MET:PBL Problem Design

From UBC Wiki

This page originally authored by Jim Richardson and Sanyee Chen (2007).
This page has been revised by Drew Ryan (2008).
This page has been revised by Mable Hong (2016).

File:PBL Flow Diagram-small.jpg
PBL Schema-(Fincham & Shuler)

Welcome to PBL Problem Design. Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is a Student Centred, Constructivist approach to learning. PBL is identified as a strategy for active learning and includes three defining features. Firstly, PBL consists of carefully designed problems that will be relevant to students in their field. These questions are challenging and require students to use a variety of problem solving strategies. Secondly, students learn in an environment that involves a combination of self-direction and small group participation. Finally, the roles of teacher and student are different from traditional learning. Students take on more responsibility in this active learning environment while the teacher facilitates. However, as with traditional pedagogical methods, assessment and evaluation plays an important role within PBL models. Due to the fact that “a PBL environment is normally predicated on principles of constructivism” it is essential for designers to incorporate like-minded assessment/evaluation tools within their learning environments (M. Kumar & U. Natarajan, p.94). Its genesis was in the 1970's at McMaster University Faculty of Medicine. As small groups of students work through a case (the Problem) they generate questions and delve into their prior knowledge to try create hypotheses to explain the phenomenon under analysis. The students develop learning issues in areas where their knowledge is insufficient. Between sessions the learning issues are researched and the problem is revisited at a subsequent sessions until the problem cycle is completed. An instructor is there to help facilitate the students’ explorations by posing infrequent guiding questions. This facilitator need not be a content expert on the problem.(Barrows, p 43) There is a tutor package that provides the necessary information about the case and provides some of the guiding questions. Since it is “the Problem” that drives the learning, developing good problems is fundamental to an effective PBL program.

Guidelines for Problem Design

Design of the problem in PBL is paramount to its success. There are some basic guidelines to follow when designing the problem:

  • Problems should be based around a common scenario in the field. Information and resources that are normally available in the field also need to be available for students.
  • Problems should provide scaffolding for students. Each problem builds on the previous one but draws on a different set of skills.
  • Problems must be designed in order to elevate topics of inquiry to encompass both levels of cognition and meta-cognition.
  • Additional information (for example, in medical school, physical findings) would be provided for students after the first set of learning objectives have been completed.
  • The tutor or facilitator does not need to be an expert. He or she identifies topics that students should discuss in group sessions and guides them in the discussion.
  • If possible, problems will also generate inquiry and discussions in related areas,and students engage in inquiry-based learning. For example, in medicine, it might relate to pharmacy or anatomy. Or, in education, it may relate to social justice, assessment or motivation.
  • Visual materials can also be included with the problem though this depends on the resources that are available.[1]
  • Problems should address real issues, which have three reasons. First, it is really difficult for students to create a rich problem with a consistent set of information; second, real problems can enagage learners' learning motivations; finally, students intend to learn the outcome of the problem from the real issues.
  • Designing a problem that has obvious solution is not effective for students to develop their reasoning and self-directed learning skills; the problems must be unfamiliar, new or complicated enough for learners.
  • Problems must build on learners' prior knowledge so that learners will be effectively motivated to solve problems.
  • Learning in small groups is the most beneficial method for learners to work in teams.

Problem Presentation

According to John R. Savery’s summary, there are two critical issues in presenting problems.

  • “If the students are to engage in authentic problem solving, then students must own the problem."
  • "A second critical issue in presenting the problem is to be certain that the data presented does not highlight critical factors in the case.”

Student Input

File:PBL 1 copy-medium.jpg
UBC Dentistry students engaged in PBL problem.

