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  • Getting Started with Establishing Ground Rules
  • Sample group work rubric
  • Problem-Based Learning Clearinghouse of Activities, University of Delaware

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. This problem is what drives the motivation and the learning. 

Why Use Problem-Based Learning?

Nilson (2010) lists the following learning outcomes that are associated with PBL. A well-designed 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.

Considerations for Using Problem-Based Learning

Rather than teaching relevant material and subsequently having students apply the knowledge to solve problems, the problem is presented first. 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.

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.

Getting Started with Problem-Based Learning

  • 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. Previously developed PBL activities can be found online through the University of Delaware’s PBL Clearinghouse of 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 self and peer assessments a part of the assignment grade.

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

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Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is a teaching method in which complex real-world problems are used as the vehicle to promote student learning of concepts and principles as opposed to direct presentation of facts and concepts. In addition to course content, PBL can promote the development of critical thinking skills, problem-solving abilities, and communication skills. It can also provide opportunities for working in groups, finding and evaluating research materials, and life-long learning (Duch et al, 2001).

PBL can be incorporated into any learning situation. In the strictest definition of PBL, the approach is used over the entire semester as the primary method of teaching. However, broader definitions and uses range from including PBL in lab and design classes, to using it simply to start a single discussion. PBL can also be used to create assessment items. The main thread connecting these various uses is the real-world problem.

Any subject area can be adapted to PBL with a little creativity. While the core problems will vary among disciplines, there are some characteristics of good PBL problems that transcend fields (Duch, Groh, and Allen, 2001):

  • The problem must motivate students to seek out a deeper understanding of concepts.
  • The problem should require students to make reasoned decisions and to defend them.
  • The problem should incorporate the content objectives in such a way as to connect it to previous courses/knowledge.
  • If used for a group project, the problem needs a level of complexity to ensure that the students must work together to solve it.
  • If used for a multistage project, the initial steps of the problem should be open-ended and engaging to draw students into the problem.

The problems can come from a variety of sources: newspapers, magazines, journals, books, textbooks, and television/ movies. Some are in such form that they can be used with little editing; however, others need to be rewritten to be of use. The following guidelines from The Power of Problem-Based Learning (Duch et al, 2001) are written for creating PBL problems for a class centered around the method; however, the general ideas can be applied in simpler uses of PBL:

  • Choose a central idea, concept, or principle that is always taught in a given course, and then think of a typical end-of-chapter problem, assignment, or homework that is usually assigned to students to help them learn that concept. List the learning objectives that students should meet when they work through the problem.
  • Think of a real-world context for the concept under consideration. Develop a storytelling aspect to an end-of-chapter problem, or research an actual case that can be adapted, adding some motivation for students to solve the problem. More complex problems will challenge students to go beyond simple plug-and-chug to solve it. Look at magazines, newspapers, and articles for ideas on the story line. Some PBL practitioners talk to professionals in the field, searching for ideas of realistic applications of the concept being taught.
  • What will the first page (or stage) look like? What open-ended questions can be asked? What learning issues will be identified?
  • How will the problem be structured?
  • How long will the problem be? How many class periods will it take to complete?
  • Will students be given information in subsequent pages (or stages) as they work through the problem?
  • What resources will the students need?
  • What end product will the students produce at the completion of the problem?
  • Write a teacher's guide detailing the instructional plans on using the problem in the course. If the course is a medium- to large-size class, a combination of mini-lectures, whole-class discussions, and small group work with regular reporting may be necessary. The teacher's guide can indicate plans or options for cycling through the pages of the problem interspersing the various modes of learning.
  • The final step is to identify key resources for students. Students need to learn to identify and utilize learning resources on their own, but it can be helpful if the instructor indicates a few good sources to get them started. Many students will want to limit their research to the Internet, so it will be important to guide them toward the library as well.

The method for distributing a PBL problem falls under three closely related teaching techniques: case studies, role-plays, and simulations. Case studies are presented to students in written form. Role-plays have students improvise scenes based on character descriptions given. Today, simulations often involve computer-based programs. Regardless of which technique is used, the heart of the method remains the same: the real-world problem.

Where can I learn more?

  • PBL through the Institute for Transforming Undergraduate Education at the University of Delaware
  • Duch, B. J., Groh, S. E, & Allen, D. E. (Eds.). (2001). The power of problem-based learning . Sterling, VA: Stylus.
  • Grasha, A. F. (1996). Teaching with style: A practical guide to enhancing learning by understanding teaching and learning styles. Pittsburgh: Alliance Publishers.

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Problem based learning.

Problem-based learning (PBL) is a student-centered pedagogy based on the constructivist learning theory through collaboration and self-directed learning. With PBL, students create knowledge and comprehension of a subject through the experience of solving an open-ended problem without a defined solution. Rather than focusing on learning problem-solving, PBL allows for the development of self-directed knowledge acquisition, along with enhanced teamwork and communication skills. Although originally developed for medical education, its use has expanded to other disciplines.

With PBL, the instructor’s role is to guide and challenge the learning process, rather than provide knowledge, while students engage in knowledge construction through teamwork. In alignment with constructivist theory, PBL promotes lifelong learning through inquiry.


  • Student-centered learning;
  • Promotes self-learning and self-motivation;
  • Focuses on comprehension and higher level learning, rather than facts;
  • Enhances critical appraisal skills;
  • Develops literature retrieval and evaluation skills;
  • Develops interpersonal skills and teamwork; and
  • Promotes lifelong learning


  • Instructor comfort with removing themselves from the central role;
  • Student lack of acceptance of a different format of learning;
  • Need for assessments that measure new knowledge and skills, such as practical exams, essays, peer and self assessments; and
  • Time necessary to prepare course materials and assess

problem solving based learning skills

During the PBL process, students work in groups of 10-15 students supported by a tutor. The students are presented with a problem and, through group collaboration, activate their prior knowledge. The group develops hypotheses to explain the problem and identify issues to be researched which will help them to construct a shared explanation of the problem. After the initial teamwork, students work independently to research the identified issues, followed by discussion with the group about their findings and creation of a final explanation of the problem based on what they learned. The cycle can be repeated as needed.

The seven steps in the Maastricht PBL process are:

  • Discuss the case to ensure everyone understands the problem;
  • Identify questions in need of answers to fully understand the problem;
  • Brainstorm what prior knowledge the group already has and identify potential solutions;
  • Analyze and structure the findings from the brainstorming session;
  • Formulate learning objectives for any lacking knowledge;
  • Independently, research the information necessary to achieve the learning objectives defined as a group; and
  • Discuss the findings with the group to develop a collective explanation of the problem.

In PBL learning, students in the group all serve a role. The roles should alternate through students for different problems. The tutor role is typically held by a instructor or teaching assistant who facilitates learning.

  • Facilitates learning by supporting and guiding;
  • Monitors the learning process
  • Aims to build students' confidence
  • Checks group understanding
  • Assesses performance
  • Encourages all group members to participate
  • Keeps group on topic
  • Assists with group dynamics
  • Assists with time keeping
  • Ensures records kept by scribe are accurate
  • Leads group through process
  • Ensures group remains on topic
  • Encourages members to participate
  • Maintains group dynamics
  • Ensures scribe can keep up with accurate documentation

Group Member

References and Resources:

Duch, Barbara J.; Groh, Susan; Allen, Deborah E. (2001).  The power of problem-based learning : a practical "how to" for teaching undergraduate courses in any discipline  (1st ed.). Sterling, VA: Stylus Pub.

