Senin, 27 April 2009


Handbook of Enquiry & Problem Based Learning. Barrett, T., Mac Labhrainn, I., Fallon, H. (Eds). Galway: CELT,
2005. Released under Creative Commons licence. Attribution Non-Commercial 2.0. Some rights reserved.
Terry Barrett
This chapter focuses on Problem-based Learning (PBL). Enquiry-based Learning is defined in
the first chapter as “a broad umbrella term used to describe approaches to learning that are
driven by a process of enquiry,” O’Rourke and Kahn (2005:1). Within this context Problembased
Learning is seen as a set of approaches under the broader category of Enquiry-based
Learning. One of the main defining characteristics of Problem-based Learning, which
distinguishes it from some other forms of Enquiry-based Learning, is that the problem is
presented to the students first at the start of the learning process, before other curriculum inputs.
Another defining characteristic of PBL is that in PBL tutorials students define their own
learning issues, what they need to research and learn to work on the problem and are responsible
themselves for searching appropriate sources of information.
I understand Problem-based Learning not as a mere teaching and learning technique but as a
total education strategy. Four components of Problem-based Learning, as a total education
strategy, are:
􀂃 PBL curriculum design
􀂃 PBL tutorials
􀂃 PBL compatible assessments
􀂃 Philosophical principles underpinning PBL
These are discussed in turn. The chapter ends by highlighting some of the starting points and
success factors to consider when starting a PBL initiative. I draw on my experiences as a
Problem-based Learning course co-ordinator, tutor and researcher, together with my experiences
of working as a PBL education development consultant with PBL initiatives in different
universities and Institutes of Technology. I base this practical introduction to PBL on theory,
research and practical experience. An important part of this chapter is the voices of PBL tutors.
Quotations from PBL tutors are from my current doctoral research unless otherwise stated.
Since the first humans were on this earth there have been forms of Problem-based Learning as
people tackled problems including the basic issues of survival, finding food and shelter and
protecting themselves against enemies. What is being discussed in this chapter is a particular
set of approaches of Problem-based Learning (PBL) in higher education. This Problem-based
Learning follows the research of Barrows and Tamblyn (1980) and was first implemented in
medical education in McMaster University in Canada in the 60’s. The rationale for this strategy
centred on the argument that, based on their research on clinical reasoning, it was more effective
to teach medical students through them solving problems than through the established
traditional methods of medical education. Barrows (2000: vii) outlines the original motivation
for the change to PBL:
They [medical students] were bored and disenchanted when medical education
should have been exciting. The committee noted that medical education didn’t
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become exciting for students until residency training, when they were working with
patients trying to solve their problems. They decided that from the beginning of
school, learning would occur around a series of biomedical problems presented in
small groups with the faculty functioning as “tutors or guides of education.”
Having started with medicine in Canada, PBL has spread across the globe and across the
disciplines. In exploring the issue of defining Problem-based Learning I consider:
􀂃 Barrows classical definition of Problem-based Learning
􀂃 Essential features of PBL
􀂃 My operational definition of PBL
􀂃 A web-based definition of PBL
Barrows defines it as:
The learning that results from the process of working towards the understanding of
a resolution of a problem. The problem is encountered first in the learning process
(Barrows 1980:1 my emphasis)
That does not mean that there cannot be other curriculum inputs e.g. lectures, labs etc, rather,
the students are presented with the problem or trigger first and other curriculum inputs follow
later and may take a different format than traditionally in order to complement/enhance the
work on the problems in the PBL tutorials.
