Using Problem-Based Learning to Enhance Teaching and Learning

Using Problem-Based Learning to Enhance Teaching and Learning (2001-2002)

This group's activities centered around the reading of the book The Power of Problem-Based Learning: A Practicial 'How To' for Teaching Undergraduate Courses in Any Discipline. The participants were:

  • Kevin Barry, Kaneb Center
  • Michael Hildreth, Physics
  • Georges Enderle, Marketing
  • Edward Manier, Philosophy
  • Paquita Friday, Accountancy
  • Patricia Maurice, Civil Engineering/Geological Sciences

Purpose and Description

Problem based learning (PBL) is a teaching and learning method in which problems form the organizing focus and stimulus for learning.  Students work cooperatively in groups to seek solutions to complex problems.  The problems are formulated to be interesting to students and to motivate their learning.  PBL is different from case studies.  In PBL, "students do not have all the information in advance needed to solve the problems; here they must pose questions, identify what they need to know and where to find the answer, and learn how to make sense of what they find.  After performing the needed research, they bring the results back to the group.  Students learn to apply the course content; they develop critical thinking abilities; and they acquire skills of lifetime learning, communication, and team building.It is a truism of education that the best way to learn something is to teach it.In this [PBL] class, everyone becomes both a teacher and learner" (Mierson & Parikh, 2000, p. 22). "Once anyone is involved as a PBL tutor [teacher] and has the opportunity of seeing what students can do when given the permission to think and learn on their own, he or she usually becomes a convert.  Faculty members can see how students think, what they know, and how they are learning" (Barrows & Tamblyn, quoted in Wilkenson & Gijselars, p. 1).  In their courses, participants in the Faculty Community Using Problem-Based Learning will attempt to master the basic elements of PBL and address the difficulties they encounter.  Participants will learn about and explore various components of PBL in their classes.  They will design and teach one of their second-semester courses using PBL principles and procedures.  Participants will also assess the learning outcomes mentioned below.  They will meet for learning, discussion, and support as a multidisciplinary and collegial community.  Each member of the community will develop a course mini-portfolio for his or her PBL course.  The group will develop a method for sharing their experiences with the Notre Dame campus. PBL was developed 30 years ago to teach medical students in their preclinical years. Today it is used internationally in undergraduate and graduate teaching in a wide variety of disciplines.  The Faculty Learning Community Using PBL will investigate these questions:

  • What is problem-based learning, and what are the differences among cooperative, competitive, and individualistic efforts?
  • Why use problem-based learning?  What are the expected outcomes resulting from problem-focused and cooperative efforts?
  • How do you structure positive interdependence into cooperative group efforts in problem solving? 
  • How do you teach students the critical thinking and the interpersonal and small-group skills they need to work together effectively to solve problems?
  • How do you structure group processing to ensure that cooperative groups continuously improve their effectiveness?
  • How do you assess the quality and quantity of students' work in cooperative groups in PBL courses?
  • Since 1989 there have been over 600 experimental and over 100 co-relational studies of cooperative, competitive, and individualistic efforts.  These studies show (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1998, pp. 1:15-1:16) that cooperation, compared with competitive and individualistic efforts, typically results in  
  • greater efforts to achieve (higher achievement by all students, long-term retention, intrinsic motivation, time-on-task, higher level reasoning, critical thinking)
  • more positive relationships among students (esprit-de-corps, personal and academic social support, valuing of diversity, cohesion)
  • greater psychological health (social development, self-esteem, self-identity, ability to cope with adversity and stress)


  • Barrows, H. S., & Tamblyn, R. M. Quoted in Wilkerson, L. & Gijselaers, W. H. (Eds.) Editors' notes.  (1996, Winter).  Bringing problem-based learning to higher education: Theory and practice (pp. 1-2).  New Directions for Teaching and Learning, No. 68.  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass.
  • Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Smith, K. A. (1998).  Active learning: Cooperation in the college classroom. Edina, MN:  Interaction.
  • Pierson, S., & Parikh, A. A. (2000, January-February). Stories from the field: Problem-based learning from a teacher's and a student's<span style="> perspective. Change, 32 (1), 21-27.