18 Problem-Based Learning Examples

children playing in classroom

Problem-based learning (PBL) is a student-centered teaching method where students are given the opportunity to solve open-ended real-world problems. The teacher provides limited guidance and is usually referred to as a “facilitator”.

The burden of responsibility for the majority of the work rests squarely on the shoulders of the students.

Problem-Based Learning Examples

  • Broad problem posing: A teacher writes the question on the board: “Are organic fertilizers better than commercial fertilizers?” The question is purposively broad and requires student teams to clarify the question before even beginning to address it.
  • Solving problems through inquiry: Problem-based learning has strong overlaps with inquiry based learning, where the teacher presents a problem and the students must develop a study to inquire about answers.
  • Divergent thinking problems: Students in the first grade have to create a way to communicate with another group without speaking if both are lost in a forest.
  • Product development: The professor of a Design course has student teams create product packaging that complies with rigorous environmental standards.
  • Real-life problem solving: Students in second grade are given the task of studying the causes of potholes and creating ways to fill them.  
  • Role playing a problem: IT majors play the role of government compliance officers and evaluate various social media apps regarding free-speech and privacy regulations.
  • Solving real-life mathematical problems: Fourth graders use math to estimate crop yields of a hypothetical farm and then represent the results graphically.
  • Multidisciplinary problem solving: Business majors work with students in a nutrition course to create a pizzeria franchise.
  • Authentic learning scenarios: Medical students are given a clinical scenario that includes the patient’s chart, X-rays and results of various tests. They work in groups to diagnosis the patient’s disease and design a treatment program.
  • Solving hypothetical problems: Anthropology students create a public holiday for an underserved class or people in a foreign country.
  • Solving social problems: Students in a Civil Engineering course have to design housing for the poor in an isolated region using only local materials.
  • Escape rooms: The popular trend of escape rooms can be seen as a form of problem-based learning. Learners must solve the problem of ‘how to escape’.
  • Solving a riddle: The teacher presents students with a riddle, which they must work together to solve. This may require the application of curriculum-based outcomes like using certain math equations.
  • Situated learning: Students work on problems in the workplace or ‘real life’ rather than in the classroom, helping them to see how the theory gets applied in a real world context.
  • Turning exams into challenges: Instead of using paper-based exams, the teacher poses a challenge and the students need to present a report on the solution to the challenge.
  • Creating an app: Students in a university programming class don’t just demonstrate their knowledge of programming; they have to create an app that solves a real-life problem.
  • Developing an environmental regeneration plan: Students identify problems with the current ecosystem and then create a plan to solve the problem. Next, they can actually put the plan into action and report on results.
  • Working on a social problem: Students are presented with a social problem that can be solved through policy. Students must come up with a social policy that maximizes benefits while also working through potential side-effects and collateral of an intervention.

Benefits of Problem Based Learning

There are numerous benefits of PBL for students. According to Nilson (2010), PBL promotes:

  • development of critical thinking skills
  • problem-solving abilities
  • communication skills
  • how to handle project management demands
  • oral and written communication
  • researching and information literacy
  • self-awareness
  • understanding of group dynamics
  • leadership and teamwork
  • self-directed learning

Case Studies

1. Invasive Species

Students in environmental studies are given a problem-based assignment on an invasive species. The teacher provides a little early support as possible, simply instructing each group to identify the species and develop an action plan to mitigate its impact.

The students form work teams and conduct a brainstorming session on which invasive species exist in a nearby habitat. Then they examine the impact of the species in great detail, identifying the origin of the species, how it effects other plant and wildlife, human activities connected to the problem, and trajectories of consequences in the future.

Once that thorough analysis has occurred, students then begin exploring possible solutions. They have to construct a detailed plan of action and carefully consider the short and long-term effects of each step.

The plan should include government policy, educational programs, and scientific research programs that should be put in place to monitor their plan’s results.

2. Collaborative PBL: Home for the Handicapped

Real-world problems often require an interdisciplinary approach. That means professionals from different backgrounds and perspectives have to collaborate, which is sometimes easier said than done.

In this project, architecture and product design students have to work together to design a house suitable for the handicapped. This means that the floorplan must be easily navigated and that furniture and appliances have to be modified.

