What is PBL?Brief History of PBLDescription of the methodReferences
    Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is a pedagogical approach that uses meaningful, lifelike situations that students can learn from. In PBL, students do not try to solve highly structured, cookbook-style problems. For instance, a typical physics problem states “a 5.0 kg block sitting on a horizontal, frictionless surface pushed by a 25.0 N force.” This approach unfortunately leads students to “formula hunting” instead of grasping the underlying concepts. With PBL, students make sense of the everyday context presented and work in small groups to not only discover an answer, but to first determine the question to solve. PBL requires students to distribute tasks and share expertise amongst themselves. The problems are designed to enable students to enquire and work collectively to construct understanding. In PBL, students don’t just learn the course content, they learn how to learn!    
    Nearly 100 years ago, John Dewey declared, “School should be less of a preparation for life and more like life itself.” To make medical instruction more “like life itself,” instructors at McMaster University’s Faculty of Medicine developed Problem-Based Learning in 1969 (Albanese and Mitchell, 1993; Vernon and Blake, 1993). Medical instructors were frustrated by the difference between traditional didactic lecturing and the clinical reality that their students would eventually face, so they decided to base their instruction on actual cases. Students were presented with a clinical problem that they could solve only by learning the relevant medical knowledge. PBL proved to be successful, and a number of other medical schools adopted the approach, including Harvard Medical School. Currently, 70% of medical faculties in the US use PBL in pre-clinical years (Kinkade, 2005). In Quebec, all medical faculties make use of PBL in medical training.

As a pedagogical approach, PBL has been successfully implemented in various disciplines, such as architecture (Maitland, 1997), business (Stinson and Milter, 1996), education (Duffy, 1994), law (Driessen and Van der Vleuten, 2000), social work (Boud and Feletti, 1991), engineering (Fink, 1999; Woods, 1994) and physics (Wiliams, 2001; Wiliams and Duch, 1997; Duch, 1996). Furthermore, the Quebec reform in elementary and high school science education explicitly calls for more project and problem-based instruction. Although high schools and universities make use of the approach, no PBL resources currently exist for Cegep science instruction. This website is devoted to bridging this gap.
  Presentation Format    
    What does a PBL class look like? Interestingly, there is no unique answer to this question. Indeed, given the initial success of the approach, many versions of PBL have evolved. The overarching principle of PBL is that to enhance learning, instruction should be centred upon context-rich group activities that are meaningful to students. Therefore PBL instruction always involves an authentic activity, a lifelike, context-rich problem to be solved by a group of students. How and when this problem is given to students varies depending on the type of PBL being implemented. Thus, a number of alternate PBL approaches are presented below.    
    Before vs. After Instruction    
    There are two different types of PBL. The main difference is whether the PBL problem comes before or after instruction. In the original McMaster version of PBL, students were presented with a problem before any formal instruction had taken place. In trying to solve the problem, students learned about the topic. The PBL problem in this approach drives the learning (Woods, 1994). In the second version of PBL, problems are presented after some formal instruction. Therefore, the problem is not used to build understanding, but rather to tie in different bits of knowledge and act as a synthesis activity (Heller et al., 1992). Both approaches have proved to be effective, so it is left to the individual instructors to choose which is best suited for their classroom and institutional constraints.

In-class vs. in the Lab
    PBL problems can also be given either as text-based, in-class problems or as hands-on, lab-based activities. Traditionally, an authentic everyday problem is depicted in a textual description of the problem. These text-based PBL problems are well-suited for classroom use since all the contextual information is contained in the problem sheet and students work to collectively solve it. However, one may question the “authentic” nature of a problem given on a sheet of paper to students in a classroom. To enhance the authentic nature of the problem, it is possible to build a hands-on problem that includes only part of the context on a sheet of paper. The rest of the information may be gathered from real objects described in the text that are available to students for inspection, evaluation and measurement. These problems are suitable for laboratory instruction. It is interesting to note that although the hands-on approach contributes more to conceptual learning, both PBL approaches provide significantly better conceptual learning than traditional didactic instruction (Lasry, 2006; Lasry and Aulls, 2007).    
  Useful Links and Other Online Resources    
    The links below are to websites that are devoted to the development and use of PBL and other context-rich problem solving approaches, such as the Cooperative Group Problem Solving approach.    
