Tutor-dedicated Problem-based Learning

Excerpt from workshops for faculty members led by Alice Cassidy, Ph.D. 

What is PBL?

Medical educators at McMaster University pioneered, or reinvented, problem-based learning, in about 1969.  Also called problem-stimulated learning, PBL has been defined as:

A learning method based on the principle of using problems as a starting point
for the acquisition and integration of new knowledge
.” H. S. Barrows, 1982.

PBL is a learning environment in which the problem drives the learning. That is, before students learn some knowledge they are given a problem. The problem is posed so that the students discover that they need to learn some new knowledge before they can solve the problem.

Posing the problem before learning tends to motivate students. They know why they are learning the new knowledge. Learning in the context of the need-to-solve-a-problem also tends to store the knowledge in memory patterns that facilitate later recall for solving problems.

PBL utilizes student groups, but each group member is also responsible for independent research. Further, instructor scaffolding is considerably less direct in problem-based learning than in other constructivist models such as anchored instruction. Students are allowed to struggle and induct their own mental model of course concepts with only occasional “life-lines” from the instructor when concept processing falls off-track. Problem-based learning is most similar to case-based instruction, but in its purest form, PBL is more open-ended.

In PBL, students are confronted with an ill-structured problem that mirrors real-world problems.  Well chosen problems encourage students to define problems, identify what information is needed, and engage in solution generation and decision making.

In PBL, the self-directed study occurs in small groups of 6-8 students with the aid of a facilitator, or tutor. It is the tutor’s role to guide the students through the problems, and to provide them with ongoing formative evaluation.

Although PBL uses tutorial groups, the learning is essentially an individual process, and each person is responsible for the acquisition of knowledge. The tutorial is where learning issues are developed and information is shared, discussed and integrated back into the problem. In addition, it is a place where clarification of concepts can occur as well as a place to share useful resources. Each individual is responsible for his/her own learning, and for making sure the tutorial meets his/her own needs.


Art History, University of Delaware http://www.udel.edu/pbl/

California State University http://www.techforlearning.org/PBLresources.html

Classroom Management Suggestions:  http://www.yale.edu/peace/management.htm

Dentistry, UBC:  Effectiveness of Problem-based Learning (PBL) in Preparing Dental Students for Clinical Treatment Planning  http://www.dentistry.ubc.ca/Personnel/walton/project3.html

Developing PBL: A Self-checklist: http://www.aidsetc.org/aidsetc?page=etres-display&resource=etres-507 A short list for planning and conducting PBL.

Educational Technologies, Virginia Tech http://www.edtech.vt.edu/edtech/id/models/index.html

Land and Food Systems, UBC  http://lc.landfood.ubc.ca/

FNH 313, Microorganisms in Food Systems  http://courses.landfood.ubc.ca/files/FNH_313.pdf

FNH 250, Nutrition: Concepts and Controversies (On-line)  http://ctlt.ubc.ca/distance-learning/courses/fnh/fnh250/

FNH 497, Sports Nutrition Student Directed Seminar   http://ctlt.sites.olt.ubc.ca/files/2010/09/syllabus_fnh497b1.pdf

PBL Community of Practice, UBC  http://ctlt.ubc.ca/programs/communities-of-practice/problem-based-learning-network/

Problem-based Learning in Large Classes  http://chemeng.mcmaster.ca/pbl/pbl.htm

Problem-based Learning, Samford University  http://www.samford.edu/ctls/archives.aspx?id=2147484112 This site provides a few tips on what to expect and what not to expect while incorporating PBL in the curriculum.  Links to two excellent PDF articles on putting PBL into practice are available here.


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