Problem-based Learning is part of the shift from the teaching paradigm to the learning
paradigm (Barr and Tagg, 1995). The focus is on what students are learning rather than what
the teacher is teaching. Lloyd-Jones, Margeston and Bligh (1998: 494) reconsider the “essential
features of Problem-based Learning”. They argue that:
Three shared elements stand out from the current picture of PBL in action: the
initiating trigger, the learning that students undertake by researching the learning
issues identified in the first tutorial, and the use of knowledge in furthering their
understanding of the trigger situation particularly in the final tutorial. (emphases
my own)
The following definition is also pertinent as it highlights PBL as a way of replicating problemsolving
processes used at work and in life generally:
PBL is both a curriculum and a process. The curriculum consists of carefully
selected and designed problems that demand from the learner acquisition of critical
knowledge, problem-solving proficiency, self-directed learning strategies and team
participation skills. The process replicates the common used systemic approach to
resolving problems or meeting challenges that are encountered in life and career
(Maricopa Community Colleges, Centre for Learning and Instruction:
But what exactly do students do in Problem-based Learning? My operational definition of
Problem-based Learning is as follows:
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Figure 1: Operational definition of PBL
1) First students are presented with a problem
2) Students discuss the problem in a small group PBL tutorial. They clarify the facts of the
case. They define what the problem is. They brainstorm ideas based on the prior knowledge.
They identify what they need to learn to work on the problem, what they do not know
(learning issues). They reason through the problem. They specify an action plan for working
on the problem
3) Students engage in independent study on their learning issues outside the tutorial. This can
include: library, databases, the web, resource people and observations
4) They come back to the PBL tutorial(s) sharing information, peer teaching and working
together on the problem
5) They present their solution to the problem
6) They review what they have learned from working on the problem. All who participated in
the process engage in self, peer and tutor review of the PBL process and reflections on each
person’s contribution to that process
When beginning a PBL initiative it is important to have a starting point definition of PBL.
However it would be a contradiction in terms not to treat PBL itself as a problem (Barrett 2001)
and I would encourage people to redefine what PBL means in their specific contexts. The PBL
case studies in this handbook have elements in common but also other elements that were
developed in relation to organisational and discipline needs, local constraints and the critical and
creative thinking of the curriculum designers.
I consider that PBL is not merely a teaching and learning technique, but a total approach to
education. I would advise people starting a PBL initiative to consider four important
components of PBL, namely: PBL curriculum design, PBL tutorials, PBL compatible
assessments and philosophical principles underpinning PBL.
Figure 2: Problem-based Learning as a Total Education Strategy
Design PBL Tutorials
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Problem-based Learning curriculum design
Starting to develop a framework for curriculum design of any type including PBL provokes us
to asking some basic questions. These questions include:
􀂃 What are the fundamental ideas, knowledge, skills and attitudes which should
be developed through the programme?
􀂃 What are the internal and external drivers for curriculum change?
􀂃 Who do we need to involve in the curriculum design process?
􀂃 What are the stakeholders (including students, academic staff, employers,
professional bodies) saying about current educational needs?
􀂃 What are our beliefs about higher education generally and our
profession/discipline in particular?
􀂃 How are these beliefs and values translated into action in our curriculum
􀂃 How should the course be structured?
􀂃 How will students learn on the course?
􀂃 What prior knowledge, skills and attitudes do we consider as entry
􀂃 What kinds of assessment will be appropriate for the kinds of learning we are
trying to encourage?
􀂃 Do we have a unique selling point?
􀂃 How do we plan to market this course?
(Toohey, 1999)
At the core of PBL curriculum design is a set of well designed, ill-structured or open-ended,
real-life, engaging problems. Problems are not always about difficulties that need to be sorted
out. Challenges, dilemmas, and triggers are problems. Understanding a puzzling phenomenon
or a difficult concept can be a problem. How to find a better, more ethical or cheaper way of
doing something is a problem. How to design or create something is a problem.
There are different ways of getting involved in a Problem-based Learning curriculum. Some
people decide to have only one or two modules on the course as PBL modules. Others decide
that the full course will be PBL. As an implementation strategy some start with first years and
others with final years.