Schmidt, Henk G; Rotgans, Jerome I; Yew, Elaine HJ (2011). "The process of problem-based learning: What works and why". Medical Education.  45  (8): 792–806.

Wood, D. F. (2003).  "ABC of learning and teaching in medicine: Problem based learning"

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problem solving based learning skills

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How Students Can Rethink Problem Solving

Finding, shaping, and solving problems puts high school students in charge of their learning and bolsters critical-thinking skills.

Students talking in school hallway

As an educator for over 20 years, I’ve heard a lot about critical thinking , problem-solving , and inquiry and how they foster student engagement. However, I’ve also seen students draw a blank when they’re given a problem to solve. This happens when the problem is too vast for them to develop a solution or they don’t think the situation is problematic. 

As I’ve tried, failed, and tried again to engage my students in critical thinking, problem-solving, and inquiry, I’ve experienced greater engagement when I allow them to problem-find, problem-shape, and problem-solve. This shift in perspective has helped my students take direct ownership over their learning.

Encourage Students to Find the Problem 

When students ask a question that prompts their curiosity, it motivates them to seek out an answer. This answer often highlights a problem. 

For example, I gave my grade 11 students a list of topics to explore, and they signed up for a topic that they were interested in. From that, they had to develop a research question. This allowed them to narrow the topic down to what they were specifically curious about. 

Developing a research question initiated the research process. Students launched into reading information from reliable sources including Britannica , Newsela , and EBSCOhost . Through the reading process, they were able to access information so that they could attempt to find an answer to their question.

The nature of a good question is that there isn’t an “answer.” Instead, there are a variety of answers. This allowed students to feel safe in sharing their answers because they couldn’t be “wrong.” If they had reliable, peer-reviewed academic research to support their answer, they were “right.”

Shaping a Problem Makes Overcoming It More Feasible 

When students identify a problem, they’re compelled to do something about it; however, if the problem is too large, it can be overwhelming for them. When they’re overwhelmed, they might shut down and stop learning. For that reason, it’s important for them to shape the problem by taking on a piece they can handle.

To help guide students, provide a list of topics and allow them to choose one. In my experience, choosing their own topic prompts students’ curiosity—which drives them to persevere through a challenging task. Additionally, I have students maintain their scope at a school, regional, or national level. Keeping the focus away from an international scope allows them to filter down the number of results when they begin researching. Shaping the problem this way allowed students to address it in a manageable way.

Students Can Problem-Solve with Purpose

Once students identified a slice of a larger problem that they could manage, they started to read and think about it, collaborate together, and figure out how to solve it. To further support them in taking on a manageable piece of the problem, the parameters of the solution were that it had to be something they could implement immediately. For example, raising $3 million to build a shelter for those experiencing homelessness in the community isn’t something that students can do tomorrow. Focusing on a solution that could be implemented immediately made it easier for them to come up with viable options. 

With the problem shaped down to a manageable piece, students were better able to come up with a solution that would have a big impact. This problem-solving process also invites ingenuity and innovation because it allows teens to critically look at their day-to-day lives and experiences to consider what actions they could take to make a difference in the world. It prompts them to look at their world through a different lens.

When the conditions for inquiry are created by allowing students to problem-find, problem-shape and problem-solve, it allows students to do the following:

  • Critically examine their world to identify problems that exist
  • Feel empowered because they realize that they can be part of a solution
  • Innovate by developing new solutions to old problems

Put it All Together to Promote Change

Here are two examples of what my grade 11 students came up with when tasked with examining the national news to problem-find, problem-shape, and problem-solve.

Topic: Indigenous Issues in Canada

Question: How are Indigenous peoples impacted by racism?

Problem-find: The continued racism against Indigenous peoples has led to the families of murdered women not attaining justice, Indigenous peoples not being able to gain employment, and Indigenous communities not being able to access basic necessities like healthcare and clean water.

Problem-shape: A lot of the issues that Indigenous peoples face require government intervention. What can high school teens do to combat these issues?

Problem-solve: Teens need to stop supporting professional sports teams that tokenize Indigenous peoples, and if they see a peer wearing something from such a sports team, we need to educate them about how the team’s logo perpetuates racism.

Topic: People With Disabilities in Canada

Question: What leads students with a hearing impairment to feel excluded?

Problem-find: Students with a hearing impairment struggle to engage with course texts like films and videos.

Problem-shape: A lot of the issues that students with a hearing impairment face in schools require teachers to take action. What can high school teens do to help their hearing-impaired peers feel included?

Problem-solve: When teens share a video on social media, they should turn the closed-captioning on, so that all students can consume the media being shared.

Once my students came up with solutions, they wanted to do something about it and use their voices to engage in global citizenship. This led them to create TikTok and Snapchat videos and Instagram posts that they shared and re-shared among their peer group. 

The learning that students engaged in led to their wanting to teach others—which allowed a greater number of students to learn. This whole process engendered conversations about our world and helped them realize that they aren’t powerless; they can do things to initiate change in areas that they’re interested in and passionate about. It allowed them to use their voices to educate others and promote change.

Teaching Problem-Solving Skills

Many instructors design opportunities for students to solve “problems”. But are their students solving true problems or merely participating in practice exercises? The former stresses critical thinking and decision­ making skills whereas the latter requires only the application of previously learned procedures.

Problem solving is often broadly defined as "the ability to understand the environment, identify complex problems, review related information to develop, evaluate strategies and implement solutions to build the desired outcome" (Fissore, C. et al, 2021). True problem solving is the process of applying a method – not known in advance – to a problem that is subject to a specific set of conditions and that the problem solver has not seen before, in order to obtain a satisfactory solution.

Below you will find some basic principles for teaching problem solving and one model to implement in your classroom teaching.

Principles for teaching problem solving

  • Model a useful problem-solving method . Problem solving can be difficult and sometimes tedious. Show students how to be patient and persistent, and how to follow a structured method, such as Woods’ model described below. Articulate your method as you use it so students see the connections.
  • Teach within a specific context . Teach problem-solving skills in the context in which they will be used by students (e.g., mole fraction calculations in a chemistry course). Use real-life problems in explanations, examples, and exams. Do not teach problem solving as an independent, abstract skill.
  • Help students understand the problem . In order to solve problems, students need to define the end goal. This step is crucial to successful learning of problem-solving skills. If you succeed at helping students answer the questions “what?” and “why?”, finding the answer to “how?” will be easier.
  • Take enough time . When planning a lecture/tutorial, budget enough time for: understanding the problem and defining the goal (both individually and as a class); dealing with questions from you and your students; making, finding, and fixing mistakes; and solving entire problems in a single session.
  • Ask questions and make suggestions . Ask students to predict “what would happen if …” or explain why something happened. This will help them to develop analytical and deductive thinking skills. Also, ask questions and make suggestions about strategies to encourage students to reflect on the problem-solving strategies that they use.
  • Link errors to misconceptions . Use errors as evidence of misconceptions, not carelessness or random guessing. Make an effort to isolate the misconception and correct it, then teach students to do this by themselves. We can all learn from mistakes.

Woods’ problem-solving model

Define the problem.

