MET:PBL and Science Education

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Overview of PBL

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is a popular educational term that includes cognition, pedagogy, and educational philosophy. Although it has been applied in many different educational settings across a wide range of subjects, its original purpose was to teach critical thinking skills and reasoning to Medical students at the Medicine Program at McMaster University (Cockrell et. al., 2000). In many ways PBL is best suited to the Sciences where students are likely to encounter real world problems that require critical analysis and independent thinking.

History of PBL in North America

In 1969, the problem-based learning (PBL) medical curriculum began at McMaster University in Canada. The curriculum included “the selection of students with non-traditional educational background and complete integration of basic biomedical sciences into a single program” (Donner & Bickley, 1993, p. 295). Since then, other North American medical schools started adopting PBL curriculum into their programs. In 1979, the University of New Mexico (UNM) was the first medical school in the United States which began a PBL curriculum. The students at UNM study the program through both a traditional method (lecture-based) and a small number of PBL (Donner & Bickley, 1993). Later, in 1982, Mercer University founded School of Medicine (MUSM) with full commitment to PBL without a traditional lecture-based curriculum which opened the doors as a PBL school with “complete basic science integration” without a conventional curriculum (Donner & Bickley, 1993, p. 295). Afterwards, Harvard University School of Medicine adopted PBL “first as an alternative track and later as standard for all medical students” (Donner & Bickley, 1993, p. 295).

Structure of PBL

Since its inception five decades ago PBL has evolved to meet the needs of a diverse educational landscape. Despite these changes there is a general consensus (Cockrell, et. al, 2000; Spronken-Smith & Harland, 2009; Spence, 2004; Senocak, 2009) that PBL activities include four basic things:

  1. Open ended, ill-structured real world problem
  2. Small collaborative groups
  3. Students conducting research into the problem
  4. Scaffolded assistance from a tutor or coach

PBL and Educational Theory

PBL draws on many different educational theories and ideas. The open ended, real world problems allow students to make connections between new material and previous experiences cementing PBLs position as a Constructivist Strategy. (Constructivism, 2009). By allowing students to work in small groups PBL also incorporates Social Learning Theory that suggest students learn effectively by observing others and discussing learning activities in small groups. According to Vygotsky, when individuals cooperate to complete a task it reflects how those tasks are typically accomplished (1978). Finally, in PBL teachers act as coaches instead of didactic instructors which easily allows students to learn in their Zone of Proximal Development. Teachers have the ability to appropriately scaffold learning, adding or removing supports as students need. This gives students the opportunity to be challenged by the problem at hand, yet still feel some efficacy regarding their own knowledge and learning. Goos et. al. Stated that "ZPD suggests there is learning potential in peer groups where have incomplete but relatively equal expertise”. This is essentially describing a peer group engaged in PBL.

PBL & Science Education

Problem-based learning was initially designed to teach health science students how to analyze complex, real world problems. Since the 1960s it has “been adopted outside of medical schools – primarily in engineering, pharmacy, nursing biology and other basic sciences” (Spence, 2004). Science requires students to be critical and independent thinkers and PBL helps students develop those skills. According to Parker (1995) Problem-Based Learning:

  • Simulates problems students will meet in their professional work
  • Fosters the acquisition of skills of self directed learning
  • Fosters interdisciplinary learning

Although Parker focused on Australia medical schools his conclusions can be generalized to most science and technology material students are likely to meet. The benefits of this type of learning are then:

  • The ability to provide real world problems (both in terms of complexity and proximity) that are directly relevant to potential careers
  • Encourage students to develop as lifelong learners
  • Develop meta-cognitive skills so students gain an understanding about the unique ways they learn
  • Help students develop cross-curricular content links which will further reinforce learning

PBL allows the students to learn “in ways that are similar to real world situations” (as cited in Akcay, 2009). PBL also enables the students to demonstrate comprehension rather than replication or memorization of the problems (as cited in Akcay, 2009). Most faculty members are in favour of PBL when they compare PBL with traditional curriculum since faculty members find that PBL is “a more natural format for learning and contains many build-in motivational features” (Donner & Bickley, 1993, p. 297). The students more engaged in learning because the students have to tackle with dissonance and have a control over the outcome of their investigation and research (as cited in Akcay, 2009). Moreover, the students develop meta-cognitive skills and self-regulated learning style by:

  • Creating their own strategies for problems, information gathering, data-analysis, and hypothesis-building and testing.
  • Comparing and sharing those strategies with other students and/or mentors (as cited in Akcay, 2009).

PBL students are able to develop multifarious learning skills since “many different resources must be consulted” in PBL (Donner & Bickley, 1993, p. 297). The students use texts, monographs, periodical literature, and a wide variety of other sources. Conflicting information sometimes rises among PBL students and they realize that there is more than one correct answer. This allows the students to develop a critical thinking ability (Donner & Bickley, 1993).

