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What is Problem-Based Learning (PBL)?

It is magic, myth and mindset

August 2000, Vol. 3 No. 3 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Is PBL Suitable Only for the Health Sciences Curricula?
Associate Professor Grace Ong
Vice Dean, Faculty of Dentistry/
Head, Department of Preventive Dentistry/
Associate Director, CDTL

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:

  1. Economics and Business

  2. Architecture

  3. Engineering

    a) Mechanical Engineering
    b) Chemical Engineering

  4. Social Studies (renamed as ‘Issue-Based Learning’, in New South Wales, Australia)

  5. Legal Studies (PBL has been used in law for a long time)

  6. History and the Arts

  7. Science

    a) Mathematics
    b) Chemistry
    c) Biochemistry
    d) Physics
    e) Biology
    f) Computing

  8. 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:

  1. Mastery of content is equivalent to that in traditional courses in short term studies (Aspy et al., 1993).

  2. PBL students scored higher in clinically-oriented exams (Mennin et al., 1993; Vernon & Blake, 1993).

  3. Better clinical performance in residency programmes (Mennin et al., 1993).

  4. PBL students scored higher in problem solving, self evaluation, and data gathering in behavioural science (Albanese & Mitchell, 1993; Gallagher et al., 1992).

  5. Standardised tests favour traditional teaching (Vernon & Blake, 1993).

  6. Content knowledge of students in PBL is not as good as those in the traditional method (Albanese & Mitchell, 1993; Vernon, 1995).

  7. Knowledge gaps in PBL-trained peers (Albanese & Mitchell, 1993).

  8. PBL students fare better in long-term retention (Farnsworth, 1994).

  9. Improved attitudes (Bridges & Halliger, 1991; Pincus, 1995).

  10. 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: Omni Press.

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. 70(3), 216–223.

San Diego State University. (1996). Distributed Course Delivery for Problem Based Learning. 23 February 2000.

Problem Based Learning Initiative, Southern Illinois University School of Medicine. (1999). PBL In Areas Outside Of Medicine. 21 February 2000.

University of Delaware. (1997). Problem-Based Learning at the University of Delaware. 22 February 2000.

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