  • The system . Have students identify the system under study (e.g., a metal bridge subject to certain forces) by interpreting the information provided in the problem statement. Drawing a diagram is a great way to do this.
  • Known(s) and concepts . List what is known about the problem, and identify the knowledge needed to understand (and eventually) solve it.
  • Unknown(s) . Once you have a list of knowns, identifying the unknown(s) becomes simpler. One unknown is generally the answer to the problem, but there may be other unknowns. Be sure that students understand what they are expected to find.
  • Units and symbols . One key aspect in problem solving is teaching students how to select, interpret, and use units and symbols. Emphasize the use of units whenever applicable. Develop a habit of using appropriate units and symbols yourself at all times.
  • Constraints . All problems have some stated or implied constraints. Teach students to look for the words "only", "must", "neglect", or "assume" to help identify the constraints.
  • Criteria for success . Help students consider, from the beginning, what a logical type of answer would be. What characteristics will it possess? For example, a quantitative problem will require an answer in some form of numerical units (e.g., $/kg product, square cm, etc.) while an optimization problem requires an answer in the form of either a numerical maximum or minimum.

Think about it

  • “Let it simmer”.  Use this stage to ponder the problem. Ideally, students will develop a mental image of the problem at hand during this stage.
  • Identify specific pieces of knowledge . Students need to determine by themselves the required background knowledge from illustrations, examples and problems covered in the course.
  • Collect information . Encourage students to collect pertinent information such as conversion factors, constants, and tables needed to solve the problem.

Plan a solution

  • Consider possible strategies . Often, the type of solution will be determined by the type of problem. Some common problem-solving strategies are: compute; simplify; use an equation; make a model, diagram, table, or chart; or work backwards.
  • Choose the best strategy . Help students to choose the best strategy by reminding them again what they are required to find or calculate.

Carry out the plan

  • Be patient . Most problems are not solved quickly or on the first attempt. In other cases, executing the solution may be the easiest step.
  • Be persistent . If a plan does not work immediately, do not let students get discouraged. Encourage them to try a different strategy and keep trying.

Encourage students to reflect. Once a solution has been reached, students should ask themselves the following questions:

  • Does the answer make sense?
  • Does it fit with the criteria established in step 1?
  • Did I answer the question(s)?
  • What did I learn by doing this?
  • Could I have done the problem another way?

If you would like support applying these tips to your own teaching, CTE staff members are here to help.  View the  CTE Support  page to find the most relevant staff member to contact. 

  • Fissore, C., Marchisio, M., Roman, F., & Sacchet, M. (2021). Development of problem solving skills with Maple in higher education. In: Corless, R.M., Gerhard, J., Kotsireas, I.S. (eds) Maple in Mathematics Education and Research. MC 2020. Communications in Computer and Information Science, vol 1414. Springer, Cham.
  • Foshay, R., & Kirkley, J. (1998). Principles for Teaching Problem Solving. TRO Learning Inc., Edina MN.  (PDF) Principles for Teaching Problem Solving (
  • Hayes, J.R. (1989). The Complete Problem Solver. 2nd Edition. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Woods, D.R., Wright, J.D., Hoffman, T.W., Swartman, R.K., Doig, I.D. (1975). Teaching Problem solving Skills.
  • Engineering Education. Vol 1, No. 1. p. 238. Washington, DC: The American Society for Engineering Education.

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  • Published: September 2004

Problem-Based Learning: What and How Do Students Learn?

  • Cindy E. Hmelo-Silver 1  

Educational Psychology Review volume  16 ,  pages 235–266 ( 2004 ) Cite this article

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Problem-based approaches to learning have a long history of advocating experience-based education. Psychological research and theory suggests that by having students learn through the experience of solving problems, they can learn both content and thinking strategies. Problem-based learning (PBL) is an instructional method in which students learn through facilitated problem solving. In PBL, student learning centers on a complex problem that does not have a single correct answer. Students work in collaborative groups to identify what they need to learn in order to solve a problem. They engage in self-directed learning (SDL) and then apply their new knowledge to the problem and reflect on what they learned and the effectiveness of the strategies employed. The teacher acts to facilitate the learning process rather than to provide knowledge. The goals of PBL include helping students develop 1) flexible knowledge, 2) effective problem-solving skills, 3) SDL skills, 4) effective collaboration skills, and 5) intrinsic motivation. This article discusses the nature of learning in PBL and examines the empirical evidence supporting it. There is considerable research on the first 3 goals of PBL but little on the last 2. Moreover, minimal research has been conducted outside medical and gifted education. Understanding how these goals are achieved with less skilled learners is an important part of a research agenda for PBL. The evidence suggests that PBL is an instructional approach that offers the potential to help students develop flexible understanding and lifelong learning skills.

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Hmelo-Silver, C.E. Problem-Based Learning: What and How Do Students Learn?. Educational Psychology Review 16 , 235–266 (2004).

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Problem-Based Learning (PBL)

What is Problem-Based Learning (PBL)? PBL is a student-centered approach to learning that involves groups of students working to solve a real-world problem, quite different from the direct teaching method of a teacher presenting facts and concepts about a specific subject to a classroom of students. Through PBL, students not only strengthen their teamwork, communication, and research skills, but they also sharpen their critical thinking and problem-solving abilities essential for life-long learning.

See also: Just-in-Time Teaching

Problem-Based Learning (PBL)

In implementing PBL, the teaching role shifts from that of the more traditional model that follows a linear, sequential pattern where the teacher presents relevant material, informs the class what needs to be done, and provides details and information for students to apply their knowledge to a given problem. With PBL, the teacher acts as a facilitator; the learning is student-driven with the aim of solving the given problem (note: the problem is established at the onset of learning opposed to being presented last in the traditional model). Also, the assignments vary in length from relatively short to an entire semester with daily instructional time structured for group work.


By working with PBL, students will:

  • Become engaged with open-ended situations that assimilate the world of work
  • Participate in groups to pinpoint what is known/ not known and the methods of finding information to help solve the given problem.
  • Investigate a problem; through critical thinking and problem solving, brainstorm a list of unique solutions.
  • Analyze the situation to see if the real problem is framed or if there are other problems that need to be solved.

How to Begin PBL

  • Establish the learning outcomes (i.e., what is it that you want your students to really learn and to be able to do after completing the learning project).
  • Find a real-world problem that is relevant to the students; often the problems are ones that students may encounter in their own life or future career.
  • Discuss pertinent rules for working in groups to maximize learning success.
  • Practice group processes: listening, involving others, assessing their work/peers.
  • Explore different roles for students to accomplish the work that needs to be done and/or to see the problem from various perspectives depending on the problem (e.g., for a problem about pollution, different roles may be a mayor, business owner, parent, child, neighboring city government officials, etc.).
  • Determine how the project will be evaluated and assessed. Most likely, both self-assessment and peer-assessment will factor into the assignment grade.

Designing Classroom Instruction

See also: Inclusive Teaching Strategies

  • Take the curriculum and divide it into various units. Decide on the types of problems that your students will solve. These will be your objectives.
  • Determine the specific problems that most likely have several answers; consider student interest.
  • Arrange appropriate resources available to students; utilize other teaching personnel to support students where needed (e.g., media specialists to orientate students to electronic references).
  • Decide on presentation formats to communicate learning (e.g., individual paper, group PowerPoint, an online blog, etc.) and appropriate grading mechanisms (e.g., rubric).
  • Decide how to incorporate group participation (e.g., what percent, possible peer evaluation, etc.).

How to Orchestrate a PBL Activity

  • Explain Problem-Based Learning to students: its rationale, daily instruction, class expectations, grading.
  • Serve as a model and resource to the PBL process; work in-tandem through the first problem
  • Help students secure various resources when needed.
  • Supply ample class time for collaborative group work.
  • Give feedback to each group after they share via the established format; critique the solution in quality and thoroughness. Reinforce to the students that the prior thinking and reasoning process in addition to the solution are important as well.

