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The Motivation to Learn Begins with a Problem

March 24, 2012

Introducing Problem Based Learning

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.

PBL Diagram

Summary: Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is an instructional method of hands-on, active learning centered on the investigation and resolution of messy, real-world problems.

Originators: Late 1960s at the medical school at McMaster University in Canada.

Key Terms: open-ended problems, self-directed learners, teacher as facilitator, student as problem solver

Problem-Based Learning (PBL)

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is a pedagogical approach and curriculum design methodology often used in higher education and K-12 settings.

The following are some of the defining characteristics of PBL:

  • Learning is driven by challenging, open-ended problems with no one “right” answer
  • Problems/cases are context specific
  • Students work as self-directed, active investigators and problem-solvers in small collaborative groups (typically of about five students)
  • A key problem is identified and a solution is agreed upon and implemented
  • Teachers adopt the role as facilitators of learning, guiding the learning process and promoting an environment of inquiry

Rather than having a teacher provide facts and then testing students ability to recall these facts via memorization, PBL attempts to get students to apply knowledge to new situations. Students are faced with contextualized, ill-structured problems and are asked to investigate and discover meaningful solutions.

  How do I become a self-directed learner?

Becoming an excellent self-directed learner takes time, because it’s not just about academic ability, it’s also about emotional maturity and self-awareness.

If you’re a recent school leaver, you’re probably still working out your identity and learning how to manage your life. You may not be ready to become a fully-fledged self-directed learner yet, but you can certainly make a start.

If you’re a mature age student, you probably have a clearer concept of your identity and lots of strategies for managing your life. You may already have strong self-directed learning skills, and just need a tune-up.

For all learners, to become self-directed you will need to be highly motivated and take an active and critical approach to your studies (rather than seeing yourself as an empty vessel that will be ‘filled’ with knowledge by your lecturers and other experts).

Whatever stage of life you’re at, try to think about self-directed learning as an ongoing journey of self-discovery that will help you succeed at study, work and life. Who knows what you can achieve once you unleash your full learning potential!

Proponents of PBL believe that, as a strategy, it:

  • develops critical thinking and creative skills
  • improves problem-solving skills
  • increases motivation
  • helps students learn to transfer knowledge to new situations


PBL’s more recent influence can be traced to the late 1960s at the medical school at McMaster University in Canada. Shortly thereafter, three other medical schools — the University of Limburg at Maastricht (the Netherlands), the University of Newcastle (Australia), and the University of New Mexico (United States) took on the McMaster model of problem-based learning. Various adaptations were made and the model soon found its way to various other disciplines — business, dentistry, health sciences, law, engineering, education, and so on.


One common criticism of PBL is that students cannot really know what might be important for them to learn, especially in areas which they have no prior experience. Therefore teachers, as faciliators, must be careful to assess and account for the prior knowledge that students bring to the classroom.

Another criticism is that a teacher adopting a PBL approach may not be able to cover as much material as a conventional lecture-based course. PBL can be very challenging to implement, as it requires a lot of planning and hard work for the teacher. It can be difficult at first for the teacher to “relinquish control” and become a facilitator, encouraging the students to ask the right questions rather than handing them solutions.

Introduction to Teaching Online

The way that we teach and learn is continually being impacted by the proliferation of technology in our society. The development of the Internet has made it possible to create dynamic courses and make them available to students located around the world. Numerous universities, colleges, schools, and organizations have taken advantage of the opportunities made available through distance education. Distance learning has become a viable choice for instructional programs. It has been argued that distance education is a growing phenomenon that is here to stay (Palloff & Pratt, 2001).

Defining Distance Education
There are a variety of ways to define distance education. In the most general sense the term distance education simply means that instruction is created in one place and delivered to students in a different place. Correspondence courses are considered to be a form of distance education due to the separation of teacher and student (Cohen, 1999). Online instruction is another type of distance education involving the use of computer technology to deliver courses through the Internet. In the online course instructional materials are developed and posted online for students to access at various locations. Through this process the boundaries of the classroom essentially disappear.

Types of Distance Courses Involving Online Instruction
Teaching online involves using the Internet as the conduit for instruction. The extent to which a course is housed online can vary depending on the course design. The spectrum of online course designs ranges from minimal use of web-based resources to courses taught entire online as shown in Figure 1. A web supported course is taught in a face to face classroom and has supporting materials posted on a class web site. A blended course is taught partially online and partially face to face. An online course is taught entirely, or almost entirely, through the Internet. Typically, the fully online course is taught asynchronously meaning that students access the course at different times.

