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What is Problem-Based Learning (PBL)?

Problem-Based Learning Flow  

Problem-based learning is a learner-centered approach that facilitates research, the integration of theory into practice, and the application of course content to discover and provide suggestions for solutions to a specific defined problem (Savery, 2006).

Problem-based learning was originally developed within the health sciences curricula over 30 years ago in reaction to a boom in required course content and technological advances (Boud & Feletti, 1997). To be concise, problem-based learning promotes the combination of deductive reasoning, theory, practice, and course content to solve a hypothetical and “messy” problem (Savery, 2006).

The development of this method was not without its critics.  Many professionals questioned the reliability and validity of this approach (Savery, 2006).

However, studies came out that not only suggested problem-based learning was equal to traditional approaches (in terms of discipline-required test scores), but there were additional learner benefits to the problem-based learning method as well (Savery, 2006).


Just as effective in teaching course content as “traditional” approaches (Savery, 2006).

Promotes “real world” problem solving skills (Savery, 2006).
Promotes as well as critical and dynamic thinking skills (Savery, 2006)
Promotes student confidence in their decisions (Speaking of Teaching, Winter 2001)
Enhances student motivation and engagement (Savery, 2006; Speaking of Teaching, Winter 2011)
Enables student to direct their own learning (Speaking of Teaching, Winter 2001)


PBL Circles
(Savery, 2006)
Students have responsibility for their own learning
Problem simulations are ill-structured
Problem simulations allow for free inquiry
Learning integrated from various disciplines or subject areas
Collaboration is central to the process
What students learn must be applied to the problem
Closing analysis (by student) is provided
Student self and peer evaluations
Activities must be applied to real world values
Examinations measure problem-based learning objectives
Curriculum is pedagogical and not didactic


Problem-Based Learning bubbles
Select and develop the “ill” problem
Needs to be thoroughly researched and carefully crafted/selected
May survey student topic interests before choosing a problem area
Brainstorming sessions about relevant issues in the field
(See development guidelines below)
Lay ground rules for group participation and project expectations
Procedures to be used
Due Dates
Non-judgmental atmosphere
Consequences of violating the rules
Divide students into groups
Generally 3-8 per group
Assign student seating
Based on groups
Leave space to move around to different groups to answer questions
Familiarize students with available resources
Give an overview of the context and content related to the problem
Very brief
Pass out problem information
Stagger availability of problem information
Students give final report on the solutions, methods, and rationale developed
“What they know, what they learned, and how they performed”
Students provide self and peer assessments
After every problem
At end of the semester
Exam covers content from problem discussions
Developing the “Ill” Problem
(Speaking of Teaching, Winter 2001)                      
Require more information than is initially presented
Have multiple solution pathways                             
Change as new information is presented
Have no singular “right” answer
Generate questions and controversy (and thus interest as well)
Have a complex and open-ended design
Require more collaboration than recall
Focus on content central to the discipline
Final Note on PBL
There are mixed reports on student preferences of PBL
Savery (2006) reported that students generally prefer this approach
However, Duda (2014) reported that as much as 2/3 of his students dropped his class potentially due, in part, to using PBL
Similar Approaches
Some people may refer to PBL differently.  Project-based learning and place-based learning are two similar and overlapping approaches.  For more information about these similar approaches please see the following links:
Cited Resources
Biggs, J. (1999). What the student does: teaching for enhanced learning. Higher Education Research & Development18(1), 57-75.
Boud, D., & Feletti, G. (1997). The challenge of problem-based learning (2nd ed.). London: Kogan Page.
Duda, G. (2014). SoTL '14: Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Conference. St. Louis, MO.
Problem-Based Learning. In Speaking of Teaching. Stanford University. Winter 2001.
Savery, J. R. (2006). Overview of problem-based learning: Definitions and distinctions. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning1(1), 3.
Web Links (Additional Information)
Journal of Problem-Based Learning -
Characteristics of PBL -
Other PBL Resources -

For more information or to contribute to this resource please contact Lynn Bartels or James Beil
Feel free to contact Lynn Bartels at (618) 650-5448 or
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