Preparing Teachers and Students for
   Problem-Based Learning

ERIC Identifier: ED457524
Publication Date: 2001-10-00
Author: Ngeow, Karen - Kong, Yoon-San
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading English and Communication Bloomington IN.

Problem-based learning (PBL) is an educational approach that challenges students to "learn to learn". Students work cooperatively in groups to seek solutions to real-world problems and more importantly, to develop skills to become self-directed learners. Here, the goal of problem-based learning is viewed as learning for capability rather than learning for the sake of acquiring knowledge. PBL is unique in its integral emphasis on core content along with problem solving (Gallagher, 1997). Within the context of reading in the PBL classroom, learning thus becomes much more than the process of mere knowledge seeking. Students develop critical thinking abilities by constantly relating what they read to what they want to do with the information. They question the writer's assumptions and analyze information presented, all within the context of finding answers to "What can I do with this information?" and "What does understanding this mean to me?" This digest discusses some of the challenges in learning that students face, and identifies web resources that teachers can use to support student learning.


PBL requires students to take on active learning strategies and adopt a self-directed learning disposition. Some students find it difficult to cope when asked to transform into active critical thinkers. PBL teachers may also face difficulty as they prepare to facilitate discussion, provide coaching, challenge student thinking and manage group work.

Below are some challenges for PBL classrooms.

  • Limited experience in group work management

    Group work is integral to PBL and students need to learn how to make optimal use of their time and resources while working in groups. Functioning effectively in groups involves knowing how to organize the work, distribute responsibility, break up complex tasks, and provide useful feedback on work that is done. Teachers can contribute by helping students better understand the merits of group work.

  • Lack of familiarity with inquiry learning

    When faced with problem tasks, students often find it difficult to identify the critical issues and to generate coherent research designs. They are often unclear about how they can relate what they are currently reading to what they already know. They are also unfamiliar with different stages of the inquiry process, such as generating hypotheses, providing logical arguments, and transforming data into a product. When students have an appropriate learning context and the need to seek the necessary information, they also see how things finally "come together". This is an aspect of critical reading that can be promoted within the framework of problem-based learning.

  • Inadequate feedback on learning and assessment

    Giving feedback to students is integral to improving student learning. Barron et al. (1998) suggest that teachers can better guide and monitor projects by incorporating formative self-reflections by students, by creating a classroom culture that supports frequent feedback and assessment, and by finding ways for students to compare their work with others. Teachers can make students take their work seriously by incorporating opportunities that involve external audiences in assessing students' performance.

In the model of cognitive apprenticeship, developed by Collins, Brown and Newman (1987), scaffolding is described as a means of coaching students to the extent that they can perform intellectual tasks on their own. Success with PBL largely depends on whether students have been sufficiently prepared to take on certain new roles, such as those of inquiry seekers and collaborative team players in the classroom (Boud & Feletti, 1997). In a PBL classroom, for example, the teacher gauges the difference between what activities students can do on their own and what they need to learn to do to solve the problem. Then the teacher designs activities which offer just enough of a scaffold for students to overcome this gap of knowledge and skills (Greening, 1998). Effective scaffolding includes activities that help students develop the right mindset, engage students with the problem, divide activities into manageable tasks, and direct students' attention to essential aspects of the learning goals. The effectiveness of PBL depends to a large degree on the scaffolding provided by teachers to students.


Central to the effectiveness of PBL is the ability of students to work together to solve problems (Peterson, 1997). Teachers can encourage more beneficial and meaningful group work by prompting students to pool talents and resources and by guiding them to resolve conflicts while working together. Relevant web resources to enhance this skill building include:


In PBL, students must seek and evaluate the information they acquire related to the problem they are given to solve. Activities that involve inquiry learning include problem framing, data gathering, divergent thinking or idea generation, evaluating alternatives, and applying a solution to the problem (Hmelo & Ferrari, 1997). Web resources on inquiry activities are:


Reflection involves focused thinking about learning during the learning process. However, students often get caught up in completing a task and do not take time to reflect. Students learn from two kinds of reflection activities. The first focuses on the content, with students asking questions such as "What do I know now, and how can I use this information to meet the project's goal?" The second is reflection on the learning process, wherein is asked such questions as "How am I doing as a learner in this environment - as a self directed learner, as a problem solver, and as a collaborator? What are my strengths and weaknesses? How can I improve?" Relevant web resources to enhance student reflection include:


One problem in PBL is that while students are constantly encouraged to be engaged in the learning process, assessment of student learning is often focused instead on the final learning product. PBL teachers need to better understand meaningful ways of assessing student work to motivate learning. The following web resources provide information that clarifies a variety of topics related to assessment for PBL:


PBL teachers constantly face challenges of encouraging students to go beyond the given information, to reflect on learning, and to actively consider how their knowledge might apply in novel contexts. Students are encouraged to constantly discover and try new ways of learning. To facilitate these goals, teachers and students need to be provided with appropriate and accessible pedagogical tools and support.

As students develop more self-directed learning strategies, teachers can provide less scaffolding support. Below are some resources that can help teachers gain a better understanding of PBL and provide ways of supporting student learning at different levels.

This project has been funded at least in part with Federal funds from the U.S. Department of Education under contract number ED-99-CO-0028. The content of this publication does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government. ERIC Digests are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced.


Barron B., Schwartz D., Vye N., Moore A., Petrosino A., Zech L., Bransford J., and The Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt. (1998). Doing with understanding: Lessons from research on problem and project-based learning. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 7, 271-311. [EJ 584 623]

Boud, D. & Feletti, G. (Eds.) (1997) The challenge of Problem-Based Learning. 2nd Edition. [ED 415 220]

Collins A., Brown J. S., and Newman S. (1987). Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the crafts of reading, writing, and mathematics. Technical Report No. 403. [ED 284 181]

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, pp. 332-62. [EJ 553 973]

Greening, T. (1998). Scaffolding for success in PBL. Med Educ Online [serial online] 3,4.

Hmelo, C. E. & Ferrari, M. (1997). The problem-based learning tutorial: Cultivating higher order thinking skills. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 20, 4, pp.401-422. [EJ 553 976]

Peterson, M. (1997). Skills to enhance Problem-based Learning. Med Educ Online [serial online] 2, 3.

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