Figure 1: Spectrum of Online Course Designs
(Note: Roll your mouse over Figure 1 above.)

Growing Opportunities for Online Learning
The number of instructional programs offering distance education including online courses is on the rise. In a study conducted for the National Center for Educational Statistics, Waits and Lewis (2003) reported that during the academic year of 2000–2001 56% of 2-year and 4-year Title IV degree-granting post secondary institutions offered some form of distance education. Another 12% planned to offer distance education within the next three years. Internet based online courses were offered more often than any other distance delivery method. In fact, 90% of the distance programs available during 2000-2001 offered asynchronous online courses.

Students are actively taking advantage of these opportunities to complete part or all of their coursework online. In the fall semester of 2002 there were 1.6 million students taking courses online. One third of those students (578,986) took all of their courses online (Allen & Seamen, 2003). This may be due in part to the benefits of online instruction, which include:

  • Flexibility: Students are free to learn when it fits their schedules.
  • Accessibility: Students have greater access to instructional programs.
  • Time and Cost Efficiency: Students are free from the need to drive, find parking, or employ childcare.

Effectiveness of Online Courses
The effectiveness of distance education has been the focus of a vast quantity of research literature. Despite this no clear consensus has been reached about what effectiveness really means. A review of distance education research conducted by Phipps and Merisotis (1999) reported three broad measures used to identify effectiveness. These measures were:

  • Student outcomes, such as grades and test scores;
  • Student attitudes about learning through distance education; and
  • Overall student satisfaction toward distance learning. (p. 13)

The majority of the studies reviewed by Phipps and Merisotis indicated that distance learning compared favorably to traditional instruction. Yet, these results should be interpreted with prudence as the quality of some of the research has been called into question.

The real issue regarding effectiveness of distance education may be related more to teaching methodology than it is to the delivery method. From this perspective the technology used to support distance education becomes a tool rather than the source of course effectiveness. Good teaching appears to be the central factor that makes a course effective. Phipps and Merisotis (1999) articulated this point in the conclusion of their research review when stating, “The irony is that the bulk of the research on technology ends up addressing an activity that is fundamental to the academy, namely pedagogy—the art of teaching” (p. 8). Carol Twigg (2001) expressed related ideas when describing the nature of effective online courses. She has argued that a paradigm shift needs to occur in order to focus on making distance courses better rather than simply as good as face to face instruction. New models of online instruction can be combined with technology to teach in new and innovative ways.


Allen, I.E. & Seaman, J (2003). Sizing the opportunity: The quality and extent of online education in the United States , 2002 and 2003. Needham, MA: The Sloan Consortium.

Cohen, Avi (1999). Instructional technology and distance learning through the Internet. Educational Media International, 36 (3), 218-229.

Milheim, W. (2001). Faculty and administrative strategies for the effective implementation of distance education. British Journal of Educational Technology, 32 (5), 535-542.

Phipps, R. & Merisotis, J. (1999). What’s the difference? A review of contemporary research on the effectiveness of distance learning in higher education. Washington, DC: The Institute for Higher Education Policy.

Palloff, R.M & Pratt, K. (2001). Lessons from the cyberspace classroom: The realities of online teaching . San Francisco : Jossey-Bass.

Waits, T. & Lewis L. (2003). Distance Education at Degree-Granting Postsecondary Institutions: 2000–2001 ( NCES No. 2003-017). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

For more information, see:

  • Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem Based Learning
  • Barrows, H. S. & Tamblyn, R. M. (1980). Problem-based learning: An approach to medical education. New York: Springer.
  • Hmelo-Silver, C. E. (2004). Problem-based learning: What and how do students learn? Educational Psychology Review, 16, 235-266.
  • Hmelo-Silver, C. E. & Barrows, H. S. (2006). Goals and strategies of a problem-based learning facilitator. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning, 1. 21-39.
  • Savery, J. R., and Duffy, T. M. (1995). Problem based learning: An instructional model and its constructivist framework. Educational Technology, 35, 31-38.
  • Schmidt HG: Foundations of problem-based learning: some explanatory notes. Medical Education 27:422-432, 1993.

Compiled For Information Technology Affairs – Using Computer Aided Programs

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