Teacher’s Role in PBL

See also: Flipped teaching

As previously mentioned, the teacher determines a problem that is interesting, relevant, and novel for the students. It also must be multi-faceted enough to engage students in doing research and finding several solutions. The problems stem from the unit curriculum and reflect possible use in future work situations.

  • Determine a problem aligned with the course and your students. The problem needs to be demanding enough that the students most likely cannot solve it on their own. It also needs to teach them new skills. When sharing the problem with students, state it in a narrative complete with pertinent background information without excessive information. Allow the students to find out more details as they work on the problem.
  • Place students in groups, well-mixed in diversity and skill levels, to strengthen the groups. Help students work successfully. One way is to have the students take on various roles in the group process after they self-assess their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Support the students with understanding the content on a deeper level and in ways to best orchestrate the various stages of the problem-solving process.

The Role of the Students

See also: ADDIE model

The students work collaboratively on all facets of the problem to determine the best possible solution.

  • Analyze the problem and the issues it presents. Break the problem down into various parts. Continue to read, discuss, and think about the problem.
  • Construct a list of what is known about the problem. What do your fellow students know about the problem? Do they have any experiences related to the problem? Discuss the contributions expected from the team members. What are their strengths and weaknesses? Follow the rules of brainstorming (i.e., accept all answers without passing judgment) to generate possible solutions for the problem.
  • Get agreement from the team members regarding the problem statement.
  • Put the problem statement in written form.
  • Solicit feedback from the teacher.
  • Be open to changing the written statement based on any new learning that is found or feedback provided.
  • Generate a list of possible solutions. Include relevant thoughts, ideas, and educated guesses as well as causes and possible ways to solve it. Then rank the solutions and select the solution that your group is most likely to perceive as the best in terms of meeting success.
  • Include what needs to be known and done to solve the identified problems.
  • Prioritize the various action steps.
  • Consider how the steps impact the possible solutions.
  • See if the group is in agreement with the timeline; if not, decide how to reach agreement.
  • What resources are available to help (e.g., textbooks, primary/secondary sources, Internet).
  • Determine research assignments per team members.
  • Establish due dates.
  • Determine how your group will present the problem solution and also identify the audience. Usually, in PBL, each group presents their solutions via a team presentation either to the class of other students or to those who are related to the problem.
  • Both the process and the results of the learning activity need to be covered. Include the following: problem statement, questions, data gathered, data analysis, reasons for the solution(s) and/or any recommendations reflective of the data analysis.
  • A well-stated problem and conclusion.
  • The process undertaken by the group in solving the problem, the various options discussed, and the resources used.
  • Your solution’s supporting documents, guests, interviews and their purpose to be convincing to your audience.
  • In addition, be prepared for any audience comments and questions. Determine who will respond and if your team doesn’t know the answer, admit this and be open to looking into the question at a later date.
  • Reflective thinking and transfer of knowledge are important components of PBL. This helps the students be more cognizant of their own learning and teaches them how to ask appropriate questions to address problems that need to be solved. It is important to look at both the individual student and the group effort/delivery throughout the entire process. From here, you can better determine what was learned and how to improve. The students should be asked how they can apply what was learned to a different situation, to their own lives, and to other course projects.

See also: Kirkpatrick Model: Four Levels of Learning Evaluation

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I am a professor of Educational Technology. I have worked at several elite universities. I hold a PhD degree from the University of Illinois and a master's degree from Purdue University.

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Conceptualizing Problem-Based Learning: An Overview

Department of Community Medicine, Adesh Medical College and Hospital, Kurukshetra, Haryana, India

Rajiv Mahajan

1 Department of Pharmacology, Adesh Institute of Medical Sciences and Research, Bathinda, Punjab, India

Tejinder Singh

2 Department of Paediatrics and Medical Education, SGRD Institute of Medical Sciences and Research, Amritsar, Punjab, India

In an attempt to restructure the medical undergraduate curricula so as to equip medical graduates with essential competencies expected of an Indian Medical Graduate (IMG) and to keep pace with the changing dynamics of health in India, the National Medical Commission has introduced competency-based medical education in Graduate Medical Education Regulations-2019.[ 1 ] Competency in medical graduates can be developed through the acquisition of knowledge integrated with clinical and attitudinal skills necessary to provide high-quality, effective patient care. Competency development is also influenced by the way medical educators facilitate the growth of an integrated knowledge structure in place of rote memorization of facts or procedural practice.

In view of the above, new learning strategies are required to be adopted by medical faculty across the country. These strategies need to focus on being learner centric, multidisciplinary, system based, integrated, and problem based. The SPICES model of educational strategies is a key tool for structuring the undergraduate medical curriculum and its key elements include: student centered, problem based, integrated, community based, elective, and systematic or a planned approach.[ 2 ]

Problem-based learning (PBL) is an important aspect of this new model and a contributor in competency-based learning method. PBL was introduced by McMaster University, Canada, in 1969 as a unique, hands-on approach to learning medicine.[ 3 ] It is pertinent to mention here that PBL is not the same as “problem-solving,” as the goal of learning is not to solve the problem which has been presented. Instead, the problem is used to help students identify their own learning needs as they attempt to understand the problem, to pull together, synthesize and apply information to the problem, and to work effectively to learn from group members as well as facilitators.[ 4 ]

The PBL approach, an innovative teaching and learning method, stands to provide greater challenges and motivation by making use of realistic scenarios to engage and interact with students by building on their prior knowledge, enhancing comprehension of basic concepts, and molding knowledge gained in silos to establish a complex yet elaborate and well-integrated knowledge structure. The knowledge structure so created aids in learning, as it integrates and concretizes theoretical knowledge with its clinical relevance. Furthermore, thoughtfully created problems can foster active and deep learning (as students interact with learning materials and relate concepts to everyday activities), improve understanding, knowledge retention, and development of lifelong learning skills. PBL also allows students to activate prior knowledge and build on existing conceptual knowledge frameworks and thereby develop generic skills and attitudes such as teamwork, communication, respect for colleagues, critical evaluation, self-directed learning and use of resources, cooperation, and presentation skills desirable for their future practice [ Figure 1 ], PBL is interesting for students and tutors as the process requires all students to be engaged in the learning process.[ 5 ]

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Object name is IJABMR-12-1-g001.jpg

Prerequisites and outcomes of problem-based learning. PBL: Problem-based learning, SCC: Structuring in clinical context, CRP: Clinical reasoning process, MOL: Motivation of learning

In PBL, the student controls the reins for steering the learning process. It is a self-reflective process, and students learn to monitor their own learning. In PBL, students use “triggers” from the problem case or case scenario/vignette to identify and define their own learning objectives. This is followed by the independent, self-directed study before returning to the group to share, discuss, and refine their acquired knowledge. Thus, PBL uses problems as a base to increase knowledge and understanding. It would thus make sense to think of PBL as a small-group teaching technique that combines the acquisition of knowledge with the development of generic skills and attitudes. Clinical triggers serve as the stimulus for learning and enable students to understand the relevance of underlying scientific knowledge and its application in clinical practice.[ 6 ]

Commonly used trigger material for PBL scenarios includes paper-based clinical scenarios, laboratory reports, photographs, audio-video clips, newspaper articles, research publications, a real or simulated patient, and a family tree showing an inherited disorder.[ 6 ]

A typical PBL tutorial consists of a group of students (usually 8–10) and a facilitator/tutor to guide the session. The number and length of sessions should allow for effective group dynamics to develop. The tutor facilitates the process and ensures that the student group achieves appropriate learning objectives as conceptualized by the PBL curriculum design team. The tutor should encourage students to check their comprehension of the triggers/case material. This can be done by encouraging the students to engage in open conversation with the tutor and with other members in the group. “Seven jump” process is the most suited method for conducting PBL sessions.[ 6 ] PBL discussions differ from other small groups by the fact that the tutor has to push the students to the edge of their knowledge, setting the scene for further relevant learning.

