Consider the solving of this
problem from a Criminology course:
Detective K needs to identify exactly
where the 1.7 m suspect, Bozo, was standing when a shot was
fired. The bullet was located in a telephone pole at an angle
of 60° with an apparent dent in a metal stop sign 2.3
m above the street. Bozo claims that he was standing facing
the stop sign but 50 m away. The bullet hole was 3.2 m off
the ground. The telephone pole is 10 m away.
The Subject-Based Learning Approach
In subject-based learning, students start their learning
by being told what they need to know. For example, for the
criminology course in reference, students will need to learn
Geometry, Physics, Criminology, Psychology, Ballistics and
Materials, etc. And at the end of learning all these, they
will be given the problem to solve. However, by then, they
would have learnt too much and lost sight of the relevance
of all the individual subjects and their integration.
The Problem-Based Learning Approach
In problem-based learning, the problem is given at the beginning
of the course. Being confronted by the problems, students
would realise that they need to acquire enough Geometry, Physics,
Criminology, Psychology, Ballistics and Materials, etc. in
order to solve the problem. Hence, lateral integration takes
place right from the start and there is progressive layering
as they move on to solve further problems. As seen here, PBL
is suitable for the teaching of Criminology.
PBL in Non-Health-Science Disciplines
PBL has been implemented either partially or fully in the
curricula of these non-health-science disciplines by various
educational institutions in Australia, Canada, and the United
States of America:
- Economics and Business
a) Mechanical Engineering
b) Chemical Engineering
- Social Studies (renamed as ‘Issue-Based Learning’,
in New South Wales, Australia)
- Legal Studies (PBL has been used in law for a long time)
- History and the Arts
- High School Education (PBL advocates in Dentistry and
Medicine have provided training to high school teachers
to apply PBL to secondary education.)
Some actual studies of PBL in use are discussed below:
Issue-Based Learning (IBL) in Social Studies at University
of New South Wales, Australia
In the first year, students of Social Studies are introduced
to IBL to provide them with a broad introduction to social
work issues, collaborative learning, the opportunity to question
their knowledge and values, and increased responsibility for
their own learning. The IBL process begins with a trigger
case, video and news clippings, and two small-group tutorials,
followed by one large-group presentation the week after. There
is also a specific reading list that guides the students to
the appropriate references.
The conclusion from this IBL experience is that IBL is resource-intensive
in terms of physical arrangement and manpower. The state of
preparedness of students also poses a problem. However, it
is found that in IBL, there is an increased integration of
knowledge, skills and values and an increased competence and
confidence in social work amongst students. The implementation
of IBL in Social Studies in University of New South Wales
is so successful that the other universities of New South
Wales have also adopted IBL for their Social Studies curriculum.
PBL in Engineering (Australia and Canada)
Other actual experiences include those of Australian and
Canadian universities’ implementations of PBL in their
Engineering curricula. Both groups found that students enjoyed
the course more and the time spent on their studies in both
PBL and traditional approaches was the same. However in PBL,
the range of final marks is small as there is less motivation
to excel, because students share their workload. Comparatively
in PBL, the coverage of material is less, yet topics covered
are dealt with more depth. There are also positive responses
from the industry. In McMaster University’s case, the
industry liked its Chemical Engineering graduates so much
that it has pressurised other Canadian universities to introduce
PBL in their Engineering curricula.
PBL in Architecture (University of Newcastle, Australia)
In University of Newcastle, Australia, the Department of
Architecture found that their structured lectures and design
studio session were lacking in integration. 100% PBL was then
implemented for their entire 5-year programme. In Year 1,
a series of problems lasting four weeks each are given to
students. In Years 2–4, students deal with one major
problem lasting the whole year and shorter problems of varying
length. In Year 5, students get to select their own problem
and deal with it the whole year.
Throughout the 5-year programme, seminars and short lectures
are held between problems. These seminars and short lectures
are driven by the problems. With a learning issue on hand,
each student would want to learn more about the various subjects
in order to solve the problems. Hence, students are found
to be more attentive and motivated to learn.
Variations to PBL
There are variations of PBL. For example, in implementing
PBL in large classes, multiple small groups are formed with
a faculty member as a ‘roving facilitator’ who
may or may not be a content-expert. Sometimes owing to a shortage
of staff, this ‘roving facilitator’ may be an
experienced senior undergraduate, with senior students taking
to lead groups. And instead of large time-consuming problems,
those used are short structured ones.
Instead of presentations of solutions in small groups, there
are also large-group presentations. Another variation is the
presence of a reading list to guide students’ search
for information. Another hybrid is a mixture of PBL tutorials,
lectures, and seminars. Or instead of PBL for the whole course,
it is only implemented in research projects where students
define their own problem and research it and solve it.
