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MDC's Center for Innovative Teaching & Learning: Problem Based Learning

Problem Based Learning

Problem based learning infographic

Problem Based Learning

Problem-based learning (PBL) is an exciting alternative to traditional classroom learning.

With PBL, your teacher presents you with a problem, not lectures or assignments or exercises. Since you are not handed "content", your learning becomes active in the sense that you discover and work with content that you determine to be necessary to solve the problem.

In PBL, your teacher acts as facilitator and mentor,
rather than a source of "solutions."

Problem based learning will provide you with opportunities to

  • examine and try out what you know
  • discover what you need to learn
  • develop your people skills for achieving higher performance in teams
  • improve your communications skills
  • state and defend positions with evidence and sound argument
  • become more flexible in processing information and meeting obligations
  • practice skills that you will need after your education

A Summary of Problem-Based Learning:
This is a simplified model--more detailed models are referenced below.

The steps can be repeated and recycled.
Steps two through five may be repeated and reviewed as new information becomes available and redefines the problem.
Step six may occur more than once--especially when teachers place emphasis on going beyond "the first draft."

1. Explore the issues:
Your teacher introduces an "ill-structured" problem to you.
Discuss the problem statement and list its significant parts. 
You may feel that you don't know enough to solve the problem but that is the challenge! 
You will have to gather information and learn new concepts, principles, or skills as you engage in the problem-solving process.

2. List "What do we know?"
What do you know to solve the problem?
This includes both what you actually know and what strengths and capabilities each team member has.
Consider or note everyone's input, no matter how strange it may appear: it could hold a possibility!

3. Develop, and write out, the problem statement in your own words:
A problem statement should come from your/the group's analysis of what you know, and what you will need to know to solve it. You will need:

  • a written statement
  • the agreement of your group on the statement
  • feedback on this statement from your instructor.
    (This may be optional, but is a good idea)

Note: The problem statement is often revisited and edited as new information is discovered, or "old" information is discarded.

4. List out possible solutions
List them all, then order them from strongest to weakest
Choose the best one, or most likely to succeed

5. List actions to be taken with a timeline

  • What do we have to know and do to solve the problem?
  • How do we rank these possibilities?
  • How do these relate to our list of solutions?
    Do we agree?

6. List "What do we need to know?"
Research the knowledge and data that will support your solution
You will need to information to fill in missing gaps.

  • Discuss possible resources
    Experts, books, web sites, etc.
  • Assign and schedule research tasks, especially deadlines

If your research supports your solution, 
and if there is general agreement, go to (7). If not, go to (4)

7. Write up your solution with its supporting documentation, and submit it. 
You may need to present your findings and/or recommendations to a group or your classmates.

This should include the problem statement, questions, data gathered, analysis of data, and support for solutions or recommendations based on the data analysis: in short, the process and outcome.

Presenting and defending your conclusions:
The goal is to present not only your conclusions,
but the foundation upon which they rest. Prepare to

  • State clearly both the problem and your conclusion
  • Summarize the process you used, options considered, and difficulties encountered
  • Convince, not overpower
    Bring others to your side, or to consider without prejudice your supporting documentation and reason
  • Help others learn, as you have learned
  • If challenged
    and you have an answer, present it clearly
    and you don't have an answer, acknowledge it and refer it for more consideration

Sharing your findings with teachers and students is an opportunity in demonstrating that you have learned. If you know your subject well, this will be evident. If a challenge arises that you cannot respond to, accept it as an opportunity to be explored. However, take pride in your attention to quality when you present. See also the Guide on presenting projects.

8. Review your performance
This debriefing exercise applies both to individuals and the group.
Take pride in what you have done well; learn from what you have not done well. Thomas Edison took pride in unsuccessful experiments as part of his journey to successful outcomes!

9. Celebrate your work!

Why problem based learning?

The Motivation to Learn Begins with a Problem

In a problem-based learning (PBL) model, students engage complex, challenging problems and collaboratively work toward their resolution. PBL is about students connecting disciplinary knowledge to real-world problems—the motivation to solve a problem becomes the motivation to learn.


Through problem-based learning, students can improve their problem-solving skills, research skills, and social skills. In addition, PBL benefits students in the following ways:

  • Increases motivation to learn
  • Develops critical thinking, writing, and communication skills
  • Enhances retention of information
  • Provides a model for lifelong learning
  • Demonstrates the power of working cooperatively


The primary role of an instructor is to facilitate group process and learning—not to provide easy answers. By relinquishing the control of answers, instructors are able to learn with students, and they often find renewed interest and excitement in teaching. The challenge in teaching a PBL model is creating strong problems that lead students to realize the intended course learning outcomes.

Problem Based Learning in action

Resources for Problem based learning

Resources for Problem-Based Learning

We offer the following resources for instructors:

Sample Syllabi

View sample syllabi from various disciplines, including Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Nutrition and Dietetics.

Learn more

Evaluation Forms

Download the PBL course ratings forms and course evaluation forms.

Learn more


Sample Problems

Read sample problems that complement a number of disciplines, including Biology, Chemistry/Biochemistry, Criminal Justice, and Physics.

Learn more

Groups in Action

Videos to help start the discussion on how instructors and peer facilitators can resolve specific issues and challenges that may emerge in groups.

Learn more