kidsProblem-based learning (PBL) experiences begin with a problem. The problem should be one that students are apt to face in the future, or at least similar in context to ones students will encounter in their planned careers. The subject matter in the course or class should be organized around the problem rather than into separate disciplines. In working through the problem, learning occurs mostly within small groups, rather than in large, lecture-oriented assemblies. Within the small groups, individuals assume the major responsibility for their own learning and indeed, for their own instruction.

 Students must first encounter a complex, vague situation ripe for problem-finding. An ill-structured problem is recommended since these are complex, multifaceted ones that have no single best answer or solution. The documentation accompanying such problems, the Meet-the-Problem document(-s), may be vague or ambiguous, with missing details so that insufficient information is present to develop a solution or even to define the nature of the problem. Such ill-structured problems best resemble the nature of problems as they occur in the real world.

Once the problem is presented, students work in small groups to separate known facts from unknown issues, utilizing "Know" and "Need to Know" boards. During this process, the problem becomes more defined and a problem statement or research question is written. Data collection (by individuals or groups) begins and group analysis of these data is 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 with evaluation.


Problem-based learning began in the education of medical students. Howard S. Barrows, a physician and neuropsychologist, is most frequently attributed with its invention and implementation. Barrows noted that medical students experienced difficulty in applying their basic science knowledge in order to make diagnoses based upon patient symptoms. Barrows was concerned that medical schools emphasized the delivery of content and neglected to teach students how to apply scientific knowledge to diagnose conditions.

Barrows decided to redesign the curriculum of medical school with the objective of addressing the perceived problem. He investigated the clinical reasoning of practicing physicians by videotaping them interacting with patients. He observed that seasoned diagnosticians immediately generated a number of diagnoses based on very little hard information and then used the remainder of the patient interview to substantiate, eliminate, or generate alternative diagnoses. The thought processes of these diagnosticians were "circular, overlapping webs of information" which contrasted sharply with the linear, sequential delivery of information in the medical school classroom. Barrows determined that this type of reasoning, this cognitive process, was the integral skill that medical school curriculum failed to convey. This, then, became his objective: to find a way to incorporate the teaching of clinical reasoning skills into the curricula. This objective led to the development of problem-based learning.

Since Barrows' first implementation of problem-based learning, this instructional strategy has been adopted by disciplines other than medicine. Problem-based learning can now frequently be found in engineering schools, educational leadership programs, business school curricula, and has been adapted for use in elementary, middle school, and secondary classrooms.


"Problem-based learning" has a familiar ring to many science educators. Problem solving techniques, as the "scientific method," have been part of science instruction for at least three quarters of a century. Other terms used to describe problem solving include: scientific thinking, critical thinking, inquiry skills, and science processes.

One model used to explain the PBL process is that of writing a dissertation. In such an activity, the learning certainly begins with a problem. The student is likely to face such a problem again, as the whole purpose of a dissertation is to allow the student to gain experience within a chosen field. What the student learns from the dissertation study is centered around the research question. While this research question may be located within a particular discipline, skills from other disciplines will be utilized in the study, as mathematics and language arts. The student is expected to be autonomous in this activity, therefore the major responsibility for learning and instruction does fall to the student. The learning occurs primarily within a small group consisting of the student and a directing faculty committee.