The pillars of problem-based learning include small-group learning (tutorial-style setting and includes 8–10 student participants), faculty facilitation (to strike a balance between directing the tutorial and actively soliciting student feedback to ensure that a student's knowledge gap is adequately and appropriately addressed), use of patient-based cases (realistic clinical cases), and well-defined learning objectives (essential to ensure that students address the correct content and identify their strengths and weaknesses).

For the purpose of assessment, it is advisable to use an appropriate range of assessment methods following the basic principles of assessing the student in relation to the curriculum outcomes. It is also desirable to consider the assessment of the group in the form of reflections on its PBL performance, adherence to the process, communication skills, teamwork, respect for others, and individual contributions as these encourage students to achieve the generic attributes associated with PBL. Ample opportunities for process assessment must be there, along with content assessment.[ 7 ]

PBL is primarily based on the principles of adult learning, motivating, and encouraging the students to set learning goals, and allowing them to take decisions that affect their own learning. PBL also generates a more stimulating and challenging educational environment that has the potential to influence permanent change in behavior. PBL can be used as an intervention to promote self-directed learning and ultimately lifelong learning goal of IMG. Everyone may not be able to use the classical version, and partial implementation (with partial benefits) is possible. The benefits go far beyond simple pretest and posttest.

problem solving based learning skills

October 13, 2020 by Autor invitado

Mr. Sungwon Lee is the CEO of G-School based in Seoul, South Korea. Previously a public school teacher for 20 years, he established G-School based on the mission that education should reflect the changes in the society. It realizes the idea of what future education should look like and implements 21st century education through a network of collaborative teachers. Mr. Lee is a special guest to our blog series on the development of #skills21 in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Educational institutions around the world scrambled to address the global crisis the best way they could as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases hit new records daily. Public and private responses to the pandemic only highlighted the limitations of the education sector around the world. In a time when school closures became the norm, how did G-School see an opportunity in the wake of the pandemic?

G-School is an unaccredited experimental school based in Seoul, South Korea. It provides education for middle and high school students, and because it is unaccredited by the government, it has the freedom to adopt and implement teaching methods as well as academic curricula it deems fit for its students. With its progressive education program, it is committed to fostering key future skills that correspond to a rapidly changing world. Its curriculum places heavy emphasis on self-guided learning and project-based learning, the latter to help students develop collaborative problem-solving skills. 2020 was a particularly meaningful year for G-School, as it successfully designed and implemented its online curriculum for all enrolled students in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Notable was the absence of learning losses over 6 months, from march to september—one of the primary initial concerns of teachers prior to implementing the shift to complete online learning. Not only did students’ digital literacy soar during the short time period, but also did their communication and collaborative skills with their peers. Technology-based tools proved to be exceptionally useful for both teachers and students in keeping track of daily assignments and academic progress, and ultimately helped improve the students’ skills, learning competence, and attitude.

9 principles of G-School

problem solving based learning skills

Nurturing Collaborative Problem-Solving Skills through Online Learning

The curriculum at G-School is designed to foster collaborative problem-solving skills, a challenging goal even in a conventional in-person learning environment. Students are encouraged to solve problems and overcome challenges by working together with peers. In fact, teamwork constitutes an integral part of the students’ learning experience at G-School. In a time when in-person learning became impossible, G-School’s collaborative learning model became possible through technology.

An example of an online tool frequently used by students at G-School is called Mindmeister . This application allows teams to build ideas from scratch, and individual thoughts and concepts become a vast web of information that offers the “big picture” at a glance. Through video conferencing, students further their discussions and ideas.

Hosting a 150-minute class for 35 students online? Not a problem. ZOOM has proven to be an invaluable tool during the time of the pandemic and its breakout room feature helped teachers to encourage small-group discussions. Students also conceptualize and document projects on shared digital workspaces such as Notion , spreadsheets such as Numbers and turn to Google shared documents to collaborate on team assignments.

Fostering Self-Guided Learning through Project-based Learning

Another key objective of G-School’s education is to nurture students with a sense of self-agency. Teachers are committed to helping students discover their worth and potential to grow so they motivate themselves to work harder. That is why at G-School, teachers understand that every student grows at a different pace. Once a student finds a topic interesting, they will explore in depth. Once students discover they have what it takes to achieve their goals, teachers facilitate and motivate students to complete their academic journey autonomously with a high level of excellence and sense of purpose and responsibility.

Every semester, teachers thoroughly assess and document the students’ growth in knowledge, competence and attitude. The detailed assessment then becomes a tool to determine a student’s progress while also providing insights into his or her future growth potential. Therefore, G-School’s ultimate mission is to foster critical thinking, communication skills, collaborative skills, creativity and empathy, the five key future skills that can help a student thrive in the world.

G-School’s online education model does not owe its success purely to technology. Rather, the main reason behind the school’s success story lies in its bold attempt to break away from conventional knowledge-based learning to competency-based learning – one of the founding philosophies of G-School. If the ways of the past do not blend in with the times of dynamic changes, they must go. It is time to open our eyes to new and innovative methods and experiment boldly to prepare humanity for the next generation to come. This is the true definition of education in the 21st century. There is no time to waste.

How can schools in Latin America and the Caribbean move towards competency-based learning? Do you know any examples of schools like G-School in your country? Leave us your comment in the section below or on Twitter mentioning @BIDeducacion #EnfoqueEducacion.

Stay tuned and follow our blog series on education and #skills21 in times of coronavirus. Read the first entry of these series here . Download the Future is now and don’t forget to keep an eye out for our news!

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) in 2023 | Best Overview With Examples and Tips

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) in 2023 | Best Overview With Examples and Tips

Astrid Tran • 17 Oct 2023 • 6 min read

Teaching methods have evolved continuously over the years to equip students with the best competencies to tackle real challenges in the modern world. This is why the problem-based learning method is widely utilized in teaching to ensure students practice critical thinking and analytical skills in solving problems.

So, what is problem-based learning? Here is an overview of this method, its concept, examples, and tips for productive outcomes.

problem solving based learning skills

Table of Contents

What is problem-based learning (pbl), what are the five key features of problem-based learning, why is problem-based learning important, how to apply problem-based learning, what are examples of problem-based learning, key takeaways, frequently asked questions.

Problem-based learning is a learning method that requires students to work on real problems that are currently being applied by many universities. Students will be divided into small groups to collaborate on solving problems under the supervision of teachers.

This learning method originates from a medical school, with the goal of helping students apply knowledge and theory from books to solve real-life cases given in the classroom. Teachers are no longer in a teaching position but have moved to a supervisory position and only participate when absolutely necessary.

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Problem-based learning aims to prepare students not only with knowledge but also with the ability to apply that knowledge to solve real-world challenges, making it a valuable pedagogical approach in a variety of fields and disciplines.

