Problem-Based Learning (#PBL) – Introduction

Note: The following article is a revised version of one I’ve shared in the past about Problem-based Learning. I revised it to match a new site I’m putting together. This installment is the first in several that will appear over the next few days.

Problem-based learning (PBL) uses real-life problems modeled after a contemporary or historical case to engage students as they pursue specified learning outcomes that are in line with academic standards or course objectives (Stepien & Pyke, 1997). Students work through the problem as a stakeholder. The teacher acts as a guide or advisor as students explore the issues involved, formulate questions, conduct research, and consider possible solutions to the problems.

Let’s explore what this looks like…one way to begin with is to look at a problem relevant to learners:


The Problem
The year is 1914. Benedetto Baldoni has left his wife, Vittoria and 2 small children, Basilio and Massimo, behind to search for what he hopes will be a better way of life. Life in his home country has been hard the past 15 years. He knows that they will be reunited some day.

The boat approaches the harbor and the large statue of the lady holding the torch is now visible. This is the symbol he has waited for. It has been a 10-day journey and the conditions on the ship have been deplorable. The food consists of bread and soup once a day.

“Those with papers go to this side,” says the ship’s officer as he points in one direction. Those without are told to stand on the other side and are given signs that are labelled WOP’s (WithOut Papers). Benedetto’s heart is racing. He can’t wait to touch dry land. He clutches the letter from his cousin, Guiseppe Belamori, to his chest.

“Cousin,” Guiseppe writes in his letter, “many opportunities await you, but also many dangers. We will have much to discuss when you arrive.”


Ill-structured problems like this one are messy by nature. They are like the real-life situations students can expect to encounter when they leave school, and they can be great learning opportunities as a form of problem-based learning. 

Problem-based learning (PBL) uses real-life problems modeled after a contemporary or historical case to engage students as they pursue specified learning outcomes that are in line with academic standards or course objectives (Stepien & Pyke, 1997). Students work through the problem as a stakeholder. The teacher acts as a guide or advisor as students explore the issues involved, formulate questions, conduct research, and consider possible solutions to the problems.

Some important questions that helped us get to this problem engagement included:

— What did we really want them to learn?

— Why was it important that they learn this?

— What problems or issues would they be able to resolve with the information?

— What process, if any, did we want them to follow? Was that process governed by policy? Which ones in particular?


These questions help us to first map out what we want students to learn, craft a problem that reflects that and aligns to learning objectives. 
Now that you know what the “end result” is, let’s step through a few actions that will involve problem development and how we introduce it to others. 



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Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin’s blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure


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