The sciences offer many different ways of providing PBL opportunities for students. These can include inquiry based laboratory experiments, group research projects, web simulations and deductive reasoning activities.

Implementation of PBL

There are ten steps which are based on a medical school model to implement PBL in science education. PBL students:

  1. Are exposed to an ill-defined problem. An ill-defined problem should be unclear and be able to raise questions about what is known, what is not known, and how to find the answers to those questions.
  2. Ask questions themselves and their peers what the problems are and what needed to be known in order to answer the questions.
  3. Identify problem-finding strategies with suggestions from the tutors.
  4. Create a construct map for problem-finding activities and prioritize the problems.
  5. Investigate and research the problems.
  6. Analyze results based on the questions that the students generated earlier.
  7. Reiterate learning. The students present what they investigated to their peers.
  8. Create solutions and recommendations according to their research.
  9. Communicate the results with the tutors and others what they have learned. In this stage, there may be an assessment for student performance. For example, it can be report, practical examination or oral presentations.
  10. Conduct self-assessment. The students analyze their performance for PBL in terms of problems solving, knowledge acquisitions, and self-directed and collaborate learning skills (Sonmez & Lee, 2003).

Examples of PBL in Science

Problem based learning already has an extensive history of post-secondary application. It has been used successfully in university programs such as

  • Geography Research at New Zealand University (Spronken-Smith & Harland, 2009)
  • McMaster University Medical College (Cockrell et. al., 2000)
  • University of New Mexico (Albanese & Mitchell, 1993)
  • Harvard University (Albanese & Mitchell, 1993)

In these contexts PBL is used to prepare students to participate as effective members of a Community of Practice (CoP) in their chosen fields. Driver et. al. notes that “learning science involves young people entering into a different way of thinking about and explaining the natural world; becoming socialized to a greater or lesser extent into the practices of the scientific community” (1994). They are essentially talking about students developing legitimate peripheral participation in a CoP. As students experience how the process of science works, they gradually move closer to the center of the CoP.


Significant research has been done to try and incorporate PBL into the primary, secondary, and post secondary education system. Almost ten years ago Cockrell et. al. noted that numerous studies had been done investigating how PBL could be applied in a secondary school setting (2000). Many new and old science resources contain elements that easily lend themselves to PBL. One such example are the laboratory investigations in Drago and Zumdahl's (1985) Chemistry laboratory manual. In one particular modification of an experiment, students were asked to determine if tap water is suitable to drink based on its salinity. In small groups, students were required to conduct research to determine the maximum safe concentration of salt in water, methods of measuring salinity, and appropriate scientific procedures. Upon completing this research students were to take water samples and conduct the experiments. Finally, they summarized their results by explaining their experimental procedure, evidence and calculations. The expectation is that during this entire process, the teacher provides students with directions to appropriate resources and offers opinions and ideas on the direction students are taking.

Of course, this represents only one way PBL can be applied to a science class. Depending on the learning outcomes and desired skill sets the results can vary widely.

Drawbacks of PBL

Although there are many advantages to utilize PBL in the curriculum, some disadvantages and limitations also exist. Those are related to: costs, academic achievement, amount of time required for PBL session, faculty workload, tutor quality, supplemental training, role of students, role of tutors/teachers, appropriateness of problems, and appropriate assessment of student performance (Donner & Bickley, 1993; as cited in Sonmez & Lee, 2003). It seems that creating proper questions as well as appropriate assessment tools for student performance are the crucial aspects in PBL application. Suggested appropriate assessment tools would be “written examination or reports, practical examinations, construction of concept maps, peer assessment, self-assessment, or oral presentations” (Sonmez & Lee, 2003, para. 19). As the role of students, some students experience difficulties to change from traditional learning style to self-directed PBL learning style. Since PBL is a group-based learning, the students also have to learn how to participate in groups (as cited in Sonmez & Lee, 2003). Costs and resistance to change in educational delivery system among educators are other limitations. Those limitations should be discussed in professional development of teachers (as cited in Sonmez & Lee, 2003). The tutors in PBL should serve as mentors rather than as teachers. The tutors should also learn how to “communicate with the students at the meta-cognitive level, facilitating reasoning by asking questions and not giving too much information” (as cited in Sonmez & Lee, 2003, para. 21).