Here is a short description of problem-based learning, which is characterized by several key features:

  • Authentic Problems : It presents students with problems that reflect real-world situations or challenges, making the learning experience more relevant and practical.
  • Active Learning : Instead of passive listening or memorization, students actively engage with the problem, which encourages critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
  • Self-Directed Learning : It promotes self-directed learning, where students take responsibility for their own learning process. They research, gather information, and seek resources to solve the problem.
  • Collaboration : Students typically work in small groups, fostering collaboration, communication, and teamwork skills as they discuss and develop solutions together.
  • Interdisciplinary Approach : It often encourages interdisciplinary thinking, as problems may require knowledge and skills from multiple subjects or areas of expertise.

problem solving based learning skills

The PBL method has significant importance in modern education due to its multifaceted benefits.

At its core, it cultivates critical thinking skills by immersing students in real-world problems that lack straightforward answers. This approach not only challenges learners to consider multiple perspectives but also equips them with problem-solving skills.

Furthermore, it promotes self-directed learning as students take ownership of their education, conduct research, and seek resources independently. Willingness to learn will help improve knowledge retention.

Beyond academia, this method also encourages collaboration and teamwork , important skills in professional settings, and promotes interdisciplinary thinking because real-world problems often stem from many different fields.

Finally, learning from the problem method is suitable for a wide range of audiences and learners, ensuring relevance in diverse educational environments. At its core, Problem-Based Learning is an educational approach that aims to equip students with the skills, mindset, and readiness needed in a complex and ever-evolving world.

problem-based learning model

The best practice when it comes to problem-based learning activities is collaboration and involvement. Here are five activities that help learning with this method more efficiently.

1. Ask questions

When studying alone, regularly ask questions or “learning goals” to stimulate thinking. Questions with different breadth will suggest many different issues, helping us have a more multi-dimensional and in-depth view. However, don’t let the question go too far, and stick to the topic of the lesson as much as possible.

2. Use real-life situations

Search and include real-life examples to connect with the knowledge you have learned. Those great examples can be easily found on social networks, on television, or in situations happening around you.

3. Exchange information

Discuss the problems you learn with anyone, from teachers, friends, or family members, in the form of questions, discussions, asking for opinions, or teaching them to your friends.

This way, you can recognize more aspects of the problem, and practice some skills such as communication, problem solving, creative thinking,…

4. Be proactive

The problem-based learning technique also emphasizes initiative, self-discipline, and interaction to remember knowledge longer. You can research issues surrounding that topic yourself and ask your teacher for help if you have difficulty.

5. Take notes

Even though it is a new way of learning, don’t forget that traditional note-taking is also very necessary. One point to note is that you should not copy it exactly as it is in the book, but read it and write it down in your own words.

These approaches enhance critical thinking, problem-solving, and comprehension, making problem-based learning a dynamic and engaging learning method that encourages active participation and deeper understanding.

From high school to higher education, PBL is a favored method by teachers and professionals. It is a flexible and dynamic method that can be used across multiple fields.

Some examples of problem-based learning activities are described as follows. These real-world PBL scenarios demonstrate how this educational approach can be applied across various fields and levels of education, offering students immersive learning experiences and practical skills development.

1. Healthcare Diagnosis and Treatment (Medical Education):

  •  Scenario: Medical students are presented with a complex patient case involving a patient with multiple symptoms. They must work collaboratively to diagnose the patient’s condition, propose a treatment plan, and consider ethical dilemmas.
  •  Outcome: Students develop clinical reasoning skills, learn to work in medical teams, and apply theoretical knowledge to real patient scenarios.

2. Business Strategy and Marketing (MBA Programs):

  • Scenario: MBA students are given a struggling business case and must analyze its financials, market position, and competitive landscape. They work in teams to formulate a comprehensive business strategy and marketing plan.
  • Outcome: Students learn to apply business theories to real-world situations, enhance their problem-solving and teamwork skills, and gain practical experience in strategic decision-making.

3. Legal Case Analysis (Law School):

  • Scenario: Law students are presented with a complex legal case involving multiple legal issues and conflicting precedents. They must research relevant laws, and precedents, and present their arguments as legal teams.
  • Outcome: Students enhance their legal research, critical thinking, and persuasive communication skills, preparing them for legal practice.

How to transform the classic PBL method in the modern world? A new PBL approach currently from many prestigious schools combines physical and digital practices, which has been proven in many successful cases.

For teachers and trainers, using interactive and engaging presentation tools like AhaSlides can help remote learning and online learning more efficient and productive. It is equipped with all advanced features to guarantee seamless learning experiences.

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What is the problem-based learning (PBL) method?

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is an educational approach where students learn by actively solving real-world problems or scenarios. It emphasizes critical thinking, collaboration, and practical application of knowledge.

What is an example of a Problem-Based Learning problem?

A PBL example is: “Investigate the causes of declining fish populations and water quality issues in a local river ecosystem. Propose a solution for ecosystem restoration and plan community engagement.”

How can Problem-Based Learning be used in the classroom?

In the classroom, Problem-Based Learning involves introducing a real-world problem, forming student groups, guiding research and problem-solving, encouraging solution proposals and presentations, facilitating discussions, and promoting reflection. This method fosters engagement and equips students with practical skills.

Ref: Forbes | Cornell

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Problem-solving skills, solving problems and problem-based learning


  • 1 Department of Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.
  • PMID: 3050382
  • DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2923.1988.tb00754.x

This paper reviews the empirical evidence in support of the three concepts in the title. To the extent that a skill should be a general strategy, applicable in a variety of situations, and independent of the specific knowledge of the situation, there is little evidence that problem-solving skills, as described and measured in medical education, possess these characteristics. Instead there is an accumulation of evidence that expert problem-solving in medicine is dependent on (I) a wealth of prior specific experiences which can be used in routine solution of problems by pattern recognition processes, and (2) elaborated conceptual knowledge applicable to the occasional problematic situation. The use of problem-based learning (PBL) as an educational strategy is explored. In particular, the evidence suggesting the compatibility of PBL with this theory of expertise is discussed. Finally, I review some issues in the design of PBL curricula from the perspective of the proposed model of expertise.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Clinical Competence
  • Education, Medical*
  • Problem Solving*

‘AI means maths problem-solving skills are more important than ever’

Cambridge bolsters classroom learning with new 'Problem-Solving Schools' initiative

By Stephen Bevan Published: 16th November 2023

problem solving based learning skills

Credit: Phil Boorman

Mathematicians at the University of Cambridge are supporting UK schools to help prioritise problem solving in maths – a key skill that is likely to become ever more critical with the rise of automation and artificial intelligence.

The new Problem-Solving Schools initiative, developed by the University’s Faculty of Mathematics, aims to create ‘a movement of problem-solving schools’ by providing free learning resources and teacher training to refocus attention on the skill.  Along with fluency and reasoning, problem solving has been central to the National Curriculum for maths since it was introduced in 2014, but often does not receive the same amount of attention in the classroom.

In the summer, Ofsted published new guidance encouraging schools to focus more consistently on teaching problem solving, and emphasised the importance of teaching skills that “equip [pupils] for the next stage of education, work and life”.

Dr Ems Lord, Director of NRICH , which provides thousands of free online mathematics resources for ages three to 18, and is launching Problem-Solving Schools, said: “It's fair to say that many schools feel increasingly confident supporting fluency and reasoning skills, and there’s a lot of support out there. What’s been missing is the problem-solving aspect, and that’s been repeatedly picked up by Ofsted. It’s not being prioritised, often because of a lack of training for teachers and a lack of access to sufficient, high-quality resources to support it.

problem solving based learning skills

Dr Ems Lord at the University's Maths Faculty. Credit: Nathan Pitt

“Some schools are not covering it as well as others, so it means we’re in this very patchy landscape and at the same time we have AI coming in, with everyone thinking about how that will impact future roles and careers. And it’s looking increasingly likely that students who are good problem solvers, and have good teamwork skills, are the ones who are going to thrive.”

