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Problem-based learning


Content Reviewers:

Rishi Desai, MD, MPH

Problem-based learning, or PBL for short, is an educational approach that’s collaborative and built around solving a complex real-life “problem” or scenario that you might come across in a professional setting.

Now, in traditional teaching, there’s teacher who stands in front of a big group of students and gives a lecture while the students scramble to listen, understand, and remember everything the teacher is saying.

It can be hard to keep track all of that new information, let alone really absorb it.

In contrast, problem-based learning is designed to teach students how to teach themselves while becoming master problem solvers along the way!

The classroom looks like this: a handful of students work in small groups exploring real-life scenarios with the guidance of a tutor.

Problem-based learning is often used in medical education where students work through clinical cases based on real life patients.

As an example, let’s say that our problem-based learning case describes a 72-year-old man who has chest pain.

The student-doctors start thinking about this problem by brainstorming a list of follow up questions.

Where exactly is the pain? When did it start? Are there any other symptoms? What is the past medical, drug, and family history? Could the patient have a heart, gastrointestinal, lung or even musculoskeletal problem?

Over the course of the session, the case might include lab data, pictures, videos or even a real life patient actor who will answer their questions.

Together, the students figure out what they already know and where they may have gaps in their knowledge.

Many questions start threads of information that lead to more questions and more threads and it can quickly evolve into a giant tangled spider web of knowledge and questions!

All of the information and these questions are tracked by a student scribe either on a whiteboard or a shared document online.

Many groups also create concept maps to organize their thoughts, to help untangle the web, and that helps mirror how our brains work to construct knowledge.

So while the students are asking questions about the problem, creating and tangling and untangling information - where’s the tutor and what’s their job?

Problem-based learning (PBL) is a student-centered pedagogy in which students learn about a subject through the experience of solving an open-ended problem found in trigger material. The PBL process does not focus on problem solving with a defined solution, but it allows for the development of other desirable skills and attributes. This includes knowledge acquisition, enhanced group collaboration and communication. The PBL process was developed for medical education and has since been broadened in applications for other programs of learning. The process allows for learners to develop skills used for their future practice. It enhances critical appraisal, literature retrieval and encourages ongoing learning within a team environment.