Designing a PBL curriculum means reconceptualising our curriculum in ways that emphasise:
􀂃 Selection of content from practice
􀂃 Concepts as the organising structure of the curriculum [and expressed as
learning outcomes for the whole unit]
􀂃 Process as content
􀂃 Graduate outcomes not subject-based outcomes
(Conway and Little, 2000)
Clarifying the learning outcomes for the unit/module of the curriculum is a very important stage
of curriculum design. The next step is to write problems that will stimulate student learning in
relation to these outcomes. A curriculum matrix where the problems are plotted against the
learning outcomes is helpful in designing a PBL curriculum ensuring that all learning outcomes
will be addressed at least once.
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Figure 3: PBL curriculum matrix
Problems⇒ Name of P1 Name of P2 Name of P3
L.O. 1
L.O. 2
L.O. 3
L.O. 4
Variety and challenge are very important in designing PBL problems
…a measure of the quality of a problem is the degree to which it stimulates the
students’ desire to learn. The two features highlighted by the study were the levels
of variety and challenge perceived by students.
(Mauffette, Kandlibinder and Soucisse 2004:11)
Problems can vary in size in terms of length of study. Some problems are designed to be
resolved in two tutorials. Others are designed to last weeks or months. Sometimes problems
can be presented in a progressive disclosure mode. This means giving students the initial trigger
at the outset and then giving them further information at later stages. This mirrors real life e.g.
results of a report arriving, a new phone or e-mail message received in relation to the problem
etc. Another option is that one problem can be a follow-up to another problem. The following
are some ideas for providing variety in problem formats
Figure 4: Some Different problem formats
Scenarios Video clips Physical Objects
Dialogues Photographs Letters
Cartoons Poems Metaphors
Diagrams Limericks Requests
Set of Playing cards Audio-tape recordings Posters
Dilemmas E-mails Briefs
Progressive disclosure Follow-ups Quotations
Newspaper articles T.V. Shows Literature
Writing PBL problems combines critical thinking with creative thinking and is best carried out
in small teams. For more discussion and examples of PBL curriculum design see chapters 4, 5
and 6 of this handbook. For more examples of PBL problems see the University of Delaware
PBL tutorials
The students work on resolving these problems in PBL tutorials. In a PBL tutorial a small
group of students (usually 5-8) work together on a problem. Often there is a tutor per group.
Where this is not possible there is a roving tutor(s). The role of the tutor is not to give
information or a mini-lecture on the problem but rather to facilitate the PBL process and
students reasoning through the problem. Different students act as chairperson, scribe,
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timekeeper and reader of the problem. Sometimes students decide to assign other additional
roles, e.g. presentation editor.
Students brainstorm ideas for solving the problem, review the facts of the problem, name things
they need to learn about and make an action plan. In practice, learning issues are handled in a
variety of ways in different PBL initiatives. Some initiatives get all students to research all the
learning issues. Other initiatives encourage students to divide out the learning issues to
different group members. A middle stance is to get the group to divide the learning issues into
major and minor learning issues. All students research the major learning issues and the minor
ones are divided between the group members. Whichever approach is used it is important that
students develop their information skills, which is discussed in chapter 17 of this handbook.
There are different PBL tutorial models that act as a scaffold rather than a straightjacket for the
process. The central part of the Barrows model (Barrows, 1989) following setting the climate
and defining the problem is summarising the discussion of the PBL tutorial under the following
Figure 5: Barrows PBL tutorial model
Ideas/Hypotheses Facts Learning issues Action Plan
Students using this model may summarise their discussion under these headings on one shared
learning environment, which may be a whiteboard or flipchart. In addition students will have a
second shared learning environment for other work on the problem.
Another model for scaffolding the PBL process is the seven jump approach
Figure 6: Seven jump approach
1. Clarify unknown terms and concepts in the problem description
2. Define the problem: that is list the phenomena to be explained
3. Analyse the problem: “brainstorm”: try to produce as many different
explanations for the phenomenon as you can. Use prior knowledge and
common sense
4. Criticise the explanations proposed and try to produce a coherent
description of the processes that, according to what you think, underlie the
5. Formulate learning issues for SDL[self-directed learning]
6. Fill in the gaps in your knowledge through self-study
7. Share your findings with your group and try to integrate the knowledge
acquired into a comprehensive explanation of the phenomena. Check
whether you know enough now.