Although AI is developing rapidly, Dr Lord says at present problem solving isn’t one of its strong points. And business analysts believe that in the future jobs which computers cannot perform ­– that require uniquely human skills such as critical thinking ­– will become more significant and those with these skills will be in even more demand.

“I can put our problems into an AI system, some it can solve, some it gives ridiculous answers to. But how would someone know which is which unless they know how to solve the problem themselves – or even know what question to ask to get the answer they’re after?

“Problem-solving is not about memorising facts, it’s about being confronted with something for the first time and thinking, ‘Right, how do I use my skills to approach this?’ And these are transferrable skills, for all aspects of life, which will help children in the future, not just at work but also socially. We want our young people to have the curiosity and confidence to question things, so if they come across some data or a graph in the media, or wherever, they have the experience and skills to know what a good graph looks like, and they can analyse it for themselves.

“It’s such an important area that we have to get right, and at the moment we’re not doing it. The whole point of learning maths is to be able to solve problems.”

Dr Lord says the Problem-Solving Schools initiative aims to help embed the skill in classrooms by providing themed resources and webinar training on how to best use them – to support teachers who might be lacking in confidence themselves, or are unsure how to refocus how they teach the Curriculum.

The webinar series will also include tips on engaging parents with maths so they can help support their children in the subject. In a recent study , NRICH’s Solving Together project, which offers family-friendly homework activities, was found to significantly increase parental involvement in the subject.

'Problem-solving is not about memorising facts, it’s about being confronted with something for the first time and thinking, ‘Right, how do I use my skills to approach this?'

- Dr Ems Lord, Director of NRICH

problem solving based learning skills

Pupils using NRICH maths resources. Credit: University of Cambridge

In addition, a Charter for schools to sign up to is also being introduced. It puts problem solving at the heart of maths learning, from the commitment of the school’s leadership team, to values in the classroom – where good problem-solving behaviour is encouraged, and where it’s ok to make mistakes – to how activities can be widened out to the local community.

The NRICH team has developed the programme in consultation with schools, and has actively sought the views of colleagues in the Department for Education, and the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics – the Government’s maths body set up to improve mathematics teaching in England.

“Many of the resources given to teachers up to this point have focused on fluency, and if a teacher isn’t mathematically trained they tend to revert to where they feel safe, how they were taught,” says Dr Lord. “We need to break the mould on that, we need to make sure there are good resources available for problem-solving learning, and free training, so it isn’t a case of ‘we should be doing this’, but, ‘why wouldn’t we be doing this?’

“We’ve created a complete, wraparound package. We’re looking for schools across the country to sign up to the Charter, create a movement of problem-solving schools and change the agenda.”

Professor Bhaskar Vira, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education at the University of Cambridge, said: “Problem-Solving Schools is an exciting initiative that builds on the University’s work to support schools around the country through outreach and learning. NRICH’s high quality resources will help maths teachers embed problem solving in the classroom, as part of Cambridge’s mission to contribute to society through education, learning and research, and equip pupils with this key skill for the future.”

As part of the Problem-Solving Schools launch, NRICH is developing its resources, which have been supporting learners since the outreach programme’s launch 25 years ago , and recently made a huge contribution to the national effort during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Between March and September 2020, registered a 95% increase in UK visits compared to the previous year. In the 2020–21 school year alone, the site attracted just under 33 million page views. In spring 2020, the UK Government highlighted NRICH resources to schools and the team contributed to the BBC’s heavily used Bitesize maths resources.

And as the team launches its newest initiative, it continues to support post-pandemic catch-up work, by helping fill gaps in knowledge and focusing on students’ attitude to maths.

“It’s not just about doing the maths, it’s about enjoying it and finding it worthwhile – understanding the applications,” says Dr Lord. “If our materials are just about covering subject knowledge it’s really hard for student to enjoy what they’re doing.

“It’s a bit like having never seen Messi score a goal. If all you’ve done is go to football practice, where the coach puts down markers and tells you to dribble through them for an hour, and you come back the next week and do exactly the same thing, you kind of wonder why you’re doing it.

“But if you go to football practice and then switch on the TV and see a Messi wonder goal – it’s like ‘Aah – that’s what it’s all about!’ And I sometimes think that’s what’s missing when we talk about maths – the sheer moments of awe and wonder that you can have, and that feeling when you solve a problem which is absolutely fantastic!”

problem solving based learning skills

Credit: University of Cambridge

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License .

problem solving based learning skills

  • Open access
  • Published: 13 November 2023

Assessment of the capacity of ChatGPT as a self-learning tool in medical pharmacology: a study using MCQs

  • Woong Choi 1  

BMC Medical Education volume  23 , Article number:  864 ( 2023 ) Cite this article

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ChatGPT is a large language model developed by OpenAI that exhibits a remarkable ability to simulate human speech. This investigation attempts to evaluate the potential of ChatGPT as a standalone self-learning tool, with specific attention on its efficacy in answering multiple-choice questions (MCQs) and providing credible rationale for its responses.

The study used 78 test items from the Korean Comprehensive Basic Medical Sciences Examination (K-CBMSE) for years 2019 to 2021. 78 test items translated from Korean to English with four lead-in prompts per item resulted in a total of 312 MCQs. The MCQs were submitted to ChatGPT and the responses were analyzed for correctness, consistency, and relevance.

ChatGPT responded with an overall accuracy of 76.0%. Compared to its performance on recall and interpretation questions, the model performed poorly on problem-solving questions. ChatGPT offered correct rationales for 77.8% (182/234) of the responses, with errors primarily arising from faulty information and flawed reasoning. In terms of references, ChatGPT provided incorrect citations for 69.7% (191/274) of the responses. While the veracity of reference paragraphs could not be ascertained, 77.0% (47/61) were deemed pertinent and accurate with respect to the answer key.

The current version of ChatGPT has limitations in accurately answering MCQs and generating correct and relevant rationales, particularly when it comes to referencing. To avoid possible threats such as spreading inaccuracies and decreasing critical thinking skills, ChatGPT should be used with supervision.

Peer Review reports


Created by OpenAI, ChatGPT is an advanced large language model (LLM) that has been pre-trained to chat in natural language [ 1 ]. Since its launch in late 2022, ChatGPT has drawn considerable attention from the public. Thanks to its large capacity and training text corpora [ 2 ], ChatGPT is able to produce human-like responses, going as far as to demonstrate reasoning through chain-of-thoughts mimicking human problem-solving behavior [ 3 , 4 , 5 , 6 ]. After ChatGPT met the passing threshold on the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) [ 7 , 8 ], many authors applied ChatGPT on answering other multiple-choice questions (MCQs) in the medical domain such as physiology [ 9 ], anesthesiology [ 10 , 11 ], ophthalmology [ 12 ], and parasitology [ 13 ]. One meta-analysis reported that ChatGPT demonstrated an accuracy of 61.1% (95% CI 56.1%–66.0%) in answering MCQs in medical examinations [ 14 ].

Given that MCQs can be used as a self-learning tool [ 15 , 16 ], such performance suggests that ChatGPT could act as an easy-to-access interactive learning environment, which could lead to greater retention of information and more pleasant learning experience [ 7 ].

