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Problem-Based Learning

What is problem-based learning?
Why use problem-based learning?
What are the basic steps in designing a problem-based learning project?

What is problem-based learning?

Problem-based learning (PBL) is a student-centered approach in which students learn about a subject by working in groups to solve an open-ended problem.

  • The problem is what drives the motivation and the learning.
    Rather than teaching relevant material and subsequently having students apply the knowledge to solve problems, the problem is presented first. Students generally must:
  • Examine and define the problem.
  • Explore what they already know about underlying issues related to it.
  • Determine what they need to learn and where they can acquire the information and tools necessary to solve the problem.
  • Evaluate possible ways to solve the problem.
  • Solve the problem.
  • Report on their findings.
  • PBL assignments can be short, or they can be more involved and take a whole semester.
  • PBL is often group oriented, so it is beneficial to set aside classroom time to prepare students to work in groups and to allow them to engage in their PBL project.

Why use problem-based learning?

Nilson (2010, p. 190) lists learning outcomes associated with PBL. A well-design PBL project provides students with the opportunity to develop skills related to:

  • Working in teams.
  • Managing projects and holding leadership roles.
  • Oral and written communication.
  • Self-awareness and evaluation of group processes.
  • Working independently.
  • Critical thinking and analysis.
  • Explaining concepts.
  • Self-directed learning.
  • Applying course content to real world examples.
  • Researching and information literacy.
  • Problem solving across disciplines.

What are the basic steps in designing a PBL project?

  • Articulate the learning outcomes of the project. What do you want students to know or be able to do as a result of participating in the assignment?
  • Create the problem. Ideally, this will be a real-world situation that resembles something students may encounter in their future careers or lives. Cases are often the basis of PBL activities.
  • Establish ground rules at the beginning to prepare students to work effectively in groups.
  • Introduce students to group processes and do some warm up exercises to allow them to practice assessing both their own work and that of their peers.
  • Consider having students take on different roles or divide up the work up amongst themselves. Alternatively, the project might require students to assume various perspectives, such as those of government officials, local business owners, etc.
  • Establish how you will evaluate and assess the assignment. Consider making the assessments students make of their own work and that of their peers part of the assignment grade.


Dr. Don Woods, a PBL expert from McMaster University, answers more questions on his PBL web page.
The University of Delaware also has a website on PBL.
D. Woods: Having Students Work in Groups? 5 Ways to Get the Results You Want pdf
CTI Group Work Rubric Example doc (CU NetID required to access. Link redirects to login page.)
CTI Establishing Ground Rules pdf (CU NetID required to access. Link redirects to login page.)


Ahlfeldt, S., Mehta, S. and Sellnow, T. (2005). Measurement and analysis of student engagement in university classes where varying levels of PBL methods of instruction are in use. Higher Education Research & Development, 24 (1) 520.

Davis, B.D. (2009). Tools for teaching (2nd ed). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Nilson, L.B. (2010). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (2nd ed). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Svinicki, M. & McKeachie, W. (2011). McKeachie's teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university instructors (13th ed). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
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