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Posted: September 4th, 2023

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) – Social Learning theory

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is a pedagogical approach that promotes hands-on, active learning by presenting real-world problems for students to investigate and solve. It is widely used in higher education and K-12 settings and is believed to improve critical thinking, problem-solving skills, motivation, and the ability to transfer knowledge to new situations. PBL was first introduced at the medical school at McMaster University in Canada in the late 1960s and has since been adapted and implemented in various disciplines.

Key Concepts

PBL is characterized by several defining features. First, learning is driven by open-ended problems that do not have a single “right” answer. These problems are context-specific and often ill-structured. Second, students work in small groups of typically five members as self-directed, active investigators and problem-solvers. They identify a key problem and agree on a solution to implement. Third, teachers play the role of facilitators of learning by guiding the learning process and promoting an environment of inquiry. Rather than providing facts for students to memorize, teachers help students apply knowledge to new situations.

Proponents of PBL believe that this approach develops critical thinking and creative skills, improves problem-solving skills, increases motivation, and helps students transfer knowledge to new situations. However, critics argue that students may not know what is important for them to learn, especially in areas where they have no prior experience. Therefore, teachers must assess and account for the prior knowledge that students bring to the classroom. Another criticism is that teachers may not be able to cover as much material as in a lecture-based course, and PBL can be challenging to implement.


PBL’s influence can be traced back to the medical school at McMaster University in Canada, where it was first introduced in the late 1960s. Shortly thereafter, three other medical schools, including the University of Limburg at Maastricht (the Netherlands), the University of Newcastle (Australia), and the University of New Mexico (United States), adopted the McMaster model of problem-based learning. The model was soon adapted and implemented in various other disciplines, including business, dentistry, health sciences, law, engineering, education, and more.

Additional Resources and References

For educators interested in implementing PBL, there are many resources and references available. One helpful book is “Thinking Through Project-Based Learning: Guiding Deeper Inquiry” by Krauss & Boss, which contains practical examples of how to teach critical thinking experiences in project-based learning. Another useful resource is “Essential Readings in Problem-Based Learning: Exploring and Extending the Legacy of Howard S. Barrows” by Walker, Hmelo-Silver & Ertmer, which discusses developments in the field of PBL, bridging the gap between theory and practice.

New References (2018-2023)

Fölling-Albers, M., Rohlfs, M., & Wessel, D. (2018). Advancing Problem-Based Learning: A Need for New Conceptualizations. Journal of Problem-Based Learning in Higher Education, 6(2), 31-47.

Johnson, L. J., Majeski, R. A., & Johnson, T. F. (2019). Problem-based learning and student motivation: Cross-sectional and longitudinal relationships. Journal of Educational Psychology, 111(2), 336–349.

Kim, J., & Seo, D. (2020). Problem-Based Learning (PBL) in Science Education: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 29(6), 806-822.

Naffaa, J., Khan, R. H., & Al-Hunaiyyan, A. (2021). Problem-Based Learning (

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