The Challenge in Problem-based Medical Curricula

Although more than sixty medical schools in the world have switched to problem-based learning (PBL), most PBL schools still require their students to pass the examinations (Sweeney, 1999). The examinations tend to be knowledge acquired and to being separate “from its application to clinical problems” (Sweeney, 1999, p. 18). Some researchers indicated that there was a discrepancy in “the knowledge base as a feature of PBL curricula” (Sweeney, 1999, p. 18). Other researchers reviewed studies which were regarding differences between PBL and the traditional curricula in terms of academic achievements (Sweeney, 1999). When multiple-choice questions are utilized to evaluate academic achievement, there were minimal differences in PBL and the traditional curricula although there was a bias toward the traditional curricula (Sweeney, 1999). Canadian and Dutch studies showed that clinical skills improved among PBL students; however, Australian study could not identify the difference (Sweeney, 1999). Currently, there is no evidence that basic science knowledge becomes more useful in clinical practice as a result of changing the curricula to PBL (Sweeney, 1999). Sweeney (1999) stated that “until clinical medicine itself changes, the utility of science in the training of a physician will remain difficult to demonstrate” (p. 15).

Issues with PBL

Although PBL is an often used strategy in post-secondary settings its benefits are not universally accepted. As Jones states “there is little evidence that PBL makes a significant difference in students learning and development over time” (Jones, 2002). Other studies have noted mixed results when comparing the content knowledge of students who learn through PBL compared with those of more traditional instruction. (Cockrell, et. al., 2000; Albanese & Mitchell 1993). Despite Jones criticism she goes on to say that “PBL has the potential to make a difference in terms of student learning and development” (Jones, 2002). This can be taken to mean that although the current results of PBL may not always indicate significant differences in learning, the potential to impact students does exist.


Problem based Learning began as a teaching strategy for Medical Science students almost 50 years ago. Since then it has expanded to include teaching resources in numerous other science disciplines. As a teaching strategy it incorporates elements of many different learning theories and pedagogical principles including Constructivism, Social Learning Theory, and Zones of Proximal Development. Problem based learning is generally defined as activities that included 4 key points:

1) Open ended, poorly structured problems

2) Small groups attempting to solve those problems

3) Students are responsible for doing their own research

4) Teachers coaching and guiding instead of directly instructing

Although some questions about the efficacy of PBL still exist many experts agree that it improves and reinforces problem solving skills, critical thinking and general retention of information.

See Also

Collaborative Learning


Problem-Based Learning

Simulation for Medical Training

Simulation for Science Education

Social Cognitive Theory

Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development

Stop Motion Artifact


Akcay, B. (2009). Problem-based learning in science education. Journal of Turkish Science Education, 6(1), 26-36.

Albanese, M. A., & Mitchell, S. (1993). Problem-based learning: a review of literature of its outcomes and implementation issues. Academic Medicine, 8(1), 52–81.

Bridges, E. M., & Hallinger, P. (1995). Problem-based learning in leadership development. Portland: University of Oregon. ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management.

Casey, M.B., & Howson, P. (1993). Educating preservice students based on a problem-centered approach to teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 44(5), 361–369.

Cockrell, K., Caplow, H., Donaldson, J. (2000). A context for learning: collaborative groups in the problem-based learning environment. The Review of Higher Education, 23(3), 347–363.

Constructivism. (n.d.). In wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Donner, R. S., & Bickley, H. (1993). Problem-based learning in American medical education an overview. Bulletin of the Medical Library Association, 81(3), 294-297.

Drago, R., & Zumdahl, S. (1985). General chemistry problem solving. Springdale OH: DC Heath & Co

Jones, E. (2002). Myths about assessing the impact of problem-based learning on students. The journal of general education, 51(4), 326–344.

Parker, M. (1995). Autonomy, problem-based learning and the teaching of medical ethics. Journal of Medical Ethics, 21(5), 305-310.

Rosalind, D., Asoko, H., Leach, J., Mortimer, E., & Scott, P. (1994). Constructing scientific knowledge in the classroom. Educational Researcher, 23(7), 5-12.

Senocak, E. (2009). Development of an instrument for assessing undergraduate science student’s perceptions: the problem-based learning environment inventory. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 18(6), 561-569.

Sonmez, D., & Lee, H. (2003). Problem-based learning in science. Eric Clearinghouse for Science Mathematics and Environmental Education Columbus OH. Retrieved from

Spence, L. (2004). The usual doesn’t work: why we need problem-based learning. Libraries and the Academy, 4(4), 485–493.

Spronken-Smith, R., & Harland, T. (2009). Learning to teach with problem-based learning. Active Learning in Higher Education, 10(2), 138–153.

Sweeney, G. (1999). The challenge for basic science education in problem-based medical curricula. Clinical and Investigative Medicine, 22(1), 15-22.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: Development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

External Links

Good PBL Lesson Plan

How to Implement Problem-Based Learning in Science Classrooms

Problem Based Learning: An Instructional Model and Its Constructivist Framework

Exploring the Development of Critical Thinking Skills Through a Web-supported Problem-based Learning Environment

A Qualitative Analysis of the Transition from Theory to Practice in Undergraduate Training in a PBL-Medical School