Problem-Based Learning in Science
ERIC Identifier: ED482724
Publication Date: 2003-00-00
Author: Sonmez, Duygu - Lee, Hyonyong
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for Science Mathematics and Environmental Education Columbus OH.
Problem-based learning (PBL) is an instructional approach that challenges students to
seek solutions to real-world (open-ended) problems by themselves or in groups, rather
than learn primarily through lectures or textbooks. More importantly, PBL engages
students in developing skills as self-directed learners. Problems are selected to exploit
natural curiosity by connecting learning to students' daily lives and emphasizing the use
of critical and analytical thinking skills.
According to Gallagher (1997), the primary goal of PBL is characterized as learning for
capability rather than leaning to acquire knowledge. The effectiveness of PBL depends
on the nature of student engagement and the culture of the classroom, as well as the
appropriateness of the problem tasks assigned. Proponents of PBL believe that when
students develop their own problem-solving procedures, they are integrating their
conceptual knowledge with their procedural skills.
Having its origins in the medical field, PBL is an effective and practical way of training
physicians. Medical students engaged in PBL are more successful than traditionally
prepared students with respect to problem-solving, self-evaluation, data gathering, other
learning skills (Albanese & Mitchell, 1993).
Although PBL meshes well with constructivist views of learning, it did not emerge in
response to educational theory (White, 2001). PBL provides students with opportunities
to direct their own learning while developing critical thinking and evaluation skills
through analysis of real life problems (Smith, 1995). Smith characterized the
advantages of PBL this way:
"PBL's proponents emphasize that it improves thinking and learning skills and cognitive
abilities in students. It has been reported that PBL-trained students are more frequent
users of libraries and other information resources, which support independent learning.
They acquire life long study skills, especially in their early years of study, giving rise to
sustained learning ... PBL educated students have a more holistic approach to their
subject, more readily integrate new information, adapt to change and work well as
member of a team. Generally PBL appears to increase student interest and enjoyment
to the subject and enhance their professional development" (p. 150).
Research indicates that the increased success of students involved in PBL is based on
the ability of PBL to activate prior knowledge more effectively; increased elaboration of
information that promotes mental processing, greater understanding, and recall; and
learning in a context that resembles real-world situations (Jones, 1996b). Research also
indicates that PBL supports and enhances student information gathering skills and
retention through implementation of basic and clinical sciences, where student
knowledge, interests, and motivation are increased (Finucane, Johnson, & Prideaux,
1998). Additional advantages of PBL are identified online at:
According to the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council,
1996), a major goal of science education is to develop scientifically literate citizens who
can function in their adult stages with skills necessary for life long learning. In a PBL
approach to instruction, the teacher attempts to catalyze student learning through
critical thinking and an increased ability to seek and find information related to problem
situations. Student learning in this context results in part through collaboration,
self-directed learning, and solution of authentic problem situations (Barrows, 1997)
Greenwald (2000) listed the following 10 steps of PBL based on a medical school
- Encounter an ill-defined problem
An ill-defined problem is the backbone of PBL.
Greenwald (2000) characterized an ill-define problem as being "unclear and raises
questions about what is known, what needs to be known, and how the answer can be
found. Because the problem is unclear, there are many ways to solve it, and the
solutions are influenced by one's vantage point and experience" (p. 28). An ill-defined
problem can be introduced to students within the context of a larger, realistic scenario.
- Ask questions about what is interesting, puzzling, or important to find out in relation to
By asking students open-ended questions, a discussion environment can
be created for considering the interesting observations.
- Pursue various problem-finding strategies
Different problem-finding strategies for
identifying and clarifying problems can be offered by the teacher in this process.
- Map problem-finding activities and prioritize a problem
In this step students
reorganize the problems they identify in the previous step and explain the relationship
patterns among their ideas.
- Investigate the problem
Inquiry guided questions can be used to help students
strategize and plan their investigations.
- Analyze results
With guiding questions students analyze their results.
- Reiterate learning
This is a distinguished feature of the PBL approach where
students present what they have learned to their peers.
- Generate solutions and recommendations
By revisiting the analysis and reiteration
steps, students generate solution ideas and recommendations.
- Communicate the results
Students communicate to the teacher and others what they
have learned based on the roles they have played in the problem solving process.
- Conduct self-assessment
Authentic assessment strategies can be used for
students who present group findings, problem solving, knowledge acquisitions, and
self-directed and collaborative learning skills.
