Teaching and Learning Strategies
Problem-based Learning

What is Problem-based learning?

Problem-based learning is another teaching and learning strategy that challenges students to seek solutions to real-world problems. The problems are designed to arouse student curiosity, attempt to engage students in authentic and interesting types of activities, and prepare them to think critically and analytically.

An interesting historical note about problem-based learning is that it was first used in medical schools in the 1970s. Medical students were finding that their educational experiences had little connection to the real-life activities of practicing doctors; consequently, they began using problem-based learning environments to examine, diagnose and solve real-world patient problems. This use laid the groundwork for applying problem-based teaching and learning strategy in other educational arenas.

Problem-based learning is generally composed of two parts: a question or a problem, which is either student or teacher generated, and the students’ arrival at a solution. Students need to feel competent and have the skills to solve the problem, but it is essential that students do not possess sufficient prior knowledge to address the entire problem. As students work in cooperative learning groups they examine the problem, research, discuss, analyze, and produce tentative recommendations, explanations, or solutions.

A key element to problem-based learning is that it focuses on students solving problems perceived as meaningful or relevant to their lives. At the center of problem-based learning are “fuzzy” (ill structured) questions that lack an easy solution, but mirror real-life problems. The questions must not be limited in scope and must be conducive to many interpretations and solutions. An example of a “fuzzy” question would be “What would be the result of a really bad North Dakota winter on the local environment?” In comparison, the following question is not “fuzzy”, as it looks for a more specific “right” answer: “This winter we received 42 inches of snow, and in the spring we received 10 inches of rain. How does this compare to the average yearly precipitation?”

How does problem-based learning encourage student learning?

In problem-based learning, the traditional teacher and student roles change. When the students assume responsibility for their learning, they become motivated and feel a sense of accomplishment. Problem-based learning engages students in activities that are similar to those they will use in future situations. In assessing problem-based learning, students demonstrate their understanding and not mere fact acquisition.

Problem-based learning can give students the feeling of empowerment because they have an impact on the outcome of the investigation. The ill-structured problem scenario calls forth critical and creative thinking by suspending the guessing game of, “What’s the right answer the teacher wants me to find?” The responsibility of the teacher is to provide the educational materials and technology resources in the learning environment and guide the students in their problem solving efforts.

What does problem-based learning look like in the classroom?

Problem-based learning has as its organizing center a “fuzzy” (ill-structured) problem, which is messy and complex in nature, and requires inquiry, information gathering, and reflection. The problem has no simple, fixed, “right” solution.


The second grade teacher tells her students: “This morning when I got to school, the custodian was very excited. It seems that when she unlocked the doors this morning, there was a very large paw print on the wall outside our classroom that appears to belong to a large creature. Because we didn’t want to leave the print on the wall, we quickly traced it off on some paper and then Mrs. Curtis cleaned the print from the wall. This large print made us wonder just how big this creature was. Can you help me figure out the approximate size of the creature that would have a print this big? Can you also help me figure out what kind of creature it was? We have made copies of the print on paper for you to use.”


Letter from the president of the United States: Dear Citizen: It is my great honor to appoint you to membership on the new Buffalo Commons Commission which was recently established by the CONGRESS of the United States. It is the Commission’s expressed purpose to examine the viability of a proposed Buffalo Commons. I know that your expertise and interest will be of great value to the Commission and I look forward to your recommendations.


You are a thirty-six year old widow with a five-year-old daughter. When your spouse died, you received $20,000 in worker’s compensation and $10,000 in stock option shares. How can you invest this money so that by your daughter’s 18th birthday, its growth has maximized?



Present the problem statement. Introduce a “fuzzy” (ill-structured) problem or scenario to the students. They should not have enough prior knowledge to solve the problem.


List what is known. Students list what they know about the problem. This information is kept under the heading: “What do we know?” 


List what is needed. Students pose questions about what they do not understand. They need to find information to fill in missing gaps, and a second list is prepared under the heading: “What do we need to know?” 


List possible actions, recommendations or solutions. Under the heading: “What should we do?” students list actions to be taken (e.g., questioning an expert), and formulate and test tentative solutions.


