Problem Based Learning

What Problem Based Learning means to me

As I have mentioned elsewhere, I first encountered Problem Based Learning during my MA studies. It struck me as a potential approach to answer a host of perennial questions English Language teachers ask – how to motivate, engage, foster autonomy…etc in our learners whilst helping them to develop their English language skills and knowledge. At the time I was teaching on the English language preparation program at another fine university in Istanbul where these were issues teachers frequently discussed.


A bit of history

Problem Based Learning emerged in North American medical schools in the 1960s as an alternative to lecture based learning. The technique has since spread to other areas such as business, law and engineering. One teacher/facilitator worked with a small group of learners over an extended period of time as they worked together to solve a medical problem.

A simple scenario might look like this:

Stage 1

  1. The facilitator sets the problem – describing the symptoms of a fictitious patient.
  2. The learners discuss the symptoms to identify possible medical condition the patient may be suffering from.
  3. The learners narrow down the potential illnesses and agree on areas of further individual research.

Stage 2

Each learner conducts individual research into their agreed area.

Stage 3

  1. The learners reconvene and share the information they have discovered during their research.
  2. Using their shared knowledge they collaborate to diagnose the fictitious patient’s true medical condition.

It must be said that, although I describe this scenario as simple, it quickly becomes quite complex the more we consider what is needed to successfully achieve the task. We then, as teachers, need to consider the staging and scaffolding of the Problem.

We will come across my application of this model in my PBL scenario.


Barrows, H S 1986, ‘A taxonomy of problem-based learning methods.’, Medical Education, vol.20, no.6, pp.481–486.

Colliver, J A 2000, ‘Effectiveness of problem-based learning curricula: Research and theory.’, Academic Medicine, vol. 75, no. 3, pp.259–266.

Hmelo-Silver, C E 2004, ‘Problem-Based Learning: What and How Do Students Learn?’, Educational Psychology Review, Vol. 16, No. 3, pp.253-266.

Savery, J R & Duffy T M 2001, ‘Problem Based Learning: An instructional model and its constructivist framework.’, Center for Research on Learning and Technology, Technical Report no. 16-01, viewed 10th May 2011, <

Wood D F 2003, ‘ABC of learning and teaching in medicine: problem based learning.’, British Medical Journal, Vol. 326, pp.328–330.


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