Learning Theories



Watch overview videoAn Introduction to PBL (4:30)


In the late 1960’s, PBL was brought to the forefront of education by medical school educators at McMaster University in Canada to breathe new life into traditional teaching methods. It has since been adopted in other disciplines such as education, law, engineering, and the social sciences. The theory positions authentic, real-world problems as the focus of inquiry, and in small groups, students are given the freedom to use their prior knowledge and critical and creative thinking skills to solve problems in unique ways.

Guidelines for Use

Guideline 1 – Present/Identify the problem

Problems are defined by students and initiated by ambiguous triggers provided by the facilitator (teacher’s role in a PBL scenario). Triggers should be multi-faceted and demand a high cognitive load from students. Some examples of triggers are case studies, simulations, and testing hypotheses. There are multiple strategies for reaching a solution, as there are multiple solutions.

Guideline 2 – Group collaboration to develop a plan

Together, students develop a plan for solving the problem. They engage in brainstorming, research, and share their prior knowledge and different perspectives to add layers to the problem and possible solution. The end goal is not so much to solve the problem, but to enhance the final presentation.

Guideline 3 – Implementation of the plan

Here students test out the plan to see if they can solve the problem. Both solving the problem and discovering that there may not be just one, or any solution to the problem, are successful outcomes, as long as students can demonstrate critical thinking and clearly articulate their ideas.

Guideline 4 – Evaluation and Reflection

Students evaluate the implementation of the solution to the problem and/or reflect on the process of inquiry. Assessment is completed by self and peers and is based on the depth and clarity of the final presentation. Constructive and critical feedback is encouraged as opposed to cheerleading.

Guideline 5 – Importance of authenticity

The goal is of PBL is to encourage learners to dream, wonder, imagine, and feel empowered to solve real-world problems.  Triggering problems that actually exist in the learners’ context is most effective to increase the interest and motivation of the learners.

Good Examples of Use

Example 1 – Brainmass

Trello uses a card system which allows team members to interact and collaborate with each other on projects. Users can add comments, links, files, and photos to cards.

Example 2 – Venngage Case Study

Case studies are a classic way to trigger a problem in a PBL unit. Case studies activate analytical thinking and reflective judgement by reading and discussing real-world scenarios.

Helpful Resources

Resource 1 Study guides and Strategies (PBL)

This is a great link in that it provides a step-by-step process to implementing PBL, and the descriptions are concise, simple, and motivating to both teacher and learner. Clearly establishing guidelines and expectations of a PBL scenario are critical to successful implementation, and this website delivers!

Resource 2 –   PBL An Overview

This is a recent paper (2016) that describes the process of PBL, and through research reviews, examines the efficacy of all phases of PLB – problem analysis, self-directed learning, and reporting to understand the long and short-term effects of PBL on learning.

Resource 3 – PBL in 5 minutes

This is a link to a fun video which describes PBL in less than 5 minutes. It uses simple examples to show how using imagination and creativity is the most effective way to learn.


Gasser, K.W. (2011). Ideas for 21st century math classrooms. American Secondary Education, 39, 108–116.

Kay, R. (2016, May 22). Learning Theories and Technology – Part 1. [YouTube video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C8nHtBzSNUw

Spencer, J. (2017, November 12). Problem-based learning in less than five minutes [YouTube video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RGoJIQYGpYk&t=4s

Yew, E.H.J., Goh, K. (2016). Problem-based learning: An overview of its process and impact on learning. Health Professions Education, 2, 75–79. http://dx.doi.org.ezcentennial.ocls.ca/https://doi-org.ezcentennial.ocls.ca/10.1016/j.hpe.2016.01.004


Your Name Deborah McDavid-Pesikan
Email: Deborah.mcdavidpesikan@ontariotechu.ca
Bio: Deborah is an English as a Second Language teacher with research interests in innovative teaching methodologies to advance teaching and learning.  She has diverse experience in guiding and mentoring international students, with an inclusive student-centered approach to ensure that learners are supported and encouraged to achieve their academic goals.


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E-Learning Essentials 2020 Copyright © 2020 by Power Learning Solutions is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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