Present and support the solution. Students communicate their findings and recommendations. This should include the problem statement, questions, data gathered, analysis of data, and support for solutions or recommendations based on the data analysis.

More on Problem-based Learning

Problem-based learning involves students in an active, collaborative, student-centered learning environment where the "fuzzy" question is the organizing center. It challenges students as they work with complex real-world problems.

Students familiar with the traditional "talk and chalk" classroom may be uncomfortable with problem-based learning for some time. Teachers need to be patient. It is up to the teacher to guide them through the process where there may not be one "right answer" to solve the problem. Those students who ask the question "What do I have to do to get an 'A'?" or "What does the teacher want?" are adept to "book learning" and may feel disjointed in problem-based learning roles. In many instances, the self-directed roles are unfamiliar: tracking down the best evidence related to the problem, critically examining the best evidence, coordinating with peers, and reporting back with the best solution to the problem. If students don't take ownership of the problem, they will spend their time trying to figure out and deliver exactly what the teacher wants, which defeats the intention of problem-based learning.

Problem-based learning is multifaceted. Using "real-world" problems is the stimulus for learning. It is based on the premise that students become more motivated because they "want to know" and solve the problem posed because it is presented in a context that simulates real-world situations. In addition, as students engage in solving the problem, they develop critical thinking and problem solving skills while learning content and skills essential to the curriculum.

The following simplified model describes the steps for implementing problem-based learning in K-12 classrooms. Steps two through four may be conducted concurrently as new information becomes available and redefines the problem. Step five may occur more than once - especially when teachers place emphasis on going beyond the first draft. 

  1. Present the problem. As the teacher, you introduce an "ill-structured" problem (or scenario) to the students. The problem serves as a focal point for knowledge acquisition and drives the instruction. Allow ample time for this process. You may need to provide background, clarify terminology and answer basic questions relating to understanding the problem.

    The students should have very limited background to solve the problem. This means that the students hold enough prior knowledge to understand the problem; but solving the problem requires more in-depth research.

    After the problem (or scenario) is introduced, students ask some basic questions: What do I already know about this problem? What do I need to know to effectively address this problem? What resources can I access to determine a proposed solution?

  2. List what is known. In answering the basic questions above, students begin by listing what they know about the problem. Some teachers like to facilitate this process by utilizing "What do we know" and "What do we need to know" boards. Using this technique, the problem becomes more defined as the students list what is known under the heading: "What do we know?" This is necessary before a problem statement or research question can be written.

  3. List what is needed. Now that the problem is developed, students need to find information to fill in missing gaps. A second list is prepared under the heading: "What do we need to know?" The questions developed in this list are essential to direct their searches so they can resolve the problem.

    With these questions guiding the way, the data collection (by individuals or cooperative learning teams) begins and group analysis of these data is now incorporated into the process. After several cycles of data collection and analysis, possible solutions to the problem are formulated. The potential solutions are examined in the light of all the evidence collected and the most practical solution is then selected.

    When utilizing the information, students must carefully appraise the worth of the data or resources. How current is it? How credible and accurate is it? Is there any reason to suspect bias in the source?

  4. List possible actions, recommendations, solutions, or hypotheses. Under the heading: "What should we do?" students list actions to be taken (e.g. questioning an expert), and formulate and test tentative hypotheses. The students must construct a solution to the problem and organize the information in new ways.

    To aid the students in organization, they can use a Problem Log where they keep a to-do list, time-line, observations, questions, list of resources, etc. The Problem Log reflects students' lines of inquiry, new questions that arise during the process and their thoughts on the problem. This tool also assists teachers in tracking student progress toward solving the problem. Students, with their teacher as a coach, continuously engage in a dialogue about what they discover and what they know/need to know.

  5. Present and support the solution. As part of closure, teachers generally require students to communicate their findings and recommendations. The product should include the problem statement, questions, data gathered, analysis of data, and support for solutions or recommendations based on the data analysis. The experience becomes most valuable when it culminates with the public sharing of the solution and with evaluation.

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