On Problem-Based Learning

Most scholars and practitioners trace the origins of problem-based learning to changes in medical school teaching in the 1960’s. At the time, traditional lecture was deemed insufficient to prepare physicians for the field which was characterized by rapidly expanding field of knowledge and the emergence of new medical technologies. It was reasoned physicians’ capacity to be effective in t the future would necessitate they be capable lifelong learners, with the ability to adopt and adapt to new information and strategies originating in many fields other than the one in which they were first prepared (Boud & Feletti, 1997).  

The focus of students’ attention in problem-based learning is a wicked problem (Rittel & Weber, 1973); these are ill-structured, and the solution is not necessarily clear even to the instructor who introduces it. Further, the solution is open to interpretation, so a solution deemed acceptable or advantageous by one individual or group of individuals will be unacceptable to another. The perspective of those who experience the solution to these problems matters, so the different interpretations of the solution are both based on evidence and reason and cannot be resolved objectively. By including such problems in the curriculum, instructors who adopt this model give students experience identifying wicked problems, defining parameters of solutions, and managing responses to their solutions. 

The information, knowledge, and skills necessary for students to completely understand, frame, and propose a solution for a wicked problem cannot be predicted when it is first posed. Although instructors are in a position to suggest resources to begin understanding it and to suggest directions that may prove fruitful in designing a solution, the student assume responsibility for justifying their decisions and solution in terms of what is known. As a result, students engaged in problem-based learning will conduct their own inquiry into the details of the problem (Savery, 2006). Students also find it necessary to make assumptions, which must also be articulated and explained. For these reasons, problem-based learning can lead to deeper learning of the relevant foundational knowledge that is important in the field.  

Because solutions are open to interpretation and because one of the intended outcomes of problem-based learning is to improve students’ capacity to address such problems, this type of lesson finds students reflecting on the process as well as evaluating the solution they produced. These processes finds the students debriefing the process so they describe the parameters that limited and defined their solution as well as the factors that affected their decision-making, and their presentation of the solution. Because all of these are open to interpretation, the debrief and evaluation of the solution is observed by others who give feedback on the process and solution as well. Problem-based learning can produce the incongruous situation in which the solutions deemed unacceptable may actually result in the deepest learning by the participants.   

Typically, problem-based learning ends at the classroom walls. Wicked problems enter the curriculum through this method, and students gain experience understanding and managing these challenging situations that they are likely to encounter in the real world, their solutions are not developed and deployed. They are assessed and evaluated, but not implemented.  


Boud, D., & Feletti, G. (1997). The Challenge of Problem-Based Learning (2nd ed.). Kogan Page. 

Rittel, H., & Webber, M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences 4(2): 155-169.  

Savery, J. R. (2006). Overview of problem-based learning: Definitions and distinctions. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 1(1). Available at: https://doi.org/10.7771/1541-5015.1002