PBL vs. the Traditional Method
As the medical sciences introduced PBL into their curricula
earlier than the non-health sciences, many of the survey and
research findings available are based on PBL in the medical
sciences. In summary, the findings are as follows:
- Mastery of content is equivalent to that in traditional
courses in short term studies (Aspy et al., 1993).
- PBL students scored higher in clinically-oriented exams
(Mennin et al., 1993; Vernon & Blake, 1993).
- Better clinical performance in residency programmes (Mennin
et al., 1993).
- PBL students scored higher in problem solving, self evaluation,
and data gathering in behavioural science (Albanese &
Mitchell, 1993; Gallagher et al., 1992).
- Standardised tests favour traditional teaching (Vernon
& Blake, 1993).
- Content knowledge of students in PBL is not as good as
those in the traditional method (Albanese & Mitchell,
1993; Vernon, 1995).
- Knowledge gaps in PBL-trained peers (Albanese & Mitchell,
- PBL students fare better in long-term retention (Farnsworth,
- Improved attitudes (Bridges & Halliger, 1991; Pincus,
- Friendlier educational climate (Schmidt et al., 1992).
Is PBL Suitable Only for the Health Sciences Curricula?
Finally, the question of whether PBL is only suitable for
the health sciences curricula has to be answered. However,
I believe that the reader would be in a better position to
answer this question, for you would know your curriculum and
subject better. A word of caution, however, is that coming
from a ‘do’ discipline myself, our faculty decided
that we should not implement PBL fully for all our courses
lest we produce a dentist who knows a patient’s problem
and how it can be treated theoretically, but who does not
have the necessary skills to treat the patient. So in ‘do’
disciplines like Architecture, Dentistry, and Engineering,
you will find that you still need technical and laboratory
classes to train the students. Otherwise, you will have good
thinkers, but not good practitioners and doers.
Albanese, M., & Mitchell, S. (1993). ‘Problem-Based
Learning: A Review of the Literature on Its Outcomes and Implementation
Issues’. Academic Medicine. 68(1), 52–81.
Aspy, D.N., Aspy, C.B., & Quimby, P.M. (1993). ‘What
Doctors Can Teach Teachers about Problem-Based Learning’. Educational Leadership. 50(7), 22–24.
Bridges, E.M., & Hallinger, P. (1991, September). Problem-Based
Learning in Medical and Managerial Education. Paper presented
for the Cognition and School Leadership Conference of the
National Center for Educational Leadership and the Ontario
Institute for Studies in Education, Nashville, TN.
Farnsworth, C.C. (1994). ‘Using Computer Simulations
in Problem-Based Learning’. In Orey, M. (Ed.), Proceedings
of the Thirty-fifth ADCIS Conference. Nashville, TN:
Gallagher, S.A., Stepien, W.J., & Rosenthal, H. (1992).
‘The Effects of Problem-Based Learning on Problem Solving’. Gifted Child Quarterly. 36(4), 195–200.
Mennin, S.P., Friedman, M., Skipper, B., Kalishman, S.,
& Snyder, J. (1993). ‘Performances on the NBME I,
II, and III by Medical Students in the Problem-Based Learning
and Conventional Tracks at the University of New Mexico’. Academic Medicine. 68(8), 616–624.
Pincus, K.V. (1995). ‘Introductory Accounting: Changing
the First Course’. New Directions for Teaching and
Learning. 61, 88–98.
Schmidt, H.G., Henny, P.A., & de Vries, M. (1992). ‘Comparing
Problem-Based with Conventional Education: A Review of the
University of Limburg Medical School Experiment’. Annals
of Community-Oriented Education. 5, 193–198.
Vernon, D.T., & Blake, R.L. (1993). ‘Does Problem-Based
Learning Work?: A Meta-Analysis of Evaluative Research’. Academic Medicine. 68(7), 550–563.
Vernon, D.T. (1995). ‘Attitudes and Opinions of Faculty
Tutors about Problem-Based Learning’. Academic Medicine.
San Diego State University. (1996). Distributed Course
Delivery for Problem Based Learning. 23 February 2000. http://edweb.sdsu.edu/clrit/home.html.
Problem Based Learning Initiative, Southern Illinois University
School of Medicine. (1999). PBL In Areas Outside Of Medicine.
21 February 2000. http://www.pbli.org/pbl/pbloutside.htm.
University of Delaware. (1997). Problem-Based Learning
at the University of Delaware. 22 February 2000. http://www.udel.edu/pbl/courses.html.