(Schmidt and Moust, 2000: 23)
The following quotations reflect two PBL tutors’ perspectives on models for PBL tutorials
There has always been independent learning but PBL puts a process on it. It gets
them to think how they think. There is a metacognitive level.
It’s a structure but you have a lot of freedom. It’s a light structure, scaffold
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In PBL tutorials there is a move to more democratic social relations than a traditional committee
meeting (Barrett, 2004a). PBL differs from individual research or project work as it is a
question of “our knowledge and control,” rather than “my knowledge and control” (Barrett,
2004b). In a PBL tutorial, students co-elaborate and co-construct their knowledge together.
Staff and students need induction, time and practice to adjust to their new roles.
The role of the tutor includes listening attentively, facilitating the learning process and asking
stimulating questions appropriately. Schmidt and Moust (2000) highlight the importance of
“cognitive congruence,” the tutor being able to express her or him self at the students level of
If a tutor is not able to frame his or her contribution in a language that is adapted to
the level of understanding of the subject matter being studied, these contributions
will go unnoticed. In addition, cognitive congruence assumes sensitivity of the
tutor concerning the difficulties of students may come across while dealing with a
problem or with subject matter relevant to that problem.
(Schmidt and Moust, 2000:43)
They argue that “social congruence,” an interest in students and their learning is required in
tandem with cognitive congruence for effective PBL tutoring: Poikela (2005) has researched
learning to work as a tutor and discusses how tutors view their role change. The following
quotation from a tutor is a striking metaphor:
In earlier days, the teacher was sitting alone in a fully loaded boat almost sinking,
and the poor teacher was trying to row with the last energy/he had. After PBL the
tutor is sitting in a boat with a group and guiding while others are rowing and
eagerly looking ahead.
(Poikela, 2005: 189)
A new website gives some very practical advice on ways to be an effective PBL tutor that
includes the following:
Figure 7: Ways to be a great PBL facilitator
􀂃 Be interested and enthusiastic
􀂃 Forget lecturing
􀂃 Tolerate silence
􀂃 Get students talking to each other and not to you
􀂃 Make sure the group agree on learning issues before the group ends
􀂃 Promote the use of accurate current information resources as students
research their learning issues
􀂃 Remember the learning outcomes of the case and course
􀂃 Establish a good learning environment for the group
􀂃 Be yourself
( Catchum PBL users guide
The following quotations show two PBL tutors’ perspectives on PBL tutorials:
They break into groups and work on the problem. I am not good at getting them to
reflect. I am directive and not good at staying out and letting them be confused. I
am absolutely fascinated by the way they are doing it. Yesterday one of the girls
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produced a cardboard box with a face painted on it and said let’s use this to get a
handle on Mary, on whom the problem is based.
We are trying to get them to focus on the process. If we don’t get them to develop
their own systems and processes, ways of working, I think we are wasting our time.
And I do think my thinking has changed because of PBL.
In Problem-based Learning academic staff are involved in curriculum design, writing problems,
the facilitation of PBL tutorials, and in assessment of learning.
PBL compatible assessments
I agree with the assertion in the first chapter of this handbook that assessment drives learning. If
you really want to see what a curriculum is about, look at the reality of its assessment system. I
argue that it is important to design assessments that are not only aligned with learning outcomes
but that are also compatible with the Problem-based Learning process. For helpful advice and
an introduction to a range of appropriate and effective assessment methods see Section 4 of this
Philosophical principles underpinning Problem-based Learning
I agree that PBL is essentially a philosophical position in relation to knowledge in higher
education, (Margeston, 1997) and with the assertion that there is “nothing as practical as a good
theory.” (Lewin, 1943: 35) For these two reasons, I argue that it is essential to understand and
develop philosophical principles which underpin PBL. This helps us to address the essential
questions “What is learning in higher education?” “What is teaching in higher education?”
