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What is Problem-Based Learning?


Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is an instructional methodology developed by Howard Barrows, MD and colleagues at McMaster University in Canada. Seeking an alternative to top-down educational models that failed to engage students and adequately prepare them for the practice of clinical medicine, educators at McMaster designed a curriculum that posed real-world problems and supported students as they took the lead in acquiring knowledge to solve those problems. Drawing on the constructivist theories of Dewey, Piaget and Vygotsky, the new method presented a messy dilemma and then encouraged students to learn critical content through problem-solving and teamwork. By the 1980’s, Problem-Based Learning was on the rise in a number of medical schools and has since been used in different disciplines and an across different grade levels.


Problem-Based Learning is a methodology that uses problems (sometimes called cases) as a starting point for the acquisition of new knowledge. PBL is designed to create learning through experience and the reinforcement of existing knowledge. Working in teams of 3 - 5, students are presented with an ill-structured problem that requires acquisition of new knowledge to hypothesize a defendable solution.

Case Characteristics

  • Problems are “real-world” in nature for the learners: they can see the need to know the information in their future.
  • Problems activate prior knowledge: learners are able to “hook” new content on some existing experience or information.
  • Problems mimic ways in which new information will be applied later: either in assessment or practice.

Learning Outcomes

PBL creates more effective learners by

  1. acknowledging that learners prefer to participate in decision-making about their learning,
  2. recognizing that learners bring lots of existing knowledge and experience to new learning,
  3. reinforcing that existing knowledge to create a starting point for new knowledge, and
  4. enhancing the integration of new information, resulting in deeper recall.

The goal is to create active learners who

  1. know what they know with confidence,
  2. know what they do NOT know with confidence,
  3. can effectively access new information and integrate it with existing knowledge, and
  4. can apply new information to a problem solution.

Typical PBL Cycle

Introduce the PROBLEM
Put students into groups of three to five. Present the problem, and ask a student to read it aloud. A student (not the teacher) reads the problem aloud to create student ownership of the learning.

List the FACTS
Students will identify what they know (FACTS). Each small group may make their own list or the large group may make a single list.

Students will identify what they do NOT know (NEED TO KNOWS). Each small group should make its own list. Students will decide where to find the information that they need.

Each group will identify what could be going on and create a list of possible hypotheses. Groups will consider what information is necessary to support or refute each hypothesis.

Groups find the new information that they have identified in their NEED TO KNOW LIST and integrate it with what they already know. Re-rank HYPOTHESES Groups will revisit their list pf possible hypotheses. They will select the most viable hypothesis and assemble all supporting information.

Defendable SOLUTIONS
Each group presents and defends the solution identified for the problem.

Why it Works

  • Learning is RELEVANT to how students will encounter content in the REAL WORLD.
  • New knowledge is MORE RETRIEVABLE.
  • The learner can APPLY new knowledge to different situations.
  • Learning is LONG TERM and EMBEDDED rather than based on rote recall.
  • Learning is more ENGAGING and EXCITING.
  • Learning emphasizes MEANING over fact accumulation.
  • Higher RETENTION of new knowledge.
  • Deeper UNDERSTANDING of new knowledge.


"I was trained in PBL when I moved to Winston Salem, NC, and I have been using it in my classroom ever since. It is an excellent way to foster critical thinking. Teaching students to problem-solve provides them with essential 21st century skills." - Denise Brodeur

How Can We Help You

Contact Us:

Mailing Address:
Medical Center Boulevard
Winston Salem, NC 27157

Physical Address:
Bowman Gray Center for Medical Education
475 Vine Street

Winston Salem, NC 27101

Phone: 336.713.2708
Email: wfpbl@wakehealth.edu