems have no single best way to be tackled and no single right answer. Students may never be one hundred percent sure of making the correct solution selection, since some information is always missing.

These ill-structured, or swampy, problems best resemble the nature of problems as they occur in the real world. These reality-based problems tend to be more interesting, and hence more motivating to students. Authentic, real world problems may be ripped from today's headlines. Such simulated problems may be created by instructors or may be ones that have occurred in the past. With both types, students can feel they are focusing on real problems which need solutions.

Real world problems are inherently interdisciplinary and will guide students to explore more than one academic area.

Problem Selection

Who will write the problems? What are some sources of PBL problems? What is the purpose of the problem?

Problems may be selected by curriculum designers or by students. It takes considerable study and scholarship to put together a problem in a simulation format and to provide evaluative tools. Teachers may develop the problems used in their courses. However, writing PBL problems may call for specialized skills that the teacher does not possess. A team approach to writing PBL problems may work best.

Ideas for problems must be generated. The best problems are those that arise from the personal or professional experience of the teacher. The best problems usually develop from real situations or are written to reflect a real situation. It is important that students "own" the problem; they must perceive it as real. Sources for real life problems include magazine and newspaper articles, graphs, visual media, or documents. Many times, such artifacts portray a discrepant event in order to stimulate student interest. Problems involving local issues tend to be emotionally charged and provide ready access to primary source material. The problem should be one that affects large numbers of people as this type problem has the greatest impact.

Problem Presentation

Once a problem is selected, it must be presented to students. Lengths of presentations vary as do formats for presentation. Problems may be presented in written or computer-based formats. They may be presented as vignettes with limited amounts of information, as filmed episodes, as elaborate simulations of companies and industries, or as current situations reported in the press. The reality of the situation will be enhanced if the problem is presented to students in the same manner in which they would encounter such a problem in the real world.

Writing such problems can be a painstaking activity since the goal of the problems should be to direct students into specific content areas. When students analyze the problems and attempt to formulate solutions, they find their prior knowledge on the subject insufficient to formulate a viable solution. The questions that remain unanswered serve as guides for independent and self-directed learning. Ineffective problems will lead students to select learning goals other than those designed to be selected by the teacher. Other problem goals include helping students learn ideas or techniques, encouraging students to pursue a particular field of study, and representing a typical problem faced by a profession. Problems may be presented because they are intrinsically interesting or important. They may be used to stimulate creative thinking processes, or to enculturate students into the work place environment.


The time has come to examine the problem more deeply. The students must ascertain what is already known about the problem and what unknown issues may need to be researched. In PBL, the problem is presented "cold." Students do not know what the problem will be until they are confronted with the presentation materials. The next step is to begin to make sense of the circumstances related in the problem. Three questions are used to do this "What do we know?" "What do we need to know?" and "What are we going to do?" Once facts are listed and prior knowledge shared, students begin to identify "learning objectives" which are unresolved issues, questions arising from issues, or knowledge deficiencies of the group. These learning needs will drive the next stage of the PBL process.


Following the listing of learning objectives, the most common course of action is a division of labor within the group, as students choose a particular area in which to concentrate their research efforts. Objectives may be divided among students, so no two students have the same objective or every student can research every objective. Students may define central and peripheral issues and decide that every student will research central issues and divide up peripheral issues among group members. Once the division of labor is completed, it is time for the students to answer the question "What are we going to do?" The answer is usually for students to perform research, which is an independent study, inquiry-based, self-directed activity. Students may do experiments, make observations, figure calculations, talk to experts, interview resource persons, consult books, articles, films, newspapers or news shows. Technology can provide support for this information gathering phase of the PBL process.


The purpose of all the information gathering and research is, of course, to shed light on some aspect of the problem. The results of each individual's research must be communicated to the group or team. During this phase, informal interactions between group members predominate. The group decides whether the research results do contribute to the understanding of the problem, or do not. If they don't, the original learning issues may be refined or rewritten. Then students return to the research phase to gather more information on the altered issues. This two-step phase of independent study and collaboration is continued until every member of the group is satisfied that the problem has been sufficiently explored. The number of iterations needed depends of the complexity of the problem and/or the learning issues. This process is a chance for students to apply knowledge and skills recently acquired back to the problem. In this manner, learning is reinforced and the effectiveness of the learning is evaluated. Knowledge gained in this manner is contextualized and organized around problems, rather than into disciplines. This approach helps to build a "community of learners" and engages the students in collaboration with group members - a real world activity.


Once knowledge is accumulated through research activities and then shared among group members, the group must generate a solution, present the solution to an audience, and be evaluated. Students must make generalizations based on the similarities and differences between the problem under discussion and the information found in the research materials.


After analyzing possible solutions and choosing the most viable, students present the solution to an audience. The form of the presentation may be a written report, an oral presentation, a group paper, a steering committee report or a dramatization. In this presentation, the solution is made public and the reasoning behind the solution is made apparent in order to support the selection of this particular solution.


Participant input to the evaluation of PBL is important. Whether student performance or program effectiveness is the central issue of the evaluation, assessment activities are an integral part of the PBL experience. They are the culminating activity of PBL.

In participant assessment, evaluation can be performed by the student, by a peer or by the teacher. Student self-evaluations are of utmost importance. Students may also evaluate each other. Domains to evaluate are self-directed learning, problem solving skills, skills as a group member, and solution viability.

Program effectiveness may be assessed by examining the congruence between the goals of the curriculum and the goals of the participants. A qualitative framework or critiquing guide may be used to evaluate PBL programs.


Problem-based learning involves the development and practice of problem-solving strategies. Using this framework, educators present ill-structured, complex problems to students. Students work in small groups to separate known facts from learning issues and then perform research activities to make the unknown, known. Groups analyze the results of such research, formulate solutions, and present solutions to a public. Evaluation in the PBl process may involve student assessment or process assessment.

While the steps of PBL appear to be very linear, it is clear from the literature that implementation of these procedures may be cyclical, involving several iterations of certain steps. This graphic (see below) summarizes the steps of problem-based learning found within the current literature and emphasizes these multiple iterations.

The author challenges fellow educators to adopt problem-based learning, a promising instructional strategy which encourages the development of problem solving skills in our students and which allows them to grapple with authentic problems of practice while still in an educative setting.


Outline: Meet the Problem (top position). List Known Facts (child directly under 1st). Research Unknowns and List Unknowns (children of 2nd). Generate Possible Solutions (child of 1st) Choose Most Viable Solution (child under 1st). Report Solution (child of 1st)