Modifying traditional instructional approaches and implementing new methods are often
difficult tasks for teachers, and incorporating PBL is no exception. Along with the
advantages of PBL come disadvantages and limitations, and these have been grouped
into six categories by Jones (1996a): academic achievement, amount of instructional
time required, role of students, role of teachers, appropriateness of problems, and
appropriate assessment of student performance.
Jones (1996a) emphasized that generating proper questions is the most critical aspect
of PBL. Further, Jones stressed the importance of appropriate assessment of student
performance. Standardized tests are usually designed to assess the academic
achievement of students who have learned through traditional instruction, but PBL
differs from traditional instruction in a variety of ways. More appropriate assessment
methods would include written examinations or reports, practical examinations,
construction of concept maps, peer assessment, self assessment, or oral presentations.
According to Ngeow and Kong (2001), students engaged in PBL become more
responsible for their own learning, but the transition to self-directed learning can be
difficult for some. Group-based learning is also integral to PBL, and students must learn
to function effectively in groups.
Costs and resistance to change among educators are other limitations to PBL that must
be addressed through professional development of teachers (Dempsey, 2002; Smith,
1995). The role of teachers in PBL is to serve as mentors once a problem has been
introduced to students, so teachers must learn to communicate with students at the
metacognitive level, facilitating reasoning by asking questions and not giving too much
information (Putnam, 2002).
This digest was funded by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S.
Department of Education, under contract no. ED-99-CO-0024. Opinions expressed in
this digest do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OERI or the U.S.
Department of Education. ERIC Digests are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced.
- IMSA Center for Problem-Based Learning - http://www.imsa.edu/team/cpbl/cpbl.html
- Access Excellence Mystery Spot - http://www.accessexcellence.org/AE/mspot/
Interactive, online scientific mysteries designed to encourage student problem-solving
- UBUYACAR - http://www.mcli.dist.maricopa.edu/pbl/ubuytutor/index.html
Materials and directions for implementing a PBLproject based on buying a car.
- Learning Matrix - http://thelearningmatrix.enc.org/
Part of the NSF-funded National Digital Library Initiative, this site provides access to
peer-reviewed digital resources that promote inquiry and problem-based learning in
college mathematics, science, and technology classes.
- PBL Clearinghouse - https://www.mis4.udel.edu/Pbl/
A collection of peer-reviewed problems and articles to assist educators in using
problem-based learning. Teaching notes and supplemental materials accompany each
problem, providing insights and strategies that are innovative and classroom-tested.
Access is limited to educators who register via an online application, but is free and
carries no obligation.
Albanese, M., & Mitchell, S. (1993). Problem-based learning: A review of the literature
on its outcomes and implementation issues. "Academic Medicine," 68 (1), 52-81.
Barrows, H. S. (1997). Problem-based learning is more than just learning based round
problems. "The Problem Log," 2 (2), 4-5.
Dempsey, T. (2002). "Problem-based learning (PBL) as a professional development
alternative." Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the National Staff Development
Council, Denver, CO. [ED 460 095]
Finucane, P. M., Johnson, S. M., & Prideaux, D. J. (1998). Problem based learning: Its
rationale and efficacy. "Medical Journal of Australia," 168, 445-448.
Gallagher, S. A. (1997). Problem-based learning: Where did it come from, what does it
do, and where is it going? "Journal for the Education of the Gifted," 20(4), 332-362.
Greenwald, N. L. (2000). Learning from problems. The Science Teacher, 67 (4), 28-32.
Jones, D. (1996a). "Disadvantages of problem based learning." Retrieved April 3, 2003
Jones, D. (1996b). "The advantages of PBL." Retrieved April 3, 2003 from
National Research Council. (1996). "National science education standards."
Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Ngeow, K., & Kong, Y. (2001). "Learning to learn: Preparing teachers and students for
problem-based learning." ERIC Digest. [ED 457 524]
Putnam, A. R. (2002). "Problem-based teaching and learning in technology education."
[ED 465 039]
Smith, C. A. (1995). Features section: problem based learning. "Biochemistry and
Molecular Biology Education," 23 (3), 149-152.
Wheatley, G. H. (1995). Problem solving from a constructive perspective. In D. R.
Lavoie (Ed.), "Toward a cognitive-science perspective for scientific problem solving." A
White, H. B. (2001). Problem based learning. "Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
Education," 29 (1), 24-25.
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