Approaches_Cognitive Constructivism_Problem-Based Learning

Problem-Based Learning

A scenario

Johnny has been teaching Biology in a Secondary school for many years. Having graduated in Environmental Science, he is very interested in fostering environmental conservation among his students. Notwithstanding his desire, he realizes difficulties in eliciting students’ motivation in the lessons, because there are many concepts and terms to learn. By chance Johnny finds something interesting from a website, suggesting the use of scenarios or real world issues to establish a task for students to work on.

Figure 1. Collaboration and study. Source:

Johnny comes up with a scenario relating to water quality as below:

“The fish in part of the Tai Po Lam Tsuen River have found to be dying, your company is hired to find out what is causing the deaths, where is the pollutant and what measures could be employed to mitigate the situation….”. He then asks his students to first clarify the issue with him and discuss among themselves. They are also encouraged to list out points which might relate to the tasks and literature search is allowed. After that, small groups are formed and students start to brainstorm ideas/findings and interact with teacher as well. As a result, Johnny realizes that students are highly motivated to learn while their performance in solving the real case problems exceed his expectations.



In the 1960s Problem-Based Learning (PBL) was first applied in medical education to develop problem-solving skills and bring learning closer to real medical problems.

PBL is an instructional method that involves active learning. The main features of this approach are:

  • it is centered on the investigation and resolution of real-world problems, open-ended and ill-structured problems with no one “right” answer;

  • it places students in the active role of problem solvers;

  • students work as self-directed, active investigators and problem-solvers in small collaborative groups;

  • teachers adopt the role as facilitators, guide the learning process, and promote an environment of inquiry;

  • it develops in students the ability to find and use appropriate resources and strategies for problem solving;

  • it develops disciplinary knowledge in specific contexts, which can be transferred to new situations;

  • it increases motivation and self-regulation, and may help to establish learning as a lifetime habit; and

  • it develops the social skills involved in collaboration, as students work as as members of teams.


Basic Assumptions and Principles

PBL can be thought of as a combination of cognitive and social constructivist theories, as developed by Piaget and Vygotsky.

A set of instructional principles were derived by Savery and Duffy (1995), respectively

  • Anchor all learning activities to a larger task or problem. Learning must have a purpose beyond.

  • Support the learner in developing ownership for the overall problem or task

  • Design an authentic task

  • Design the task and the learning environment to reflect the complexity of the environment they should be able to function in at the end of learning

  • Give the learner ownership of the process used to develop a solution

  • Design the learning environment to support and challenge the learner’s thinking

  • Encourage testing ideas against alternative views and alternative contexts

  • Provide opportunity for and support reflection on both the content learned and the learning process

Conditions that facilitate PBL include: (Walton & Matthews 1989)

  • Greater input and responsibility on the part of student in deciding what and how they will learn

  • Small-group tutorials and independent study constitute the main instructional activities


Classroom Implication and Teaching Strategies

According to Schmidt and Moust (1989), a systematic procedure are required for students during the PBL process.

  • Clarify terms and concepts in the problem description which are not understood on first sight.

  • Produce an exact definition of the problem about which interrelated phenomena should be explained.

  • Analyze the problem(s) to gain a clear impression of

    • Group members’ opinions by activating prior knowledge and elaborating actual information

    • Relevant hypotheses about the underlying processes and mechanism by sound reasoning

  • Made of the various explanations of the problem more extensively by

    • Criticizing the explanations proposed

    • Drawing a systematic inventory of the explanations inferred from step 3

    • Produce a summative and coherent description of the processes underling the phenomena or events

  • Formulate learning objectives for self-directed learning

    • Selecting the activities on which group members will concentrate

    • Agreeing on a distribution of tasks

    • Finding out which learning resources might supply the required answers

  • Collect additional information outside the group

    • The group members collect information with respect to the learning objectives

    • Experts can be consulted about aspects of the problem not yet clarified

  • Synthesize and test the newly acquired information

    • Inform one another about their individual findings

    • Supplement their knowledge

    • Correct them where necessary

Once new questions are proposed in the process of exchanging information, the group may take up the PBL process again but start with the fourth step with a deeper level of understanding. Finally the last step aims to integrate the knowledge acquired into a comprehensive explanation for the phenomena or events.


?NAPLeS Webinar Series by Cindy Hmelo-Silver: Problem-based Learning (


Required Reading

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. [Online] (


Savery, J. R. (2006). Overview of PBL: Definitions and distinctions.  Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning, 1, 9-20. [Online] (


Hmelo-Silver, C. E. (2004). Problem-Based Learning: What and how do students learn? Educational Psychology Review, 16, 235-266.[Online] (


Hmelo-Silver, C. E., & Barrows, H. S. (2008). Facilitating collaborative knowledge building. Cognition and Instruction, 26, 48-94.Online]   (


Key Works

  • 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.
  • Schmidt HG: Foundations of problem-based learning: some explanatory notes. Medical Education 27:422-432, 1993.
  • Norman, G. R., & Schmidt, H. G. (1992). The psychological basis of problem-based learning: a review of the evidence. Academic medicine67(9), 557-65.

Successful Examples



  • Savery, J. R., & Duffy, T. M. (1995). Problem based learning: An instructional model and its constructivist framework. Educational technology35(5), 31-38.
  • Walton, H. J., & Matthews, M. B. (1989). Essentials of problem?based learning. Medical education23(6), 542-558.
  • Moust, J. H., & Schmidt, H. G. (1989). Preparing faculty and students for problem-based learning. In New Directions for Medical Education (pp. 260-270). Springer New York.