The project can be as demanding as the instructors require, from simply making the plans on paper, to actually constructing mock-ups of products and having them tested by affected individuals.

3. Cybersecurity

Issues related to cybersecurity as a result of globalization and technological dependence continue to escalate. Therefore, in addition to teaching future programmers about how to write gaming code, students also need to develop expertise in more serious issues.

Cybersecurity presents an opportunity for students to work in teams on a real-world issue that can have serious consequences. Students are assigned to develop a protocol to protect a nuclear reactor or financial depository.

The programs they design have to be able to handle a variety of potential threats, both internal and external. To make the assignment more realistic, the instructor will activate several programs designed to attack the organization the students are supposed to protect.

Not only do the students need to create programs that defend the organization, but they also must devise protocols to activate in case of a successful breach.

4. Design a Board Game

Students are eager to express their creativity and enjoy working independent of a lot of rules and restrictions. These characteristics are well-suited for PBL activities and result in greater student engagement and deep learning.

Recognizing these features of PBL has led to one teacher giving the students the task of designing their own board game. The facilitator/teacher leaves everything up to the students, and only supplies a set of dice.

The students then hold a class-wide brainstorming session on possible game themes. Once a list is generated, they divide up into teams based on common interests. The facilitator distributes the dice to each group and then steps aside.

The students then get to work on formulating the rules of the game and working out the process of how to play. Eventually they get to the point of being ready to construct a game prototype.

At the end, each team gets to play each other’s games and then engage in a reflection activity. Reflection can involve a worksheet or class discussion, as students consider their performance in the task and key learning outcomes they may have experienced.

5. Increasing Voter Registration

Voter turnout has been low in the U.S. for quite some time. For a democracy, this is not only a problem of people’s voices not being heard, but it can reflect feelings of disappointment in the political process as well.

To address these issues, students in a political science course must work together to understand the issues impacting low voter turnout and devise an action plan to address those factors.

The students start by researching the causal factors through a variety of methods. They might read the relevant literature on the subject, and/or conduct interviews and surveys involving non-voters.

By thoroughly understanding the issues, they can then formulate a plan to encourage voter turnout. That plan is completely up to them. It is important that the facilitator/course instructor provide as little intervention or assistance as possible.

Conclusion

Problem-based learning is a great way for students to learn. Instead of reading a textbook, writing term papers, or listening to hours of lectures, student take an active role in the learning process.

It starts with the instructor, referred to as a facilitator, simply presenting an open-ended problem in a real-world scenario. The students are then given an opportunity to work collaboratively to examine the problem and develop a solution.

Students benefit from this type of learning activity in numerous ways. They learn how to work with others, gain experience and insights into leadership and group dynamics, and develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

But perhaps the most significant benefit, is that students become more engaged and enthusiastic about the learning process.

References

Ali, S. S. (2019). Problem based learning: A student-centered approach. English language teaching, 12(5), 73-78.

Duch, B. J., Groh, S. E, & Allen, D. E. (Eds.). (2001). The power of problem-based learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Hmelo-Silver, C.E., Eberbach, C. (2012). Learning theories and problem-based learning. In: Bridges, S., McGrath, C., Whitehill, T. (Eds.), Problem-based learning in clinical education (pp. 3-17). Innovation and Change in Professional Education, vol 8. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-2515-7_1

Malmia, W., et al. (2019). Problem-based learning as an effort to improve student learning outcomes. Int. J. Sci. Technol. Res, 8(9), 1140-1143.

Moust, J., Bouhuijs, P., & Schmidt, H. (2021). Introduction to problem-based learning: A guide for students. London: Routledge.

Nilson, L. B. (2010). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (2nd ed.).  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 

Wirkala, C., & Kuhn, D. (2011). Problem-based learning in K–12 education: Is it effective and how does it achieve its effects? American Educational Research Journal, 48(5), 1157–1186. https://doi.org/10.3102/0002831211419491

Dave Cornell (PhD)
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Dr. Cornell has worked in education for more than 20 years. His work has involved designing teacher certification for Trinity College in London and in-service training for state governments in the United States. He has trained kindergarten teachers in 8 countries and helped businessmen and women open baby centers and kindergartens in 3 countries.

Chris Drew (PhD)
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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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