MET:PBL and Adult Education

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This page was originally authored by Omar Ramroop (2010).

File:Problem Based Learning Process gif 1.gif
The overall process that adult learners experience in PBL


Problem-based learning (PBL) and adult education share many of the same learning elements, objectives, and outcomes that act to reciprocally enhance the benefits of the teaching and learning process for adult learners. Problem-based learning is an instructional strategy that focuses on actively engaging learners through the process of problem-solving. Within adult education, learners take on an active role in the learning process and must use their prior skills, knowledge, and experiences to construct, design, and develop solutions to problems typically encountered in real-world scenarios (Savery, 2006).


Please follow the link to watch a video about this topic

PBL and adult learning environments

Although the concept behind problem-based learning has been used over many generations, it was not until 1968 that problem-based learning was formally founded and implemented as an instructional method at the Faculty of Health Sciences of McMaster University, located in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada (Savery, 2006).

Originally designed and implemented with a relatively linear and rigid structure, problem-based learning in adult education has developed and evolved into an instructional methodology that primarily focuses on learners and their learning process as they work through real-world problems and challenges. While initially used to familiarize medical students with real-world applications of scientific knowledge, problem-based learning has expanded greatly over the last few decades not only in higher education but also in professional programs, community colleges, and vocational trade schools (Spence, 2001).

PBL characteristics in adult education

File:Active Role of Learners PBL.gif
An outline of the active role that adult learners have in PBL

There are several characteristics that have become fundamental to problem-based learning as it has expanded into a great number of instructional adult settings.

  • The focus should be on the learners and these learners must be responsible for their own learning.
  • The problem introduced to the learners should be relevant to real-world applications and lacking in formal structure in order to promote critical thinking and allow learners to establish their own restrictions on possible solutions (Srinivasan et al., 2007).
  • Learners should not be limited in the type of resources or information that they are able to utilize to create solutions. This allows learners to approach problems from a multitude of perspectives and subject areas.
  • Learners should collaborate, cross-reference, propose, debate, and exchange ideas with other learners in small groups or teams to enhance their own understanding of the complexities involved in the problem.
  • The importance of incorporating a thorough debriefing session in order to bring direction and closure to the problem is a crucial component to problem-based learning in adult education (Savery, 2006).

Role of adult educator in PBL

In problem-based learning, the instructor acts as a facilitator and provides guidance and direction for learners. This may be a significant change for instructors to shift from instructor-centred methods such as lectures or discussions led by the instructor. Adult instructors may choose to model different problem-solving strategies or ask questions to promote reflection and the analysis of assumptions made by learners (Mills, 2006).

The responsibility of the instructor is to assist learners in developing their own problem-solving strategies that provide the learner with a continuously growing skill set that has applications to solving real-world problems. Consequently, adult learners will become more and more confident and motivated in solving problems that they encounter in their own lives.

PBL adaptations

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PBL versus traditional approaches of instruction

Problem-based learning has progressed from its rudimentary origins to become a defining instructional methodology that fully utilizes problems and challenges for the purposes of learning. While commonly implemented through the use of collaborative learning groups, problem-based learning has adapted to the various needs of adults learners from a broad range of disciplines, thus resulting in its many variations including independent problem-based learning for individual learners (Spence, 2001).

In spite of the specific model of problem-based learning implemented, the core principle of using problems to teach learners remains the same. As opposed to more traditional approaches of instruction, which commonly rely on instructor-centred lectures and discussion, problem-based learning places the focus on learners and the exploration of their knowledge by allowing learners to create, develop, and design solutions to problems. Furthermore, problem-based learning differentiates itself from other learner-centred methods such as case-based or project-based learning by allowing learners to create and evaluate their own solutions to problems rather than guiding learners towards one ideal or “correct” answer (Srinivasan, Wilkes, Stevenson, Nguyen, & Slavin, 2007).

Benefits of PBL in adult education

Adult education focuses on helping learners to become more efficient and effective in performing tasks, solving conflicts, and evaluating decisions in their lives as opposed to other forms of education that focus on preparing one for life (Smith, 1999). Problem-based learning caters for adult education by enhancing analytical and critical skills of learners and actively engaging the minds of adults by solving real-world problems that learners may face on a day to day basis.

When compared to more traditional instructional methods, problem-based learning has been shown to have an increased rate of retention of content for learners and provides learning benefits over a longer period of time (Miflin, 2004). Furthermore, adult learners directly benefit from problem-based learning as it helps to develop an expansive knowledge base, problem-solving skills, collaboration, motivation, and lifelong learning (Hmelo-Silver & Barrows, 2004).