“What is PBL?” “Why are we using PBL?” “What are my roles as an academic in PBL?”
“What are the roles of students in PBL?” If you are too preoccupied with the spray of the wave,
you fail to realise its underlying swell, which in the case of PBL is philosophies of PBL. These
are challenging questions for members of a team starting a PBL initiative to ask themselves.
I argue that Margeston’s primary contribution is his elaboration of a post-modern philosophy of
PBL. Margeston (1997) highlights that PBL is not a mere superficial educational technique, but
rather it is a deep philosophical position in relation to knowledge, understanding and education.
His philosophical position underpinning PBL is:
A conception of knowledge, understanding and education profoundly different from
the more usual conceptions underlying subject-based learning. The difference can
be seen in the notion of expertise (Margeston, 1997: 37-38)
He develops this by discussing how subject-based expertise is expertise in terms of knowing a
lot of content. This is propositional knowledge - knowing that. In contrast, expertise in a
Problem-based Learning context presupposes propositional knowledge. It stresses the
importance of knowing how to work with problems. He argues that Problem-based Learning
“requires a much greater integration of knowing that with knowing how.” (Margeston, 1997:
38) Problem-based Learning, considered as a philosophical position, has huge implications for
all stages of PBL implementation and for staff development, student induction and change
management in particular.
I consider that Freirian philosophy (Freire, 1972; 1985) provides philosophical principles to
underpin Problem-based Learning (Barrett, 2001). Freire’s concepts of problematisation and
dialogue are particularly relevant. Why should anyone learn anything? It is important to
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problematise learning. Then the only way of working on resolving a problem is to learn more.
From Freire’s perspective the concept of dialogue is much more than a technique, it is an
epistemological position that sees knowledge not as something static but rather something that
is made and remade through dialogue:
What is dialogue in this way of knowing? Precisely this connection, this
epistemological relationship, the object to be known in one place links the cognitive
subjects leading them to reflect together on the object. Dialogue is the bringing
together of the teacher and the student in the joint act of knowing and reknowing
the object of study. Then instead of transferring the knowledge statically, as a fixed
possession of the teacher, dialogue demands a dynamic proximation towards the
object. (Shor and Freire, 1987: 100)
This dialogue is the means by which people together create and recreate acts of knowledge.
Cognitivism, social constructivism and postmodernism provide theoretical foundations for
understanding PBL. Cognitivism means that Problem-based Learning is an active mental
process of accessing prior knowledge, making connections between old and new concepts and
using the elaboration of relationships to engage in theory construction (Schmidt, 2004). In PBL
the learners are constructing their knowledge together in PBL tutorials. PBL has a social
constructivist view of learning. It sees learning as something that results from the learner’s
actions and the role of the PBL tutor is to enable and encourage learners to construct their
knowledge together. A key point in the connection between PBL and postmodernism is that
there is a fit between PBL and changing postmodern concepts of knowledge. I agree with
Cowdroy’s argument that to exploit the full potential of PBL it is vital that it is underpinned by
post modern concepts of knowledge. On the other hand PBL underpinned by “modernist,
structural thinking” is in danger of “slipping back into mediocrity” (Cowdroy 1994: 45).
Cowdroy summarise the link between PBL and postmodern concepts of knowledge as follows:
Changes in professional practice and in technology and society alter the relevance
of particular sets of knowledge. This state of change of relevance is the basis of
Heidegger’s concept of the changing meaning of “knowledge” which challenges
Cartesian concepts of finite knowledge and thought. By adherence to the principle
of relevance. Problem-based Learning accepts Heidegger’s concept of indefinite
knowledge and eschews the Cartesian certainty of thought and knowledge…
It is important to explore these philosophical principles underpinning PBL not only when
starting a PBL initiative, but on an ongoing basis.