    University of Minnesota’s Cooperative Group Problem Solving:
    This link leads to a booklet on the Cooperative Group Problem Solving model developed by Pat and Ken Heller of the University of Minnesota. The booklet includes chapters on the model, the use of context-rich problems and problem-solving laboratories. Note that in this model, problems are used as syntheses activities, that is, the problems do not drive the learning, as the problems are given to students as synthesis activities after they have learned formally about the content.    
    University of Delaware: http://www.udel.edu/pbl/
UDelaware Problem Based Learning Clearinghouse: https://chico.nss.udel.edu/Pbl/
    The Problem-Based Learning Clearinghouse is a warehouse of PBL problems for different university-level course content. Registration (a login and password) is required to browse through the clearinghouse.    
    PBL in large classes (McMasters Chem Engineering, D. Woods):
    This site was put together and is maintained by Don Woods at McMasters. It includes brief descriptions of what PBL is and how it can be used particularly with large enrolment classes. It also includes a link to Woods’ now-classic book on PBL.    
    Albanese, M.A., and S. Mitchell. (1993). Problem-based learning: A review of literature on its outcomes and    
    implementation issues. Academic Medicine, 68, 52-81.    
    Boud, D., and G. Feletti (Eds.). (1991). The Challenge of Problem-Based Learning. New York: St. Martin's    
    Driessen, E.W., and C.P.M. Vleuten. (2000). Matching student assessment to problem-based learning: Lessons    
    from experience in a law faculty. Studies in Continuing Education 22 (2), 235-48.    
    Duch, B.J. (1996). Problem-based learning in physics: The power of students teaching students. Journal of    
    College Science Teaching 15 (5), 326-29.    
    Duffy, T.M. (1994). Corporate and community education: Achieving success in the information society.    
    Unpublished paper. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University.    
    Fink, F.K. (1999). Integration of engineering practice into curriculum: 25 years of experience with    
     problem-based learning. Proceedings of the 29th Annual Frontiers in Education Conference.    
    Heller, P., and K. Heller. (1999). Cooperative group problem solving in physics. University of Minnesota.    
    Full text available online at:
    Heller, P., R. Keith and S. Anderson. (1992). Teaching problem solving through cooperative grouping. Part 1,    
    Group versus individual problem solving. American Journal of Physics, 60 (7), 627-36.    
    Heller, P., and M. Hollabough. (1992). Teaching problem solving through cooperative grouping. Part 2,    
    Designing problems and structuring groups. American Journal of Physics, 60 (7), 637-44.    
    Lasry, N. (2006). A quasi-experimental test of learning paradigms. Doctoral dissertation, McGill University.    
    Lasry, N., and M. Aulls. (In press). The effect of multiple internal representations on context rich instruction,    
    to be published in the American Journal of Physics.
Pre-print available online at: http://arxiv.org/ftp/physics/papers/0605/0605148.pdf.
    Maitland, B. (1997). Problem-based learning for architecture and construction management. In D. Boud and G.    
    Feletti (1997) The Challenge of Problem-Based Learning, London, UK: Kogan Page Ltd.    
    Stinson, J., and R. Milter. (1996). Problem-based learning in business education: Curricular design and    
    implementation issues. In “Bringing problem-based learning to higher education: Theory and practice,” L. Wilkerson and W. Gijselaers (Eds.), New directions for teaching and learning, Number 68 (Winter): Jossey-Bass.    
    Vernon, D.T.A., and R.L. Blake. (1993). Does problem-based learning work? A meta-analysis of evaluation    
    research. Academic Medicine, 68 (7), 550-63.    
    Wiliams, B.A., and B.J. Duch. (1997). Cooperative problem-based learning in an undergraduate classroom.    
    In A.P. McNeal and C. D’Avanzo (Eds.), Student Active Science: Models of Innovation in College Science Teaching. Saunders.    
    Williams, B.A. (2001). Introductory physics: A problem-based model. In B.J. Duch, S.E. Groh and D.E. Allen    
    (Eds.), The power of problem-based learning: A practical “how to” for teaching courses in any discipline (p. 265). Sterling, VA: Stylus.    
    Woods, D.R. (2005). Problem-based learning, especially in the context of large classes.    
    At http://chemeng.mcmaster.ca/pbl/pbl.htm.    
    Woods, D.R. (1994). Problem-based learning: How to gain the most from PBL. Watertown, ON: Donald R.