Challenges of PBL implementation

Although there are many positive learning benefits from implementing problem-based learning, there are also many challenges that an adult educator must address in order to ensure its success in an adult learning environment. Primarily, learners and instructors may experience difficulty when adjusting to problem-based learning, especially if the majority of their learning experiences have been through more traditional educational approaches. While instructors should reduce the number of formal lectures and discussions, learners must develop self-directed learning skills and adjust their state of mind away from focusing solely on finding one “right” answer (Mills, 2006).

Instructors may be required to increase the time allotted as well as the resources required in order to ensure that successful problem-based learning can take place. Learners must be provided with sufficient time to perform analysis of concepts, ideas, theories, and principles while instructors must design and prepare course material well in advance. Additionally, the instructor must prepare for orienting learners towards problem-based learning, choosing a problem, and forming small learning teams (Peterson, 2004). Another prominent challenge is the external pressures from institutional or departmental policies with regards to curriculum content and learning objectives that may act as a deterrent to implementing problem-based learning. Finally, instructors must establish transparent assessment techniques that focus on the process of problem-solving and may choose to incorporate a combination of individual, peer, and group assessments.

Problem-based learning has many benefits for adult education but it is an instructional strategy that is accompanied by many challenges. Ideally, problem-based learning is best utilized in a blended learning approach that incorporates not only problem-based learning but also a variety of instructional methods such as lectures, discussions, projects, and cases. This will provide adult learners with additional information as well as allow these learners to integrate subject content into the solutions that they generate. While there are challenges that adult educators must face when attempting to implement problem-based learning, the potential learning outcomes are both fundamental and valuable to learners in a wide range of adult educational contexts.

See also

Collaborative Learning


PBL and Science Education

PBL and Math Education

PBL Problem Design

Stop Motion on PBL

Here is a short video about PBL for adults by Mary Stephenson:


Hmelo-Silver, C.E., & Barrows H.S. (2006). Goals and strategies of a problem-based learning facilitator. The Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 1(1). Retrieved February 9, 2010, from

Miflin, B. (2004). Adult learning, self-directed learning and problem-based learning: Deconstructing the connections. Teaching in Higher Education, 9(1), 43-53. doi:10.1080/1356251032000155821

Mills, D. (2006). Problem-based learning. The Higher Education Academy, Sociology, Anthropology, Politics (C-SAP). Retrieved February 9, 2010, from

Peterson, T.O. (2004). So you're thinking of trying problem-based learning?: Three critical success factors for implementation. Journal of Management Education, 28. doi:10.1177/1052562904267543

Savery, J.R. (2006). Overview of problem-based learning: Definitions and distinctions. The Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 1(1). Retrieved February 9, 2010, from

Smith, M.K. (1999). Adult education. Infed: The Encyclopaedia of Informal Education. Retrieved February 9, 2010, from

Spence, L.D. (2001). Problem based learning: Lead to learn, learn to lead. School of Information Sciences and Technology. Retrieved February 9, 2010, from

Srinivasan, M., Wilkes, M., Stevenson, F., Nguyen, T., & Slavin, S. (2007). Comparing problem-based learning with case-based learning: Effects of a major curricular shift at two institutions. Academic Medicine, 82(1). doi:10.1097/01.ACM.0000249963.93776.aa

Further reading

Bonk, C.J., & Kim K. (2004). Future directions of blended learning in higher education and workplace learning settings. In Bonk, C.J. & Graham, C. R. (Eds.), Handbook of blended learning: Global perspectives, local designs. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer Publishing.

Dolmans, D.H., Grave, W., Wolfhagen, I., & Vleuten, C. (2005). Problem-based learning: Future challenges for educational practice and research. Medical Education, 39(7), 732-741. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2929.2005.02205.x

Hmelo-Silver, C.E. (2004). Problem-based learning: What and how do students learn? Educational Psychology Review, 16(3), 235-266. doi:1040-726X/04/0900-0235/0

Loyens, S.M., Magda, J., & Rikers, R. (2008). Self-directed learning in problem-based learning and its relationships with self-regulated learning. Educational Psychology Review, 20(4), 411-427. doi:10.1007/s10648-008-9082-7

Mathews-Aydinli, J. (2007). Problem-based learning and adult English language learners. Brief prepared for CAELA: Center for Adult English Language Acquisition, Center for Applied Linguistics. Bilkent University. Retrieved February 9, 2010, from

External links

Maastricht University PBL Profile - Example of how problem-based learning has been successfully integrated into the educational philosophy and methodology of a postsecondary institution.

Stanford's PBL Lab - Relevant and applicable research findings and education for understanding and utilizing PBL in adult educational contexts.

University of Colorado PBL Resources - Numerous PBL resources including additional readings, virtual resources, professional development workshops, and tutorials.

University of Delaware PBL - Sample PBL problems for the postsecondary level in biology, chemistry, criminal justice, and physics.