UBC Faculty of Dentistry adopted a hybrid PBL curriculum in the late 1990's. The problems developed were designed to integrate concepts and knowledge in the basic medical/dental science based on clinically relevant cases. Students can complete a case critique at the end of each cycle. Common themes have appeared as followed:

  • case materials are insufficient (more slides, radiographs required)
  • case is too old
  • poor balance between sessions
  • supporting lectures poorly integrated to case
  • not enough clinical relevance
  • patient was referred to a specialist when inappropriate
  • other supporting records would be beneficial (diagnostic models, A/V aids)
  • problem was a specialist case

Student Input: A Revised look

A class of twenty-five students taking a first year cognitive thinking and problem solving course are the focus of this revised look at student input regarding PBL. “The students in the class ranged in age from 17–19 and were an even mix in terms of gender and racial distribution (M. Kumar & U. Natarajan, p.95). “


  • taking ownership of their learning promotes innovative thinking
  • as “authors” of their learning students were more engaged
  • social nature of PBL increased students enjoyment, communication skills, and collaborative compromise which in turn simulated real-life situations


  • learners had some challenges adapting to a new methodology of learning i.e., not what they were used to
  • in some cases having little or insufficient foundational information provided by facilitators left students confused
  • there is an assumption that learners have the necessary background knowledge to successfully engage with PBL environments e.g., students are able to conduct independent critically examined research

These criticisms can be considered as part of two main areas: Authenticity Issues and Structural Issues

  • Authenticity Issues

Case writers are typically specialist module coordinators. While their expert content knowledge is critical to case currency and depth, well considered general practitioner input would be helpful to provide "real world" perspective. A suggestion has been made to recruit new graduates to assist the case writing process. With their fresh experiences in independent patient care, these novice practitioners could focus on topical problems that new graduates would commonly face.

  • Structural Issues

Supporting lectures are a component of the hybrid design. They typically follow the sessions. Students should each have a copy of all relevant case materials to speed up the analysis of case artifacts. Older cases may use outdated nomenclature or disease classifications. Cases should undergo a minor review annually and a major review every two or three years. As more break out rooms are equiped with AV supports, video clips of patient interviews and examinations could be used to enhance the cases.

Tutor Perspectives

As mentioned previously, the PBL tutor or facilitator need not be a content expert. There are pros and cons to this element that relate significantly to problem design. When educational institutions move to the PBL most faculties simply do not have enough content experts to facilitate every small group. Some would suggest that an expert may be inclined to revert into the "sage on the stage" style of teaching, intervening too soon and providing too much information. (Fincham & Shuler, p. 417) Whether the use of non-expert tutors are a result of pragmatism or design, it is clear that they will need information on the subject to assist the students' self discovery. Well written Tutor Guides should provide current, concise, appropriate reference material in the content area and suggestions for other resources. In addition, it is very helpful if the guide provides information on the students' prior knowledge. Often students will know more about the background material than they let on. And finally, it is also beneficial if the tutor guide includes several suggestions for guiding questions that will help direct the students towards the key learning objectives.

A teacher’s role in Constructivism-based learning becomes a facilitator. Browns (1992) states there are two major sections that a facilitator should do for his or her students. One is that a facilitator should ask students questions and lead learners to the logical answers. The second teacher role is to “challenge the learners thinking”(Barrows.H.S., 1992; John R Savery, 2001). The facilitator should lead "the students to take over this role themselves as they become effective self directed learners".

Concept Map

File:Problem-based Learning.jpg

PBL Problem Design:Stop Motion

For a visually designed artifact on the topic, go to (by Mable Hong, 2016)


Barrows, H., (1992) The Tutorial Process,revised, Southern Illinois Unversity School of Medicine

Fincham, A. & Shuler, C. (2001) The Changing Face of Dental Education:the Impact of PBL, Journal of Dental Education, 65 (5), 406-421(ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. EJ632977)

Kumar, M. & Natarajan, U. (2007) 'A problem-based learning model: showcasing an educational paradigm shift', Curriculum Journal, 18:1, 89 – 102

Problem Based Learning Home Page. Queens University

McMaster University (Centre for Leadership in Learning)

The PBL Handbook

Savery, J. R. & Duffy, T. M. (1995). Problem Based Learning: An Instructional Model and Its Constructivist Framework. Educational Technology, 35 (5), 31-38

Wee, K.N., Kek, Y.C., Sim, H.C. (2001). Crafting Effective Problems for Problem-based Learning. PBL Conference.

Wu, W. Y. & Forrester, V. (2003) Exploring the cognitive processes of problem-based learning and their relationship to talent development, in: O. S. Tan (Ed.) Enhancing thinking through problem-based learning approaches (Singapore, Thomson Learning), 63–77.

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