When starting to design a PBL initiative it is very important to be aware of the research
evidence about success factors in PBL implementation (Figure 8) and to plan with this
awareness in mind.
In addition to gathering information about PBL generally and about PBL in a specific discipline,
there is a range of effective strategies for starting a PBL initiative. These include attending PBL
staff development workshops in your own institution or a major PBL university such as
Maastricht or McMaster. Visiting a university that is implementing PBL and listening to the
perspectives of academics and students can be very helpful. Working with an internal/external
PBL consultant to design, implement and continuously evaluate a PBL initiative is another
effective strategy. Framing the PBL initiative as a major action –research project or having a
research project linked to the PBL initiative are ways of combining teaching and research.
Terry Barrett
Figure 8: Success factors for implementing PBL
My main argument is that PBL is best understood not as a mere learning and teaching technique
but as a total education strategy underpinned by philosophical principles. Currently there are
some interesting developments in Problem-based Learning including using technology to
support Problem-based Learning, which is discussed in chapter 16 of this handbook, and the use
of PBL in the workplace, a case study of which is presented in chapter 15. Dolmans et al (2005:
741), in a paper entitled “Problem-based Learning: future challenges for educational practice
and research,” argues that the future challenges for educational practice and research include the
need for:
Research that bridges theory and practice and extends knowledge about developing
and improving PBL in everyday practice.
That is the rationale for the PBL chapters in this handbook.
Philosophical factors
􀂃 An understanding of the philosophical principles underpinning PBL
􀂃 A commitment to the philosophy of PBL ( Little, 1997; Margeston, 1991; Barrett,
Design factors
􀂃 Comprehensive curriculum design (Conway and Little, 2000)
􀂃 Well designed problems (Gijselaers and Schmidt, 1990; Schmidt and Moust, 2000)
􀂃 Assessment compatible with PBL and the specific discipline/profession (Savin-
Baden, 2004; Raine and Symons, 2005)
􀂃 Scheduled independent study time (Fincham and Schuler, 2001)
PBL tutoring factors
􀂃 Small group size (Wilkerson, 1996)
􀂃 A realistic acceptance of the role change (Little, 1997)
􀂃 Effective tutoring skills (Poikela, 2005)
􀂃 The ability to model process skills (Little, 1977)
􀂃 Frequent opportunities for students to gain feedback (Little, 1997)
Staff and student induction factors
􀂃 An acceptance of the importance of student induction to PBL and that students will
take time to develop PBL process skills and may need to change their assumptions
about learning (Little, 1997)
􀂃 Substantial appropriate staff development (Conway and Little, 2000; Murray and
Savin-Baden, 2000; Richardson, 2005)
Management factors
􀂃 A pragmatic and realistic approach (Little, 1997)
􀂃 Institutional and management support (Little, 1997)
􀂃 A PBL co-ordinator and administrative support (McLoughlin, 2005)
Terry Barrett
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Toohey, S. (1999) Designing Courses for Higher Education. Buckingham: SRHE/Open
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Literature,” New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 68, Winter 23-32.
Online resources
Catchum PBL users guide: This has some very practical advice for implementing PBL
Coventry website: Very good list of resources including: web resources, books, research
papers, PBL consultants and PBL conferences
McMaster University, where PBL began
Maricopa Community Colleges, Centre for Learning and Instruction
PBL Clearinghouse
Republic Polytechnic Singapore
All the institution uses PBL. They have developed the 1 day 1 problem process
University of Adelaide’s Advisory Centre for University Education: hosts the ‘Leap into PBL’
website. This is a very informative site and is a good staring point for lecturers who are new to
PBL and are considering implementing it.
University of Delaware site on PBL: Comprehensive introduction to PBL with lots of sample
University of Maastricht: A European Centre for PBL. Runs staff development workshops and
producing a range of resources including videos
Discussion List:
JISC PBL Mailing List New members can join by visiting the following website

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