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Problem-based Learning Explained for Teachers + 6 Great Books to Read

Problem based learning ( PBL) is a teaching strategy that involves the minimum amount of direct and formal instruction characteristic of lecture based teaching.  In a PBL model, students are provided with complex problems to work on and during the process they get to learn the lesson content and theoretical knowledge underlying the problem. In other words, unlike traditional content-based teaching where the primacy is put on the delivery of content and the imparting of knowledge to students, PBL foregrounds problem-based activities as a way to stimulate students cognitive skills and engage them in hands-on learning.

PBL is  a student centred  and process-oriented approach. It puts a premium on the process leading to understanding. Its main objective is to prepare students for real world scenarios where they would have to deal with a variety of problems. It is also a cross-disciplinary approach in that it cultivates skills necessary for learning across multiple disciplines. According to Tan (2013 cited in Normala et al. 2013), some of the major skills bolstered by PBL include:

  • Teamwork
  • Independent learning
  • Communication skills
  • Problem solving skills
  • Interdisciplinary skills
  • Information-mining skills
  • Higher-order thinking skills
Creating challenging problems is at the base of an effective PBL approach. When deftly formulated, problems are deemed to sustain students engagement and drive their learning. Hence, well-structured problems in PBL need to heed the following requirements as speculated by  Allen, Duch &;Groth (1996) and Gallagher (1997) and cited in Normala, 2013:
  • Contain multiple solution paths
  • Change as new information is obtained
  • Contain content that is authentic to the discipline
  • Generate interest and controversy and cause the learner to ask questions
  • Prevent students from knowing that they have made the "right" decision
  • Require more information for understanding the problem than is initially available
  •  Be open-ended and complex enough to require collaboration and thinking beyond recall.

To help you have an informed idea about what PBL is all about and learn more about how to effectively apply it in your teaching, we curated this collection of some must read books in this direction.

1- Problem-Based Learning: An Inquiry Approach by John F. Barell (Author)

‘This standards-based, teacher-friendly second edition offers step-by-step procedures that make this effective teaching model highly doable for all teachers, with examples showing problem-based learning in action.’

2- The Practice of Problem-Based Learning: A Guide to Implementing PBL in the College Classroom, by José A. Amador (Author), Libby Miles (Author), Calvin B. Peters (Author)

‘This book is a guide for the development and implementation of problem-based learning (PBL) in college-level courses. It provides practical advice from real professors, includes examples of PBL in action through every stage from problem development to implementation, and integrates cross-disciplinary experiences into the practice of PBL in the college classroom.’

3- Problem-based Learning: Welcome to the "Real World": A Teaching Model for Adult Learners, by Dr. Wendy J. Flint 

‘In this book, the characteristics of problem-based learning are explained and the theories that support problem-based learning are explored. Through a faculty mentoring project, the research conducted at a community college found significant improvement in student engagement and learning with a diverse population of students.’

4- The Power of Problem-Based Learning, by Barbara J. Duch (Editor), Susan E. Groh (Editor), Deborah E. Allen (Editor)

‘Focuses on the practical questions which anyone wishing to embark on PBL will want to know: "Where do I start?"–"How do you find problems?"–"What do I need to know about managing groups?"–"How do you grade in a PBL course?" The case studies from a variety of disciplines?including biochemistry, pre-law, physics, nursing, chemistry, political science and teacher education?provide examples of practice.’

5- Problem-Based Learning for Math & Science: Integrating Inquiry and the Internet, by Diane L. Ronis  (Author)

‘Illustrates how to strengthen learners' problem-solving skills by incorporating problem-based learning (PBL) with Internet resources and presents projects that correlate to national science, mathematics, and technology standards.’

6- The Challenge of Problem Based Learning, by David Boud (Author), Grahame Feletti

‘Problem-based learning is a way of constructing and teaching courses using problems as the stimulus and focus for student activity. This edition looks at the topic in the light of changes since the first edition (1991). There are new chapters on the impact of PBL, and inquiry and action learning.’


1- Normala, O., & Shar, M.(2013). Problem-based learning in the English language classroom. English Language Teaching, 6(3): 125-134.
2- Tan, Oon Seng. (2003). Problem-based learning innovation. Singapore: Thomson.
3- Allen, D. E., Duch, B. J., & Groh, S. E. (1996). The power of problem-based learning in teaching introductory science courses. In L. Wilkerson, & W.H. Gijselaers (Eds.), Bringing Problem-Based Learning to Higher Education: Theory and Practice (pp. 43-52). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
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