Problem-based learning (PBL) is a student-centered, educational strategy that provides students with the opportunity to learn content while applying knowledge in real-world, relevant contexts. Students learn about a topic to solve an open-ended problem and along the way, develop and use a diverse set of skills. The skills include:
- critical thinking to analyze a problem
- increased self-efficacy
- self-directed learning
- working effectively within a team
- oral and written communication
- researching information
- applying content knowledge to real-world situations
Note that the description of PBL emphasizes that it is an opportunity for students to learn content. Students use critical thinking skills to apply what they learn about the real-world topic within the context of the scenario. They must fully understand the knowledge base of the topic in order to solve the problem and defend their solution.
In problem-based learning, students take an active role in their learning. Traditional classrooms, while not necessarily non-engaging to students, do not present the opportunities for the varied experiences and practices in a problem-based (or case-based) learning environment.
Problem-based learning strategies work well with different styles of learning. Students with mixed abilities and learning styles can not only master the topic content, but can contribute to the team’s understanding of the problem and its solution by bringing diverse talents to the tasks.
Case-based learning (CBL) is a type of problem-based learning that also engages students in specific, real-world situations. Students build on content knowledge and use critical thinking and collaborative team work to solve ill-structured problems.
Evidence suggests that PBL and CBL enhance both transfer of concepts to new problems and integration of science concepts into relevant issues. Students are typically more engaged in the problem and are therefore, more engaged in learning the content and solving the problem. The problem usually has more than one correct answer and solutions usually cut across disciplines. Students must address varying points of view and consider in-depth content knowledge in order to present their solutions or propositions at the end of the module.
Evidence has also shown that PBL and CBL activities increase student engagement and motivation, improve cognitive and affective learning, and enhance knowledge retention. In today’s challenging classroom environments, PBL and CBL approaches to student learning and engagement represent a much-needed intervention for improving student performance on both content knowledge and cross-cutting interdisciplinary skills.
See Comparing Educational Strategies and other resources in this section for more information on PBL and CBL implementation in your classroom.
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