Problem-based learning, as a specific process, was pioneered by Barrow and Tamblyn at the McMaster University in Canada in the 1960s. It is a student-centered pedagogical approach whereby students are provided opportunities to learn about a particular subject through the experience of solving an open-ended and (often) complex problem, question, or challenge. This problem, question, or challenge is provided to the learner through a particular input or trigger material, such as case studies or complex scenarios.

Since its inception, problem-based learning has undergone a number of refinements or adaptations. One of the key adaptations of Problem Based Learning is the P5BL approach, which was a learning strategy introduced in Stanford School of Engineering in 1993. One of the key differences in the P5BL process is that it involved the creation of interdisciplinary teams to work through the problem. As such, Stanford used graduate students from engineering, architecture and construction disciplines, and from six different universities from Europe, the United States and Japan to participate in these interdisciplinary, cross-cultural teams.


The intention is that learners will develop skills and an understanding of problems in their discipline, or other disciplines if used in an interdisciplinary manner when they are immersed into authentic, meaningful, situations and asked to analyse/solve them. As such, it improves learners’ confidence in being able to face and solve such complex problems. Additionally, problem based learning has been suggested to be beneficial in enhancing student outcomes due to its student-centred nature, which allows for active learning, improved understanding and retention of knowledge, as well as providing opportunities for learners to enhance their skills in critical appraisal and literature retrieval, whilst also encouraging ongoing learning within a team environment.


As scenario or problem-based learning involves incorporating authentic problems into learning experiences, the implementation of this approach relies more on the conceptualisation of such problems/scenarios, than simply including potential technological tools. However, tools such as PadletTrello, and online collaborative mind-mapping tools such as Mindomo or, may help learners to better structure their thinking. Tools such as Google Docs, WordPress and other online content creation tools may assist learners to document their progress also. Alternatively, the inclusion of branching narrative tools such as Twine and Smart Sparrow may also help learners to visualise specific parts of the problem.


Beaumont, C., Savin-Baden, M., Conradi, E., & Poulton, T. (2014). Evaluating a Second Life problem-based learning demonstrator project: What can we learn? Interactive Learning Environments, 22(1), 125–141.

Cowden, C. D., & Santiago, M. F. (2016). Interdisciplinary explorations: Promoting critical thinking via problem-based learning in an advanced biochemistry class. Journal of Chemical Education, 93(3), 464–469.

Walker, A. E., Leary, H., Hmelo-Silver, C. E., & Ertmer, P. A. (Eds.). (2015). Essential readings in problem-based learning: Exploring and extending the legacy of Howard S. Barrows. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.

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