Problem-based learning (PBL) has been described as an instructional method that simultaneously develops problem solving strategies and subject matter content.
PBL is a form of student-centered inquiry in which students define their own learning needs and become actively engaged in the learning process.
Teachers present students with an engaging “ill-structured” context or scenario that requires students to solve a problem. “Ill-structured” simply means students do not have the skills or knowledge necessary solve the problem. Groups of students identify questions and skills needed to address the problem as they use the PBL Model to guide their implementation.
The role of the teacher changes as the emphasis is on the questions generated by students. Teachers become guides who scaffold the structured inquiry as students seek an answer to the problem. Often there is more than one “right answer” as students seek appropriate resolutions to questions, issues or situations.
The scenario depicted with Apollo 13 in which astronauts’ lives were at risk would represent a problem-based learning context. Another real world example is the scenario in the movie Erin Brockovitch in which people were suffering from disease. Ms. Brockovitch did not have the training to determine what was causing the disease, but just like in classroom PBLs, she identified what she needed to know, then learned and applied it.
Inquiry-based strategies such as PBL became popular as supplements and/or alternatives to teacher-centered, direct instruction in which students were passive observers in the learning process. PBL lessons are based on authentic and relevant contexts as opposed to “end of chapter” assignments. Students develop ownership in the learning environment through the process of defining the problem statement and identifying questions that need to be addressed.