Learning Theories



Watch overview videoProblem Based Learning (5:03)


Initially developed at McMaster University in the 1960’s, PBL is an instructional approach that uses real-world, open ended problems or scenarios to prompt learners to collaboratively research, test and implement solutions. In PBL, students create their own learning agenda, identify their own learning needs and hold each other collectively accountable for contributions (Wood, 2003). Tasks may blend individual and group study. The goal is not necessarily for learners to solve the challenge, but to engage in the process of self-directed researching, knowledge sharing, collaborative work and problem solving.

Guidelines for Use

Guideline 1 – Prepare and support students in the rigour of collaborative work.

Scaffold in expectations for productive group collaboration by using community agreements and regular meetings with groups.

Guideline 2 – Incorporate across curriculum planning

PBL usually forms a core basis of curriculum planning and design, rather than individual lesson planning or course delivery (Wood, 2003). Expecting learners to engage frequently and consistently in the tasks of PBL will enhance their intrinsic motivation, research skills, and collaboration skills over time.

Good Examples of Use

Example 1 – PBL in Practice by The University of Hong Kong (via Coursera)

This video both explains and shows the PBL approach in action in a university tutorial.

Example 2 – Using Project-Based Learning in the Classroom by LD@School

This Ontario-specific resource shares examples of the ways PBL is used in classrooms to promote global competencies, engagement and differentiation.  Scroll down to the PBL in Action section for concrete examples, tied to Ontario curriculum.

Example 3 – Problem Based Learning: Project Examples from Learning is Open

These examples outline the cross-curricular integrations and processes of applied PBL approaches in K-8 contexts in the United States.

Helpful Resources

Resource 1 – Instructional Guide on PBL from Queen’s University’s Center for Teaching and Learning

This resource gives an overview of this approach, why it is in use, and it’s processes. It outlines advice for designing and developing a PBL course, along with suggestions for assessment.

Resource 2 – The Tutor in PBL by Dr. Allyn Walsh

Intended as a guide for faculty new to teaching in PBL in the post-secondary context, this resource from McMaster University clearly identifies steps, the role of the educator, and processes to get groups started with PBL.

Resource 3 – What Works? Research into Practice tip sheet on Problem Based Learning in Mathematics

This 4 page tip sheet is backed by research and gives examples of PBL use across K-8 classrooms.

Resource 4 – Fifty Years On: A Retrospective on the World’s First Problem-based Learning Programme at McMaster University Medical School by Virginie Servant

This article contextualises the history of how and why PBL was developed, and offers insight into how this method succeeded in its infancy in the McMaster medical school.


Barrows, H. (1983). Problem-Based, Self-directed Learning. Journal of the American Medical Association, 250(22), 3077-3080.

Capon, N., and Kuhn, D. (2010). What’s so Good about Problem-Based Learning? Cognition and Instruction 22(1), 61-79.

Hmelo-Silver, C. (2004). Problem-Based Learning: What and How do Students Learn? Educational Psychology Review 16(3), 235-266.

Wood, D.  (2003). Problem based learning. British Medical Journal 2003;  326:328. doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.326.7384.328


Submitted by Jesslyn Wilkinson

Contact Info: @jesslyndw

Bio: Jesslyn is the Educational Technology Officer at Conestoga. An Ontario Certified Teacher, and a M.Ed candidate, Jesslyn researches and promotes new technologies for faculty to enhance pedagogical practices. She brings to the role her experience as a Google and Microsoft certified technology trainer and as a classroom teacher internationally and in Ontario, focusing on special education, tech-integrated learning and assistive technologies.


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