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Problem-Based Learning

Problem-based learning is a learner-centered curricular approach in which students learn about a subject by solving an open-ended problem, generally in teams. The inquiry-guided teaching method requires students to engage in research, connect theory and practice, and apply knowledge and skills to a real-world problem.

In problem-based learning, the role of the instructor shifts. Instead of teaching content and then asking students to apply the new information, the instructor first presents a problem. Students then work to understand the definition and scope of the problem, identify what they know and still need to learn in order to address the problem, make a plan for gathering new information, explore how they will solve the problem, and share their findings. It requires students to develop self-directed learning skills. Proponents of problem-based learning argue that the real-world problem motivates students to learn the knowledge and skills necessary to develop a solution (Amador, Miles, & Peters, 2007; Duch, Groh, & Allen, 2001).

Benefits of Problem-Based Learning

According to Zakrajsek & Nilson (2023, p.222), problem-based learning helps students develop the following skills and abilities:

  • Teamwork
  • Project management and leadership
  • Communication (oral and written)
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Tolerance for uncertainty
  • Critical thinking and analysis
  • Conceptual understanding and deep learning
  • Self-directed learning
  • Application of content knowledge
  • Application of metacognitive strategies
  • Research and information literacy
  • Knowledge retention
  • Decision-making
  • Problem-solving across disciplines

Project-Based vs. Problem-Based Learning

Problem-based learning and project-based learning have many similarities (and both are often referred to as "PBL"). In both approaches, students work in teams and have defined roles, and they work on a real-world problem. However, the outcomes of the two methods are different. In project-based learning, students create an artifact or product to demonstrate their understanding; in problem-based learning, students present a solution to a problem. (Read more about the differences and similarities between the two approaches.)


  • Cornell University offers considerations for using problem-based learning and tips for getting started.
  • The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign provides characteristics of good PBL problems and guidelines for creating PBL problems.
  • Problem-Based Learning: Six Steps to Design, Implement, and Assess: Provides practical guidance to faculty wishing to implement problem-based learning in their courses.
  • The University of Delaware's Institute for Transforming University Education (ITUE) was created in part to promote and train faculty to implement problem-based learning. Their website includes a host of resources for implementing problem-based learning, including a clearinghouse of problems (searchable by discipline), sample syllabi, and sample rubrics for evaluating problems and group members.
  • The University of Connecticut describes advantages and disadvantages of problem-based learning, contrasts the approach to "traditional learning," outlines steps in the problem-based learning process, and defines roles that student learners take during the process.

Additional Reading


  • Amador, J. A., Miles, L., & Peters, C. B. (2007). The practice of problem-based learning. Anker Publishing Company.
  • Duch, B. J., Groh, S. E., & Allen, D. E. (2001). Why problem-based learning? A case study of institutional change in undergraduate education. In B. J. Duch, S. E. Groh, & C. B. Peters (Eds.), The power of problem-based learning (pp. 3-12). Stylus.
  • Zakrajsek, T. D., & Nilson, L. B. (2023). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (5th edition). Jossey-Bass.