The Korean Comprehensive Basic Medical Sciences Examination (K-CBMSE) is a minimum competency test taken by Korean medical students who have completed didactic learning and laboratory experiment for basic medical sciences (See Supplement 1 for the details) [ 17 ]. One theme of K-CBMSE focuses on pharmacology, which includes MCQs at three levels of cognitive taxonomy: recall, interpretation, and problem-solving [ 16 ]. Pharmacology is often perceived as a challenging subject by students due to (1) the introduction of numerous new terms and concepts, and (2) requirement of complex background knowledge such as pathophysiology and biochemistry. Therefore, reinforcement of key concepts by self-learning is essential to improve understanding, learning and retention [ 18 ].

ChatGPT was suggested as a self-learning tool for students facing difficulties in learning pharmacology, as it achieved a high accuracy rate when answering centric questions from a pharmacology textbook for undergraduate students [ 19 ]. However, ChatGPT’s ability to answer MCQs in pharmacology have not been addressed in the past literature. In this study, the capacity of ChatGPT as a self-learning tool for pharmacology was tested on selected MCQs from the pharmacology section of K-CBMSE. ChatGPT was asked four incrementally designed prompts to provide answers, rationales (reasoning or justification) supporting its answers, references for the rationale, and relevant paragraphs or excerpts from each reference. The accuracy of answers, the soundness of rationales, and the veracity of references and relevant paragraphs were evaluated. Cases of incorrect answers and rationales were identified along with potential causes for the errors. Possible strategies to minimize the drawbacks of ChatGPT were discussed.

This study assessed ChatGPT’s potential as a standalone self-learning tool for medical pharmacology by evaluating its response to 312 MCQs derived from the K-CBMSE test items. The responses were assessed based on the correctness of answer, rationale, references, and paragraph from each respective reference. As MCQs are a combination of test items and incrementally engineered lead-in prompts, the study also tested whether the cognitive taxonomy level of the test items and the incrementally engineered prompts interacted to influence ChatGPT’s performance.

Construction of test item dataset

Test items from the K-CBMSE for years 2019 to 2021 (a total of 105 test items) were used as the test item dataset. Footnote 1 Test items with figures (27 items) were excluded because ChatGPT could not interpret images. The remaining 78 test items were translated from Korean to English by the author. During the translation, long Korean sentences were split into short English sentences for better readability, and appropriate plain words or medical terms were used where required. The cognitive taxonomy level of the test items was also rated by the author as recall, interpretation, and problem-solving [ 16 ].

Prompt engineering

For the answer, references for the rationales, relevant paragraphs or excerpts in each reference), lead-in prompts were engineered incrementally for each of the four levels. This four-level prompting is an incremental prompting technique that uses four levels of prompts to guide a large language model (LLM) such as ChatGPT towards a desired response by providing multiple prompts, one after another [ 20 ]. It was hypothesized that incremental prompting might increase ChatGPT’s workload and error rate.

Prompt 1 (correct answer): Please choose the best answer for the following question,

Prompt 2 (rationale): Please choose the best answer for the following question and explain the rationale,

Prompt 3 (references): Please choose the best answer for the following question and explain the rationale. Please provide the references (Uniform Resource Locator or URL, title, and authors) that support the rationale,

Prompt 4 (relevant paragraph): Please choose the best answer for the following question and give a rationale for the answer. Please provide the references (URL, title, and authors) that support your rationale. Please provide the relevant paragraphs or formulas from each reference.

Multiple-choice question dataset

A single MCQ was composed of one lead-in prompt, one blank line, and the original test item. Figure  1 shows the typical style of each MCQ. Since each test item could be paired with four different lead-in prompts, 78 test items generated a total of 312 MCQs.

figure 1

The typical style of each multiple-choice question. Each question consisted of a lead-in prompt, a test item, and options. The lead-in prompt could ask for the answer; a rationale supporting the answer; references; and paragraphs from the references

ChatGPT (versions between Jan/28/2023 and Jan/29/2023; OpenAI) was used. The version of ChatGPT is powered by Generative Pretrained Transformer (GPT)-3.5 and has been pretrained on a large size (from 570 gigabytes to 45 terabytes) of text data [ 1 , 2 ]. There is no report whether ChatGPT received any additional pharmacology-specific pretraining.

ChatGPT inquiry and the responses thereof

ChatGPT was used to generate responses to English MCQs by feeding one question to the model at a time, deleting previous chat history before each submission to prevent previous questions from influencing the current response. A response consisted of answers, rationales, reference lists, and relevant paragraphs from each reference, depending on the prompt. Figure  2 shows a typical example of ChatGPT’s response style.

figure 2

The typical style of ChatGPT’s response. Depending on the level of the lead-in prompt, typical ChatGPT’s response consisted an answer; a rationale supporting the answer; references; and paragraphs from the references

Data summary

ChatGPT-generated responses were evaluated to check whether: (1) the answer for each MCQ was correct; (2) the answers to each test item were consistent over the prompts; (3) ChatGPT returned scientifically accurate and relevant rationales.; (4) reference lists were correct (i.e., ChatGPT provided the accurate citation information for references); and (5) a relevant paragraph could be found in the references listed, if possible. The results were binary (yes or no), and the number of yes and no results was summarized.

Statistical analysis

All results were expressed in categorical contingency tables and statistical analysis was performed online using Fisher’s exact test ( ). When cell frequencies were less than 5, the Freeman-Halton extension of Fisher’s exact test was performed using the Free Statistics Calculator v4.0 ( ). If required, chi-square goodness-of-fit test was performed using Chi-Square Goodness of Fit Test Calculator ( ). A p -value of less than 0.05 was considered statistically significant.

The overall accuracy of ChatGPT’s answers to MCQs was 76.0% (Table 1 ). Responses with an incorrect answer (65/312, 20.8%), with multiple answers (4/312, 1.3%), or a response of “not determined” (6/312, 1.9%) were grouped as incorrect answers (75/312, 24.0%). Although the accuracies across the prompts varied from 71.8% to 82.1%, they did not differ significantly (See Supplement 2 for the details). ChatGPT’s accuracy was higher than its previously reported performance of 56.1%–66.0% (95% CI) [ 14 ] and Korean students’ average performance of 55.3% (See Supplement 1 for the details). In terms of the cognitive taxonomy level of MCQs, the accuracy was 86.4% (152/176) for recall, 77.5% (62/80) for interpretation, and 41.1% (23/56) for problem-solving (See Supplement 2 for the details). Table 1 shows the performance for prompt 4 (relevant paragraph) in each taxonomy level, as the performance for other prompts was not significantly different.

To assess the concordance or consistency of answers to test items, the responses were aggregated by test item. The correctness for a single test item were classified as all correct, all incorrect, or partially correct across the prompts, and the all-correct and all-incorrect responses were regarded as concordant responses. Of the 78 test items, 60 items (76.9%) had concordant response across the prompts (Table 2 ). For partially correct responses, the incorrect-to-correct answer ratio varied between 1-to-3 to 3-to-1 with various correct-incorrect sequences (data not shown).

Prompts 2 (rationale) to 4 (relevant paragraph) required the rationale to be included in the response (234 MCQs). The scientific accuracy of each rationale was assessed by the author. Among 234 MCQs, 178 MCQs were correctly answered with either a correct (172/178, 96.6%) or an incorrect rationale (6/178, 3.4%). 56 MCQs were incorrectly answered with either a correct (10/56, 17.9%) or an incorrect rationale (46/56, 82.1%). Overall, 22.2% (52/234) of the rationales were incorrect. Table 3 shows that correct answers were more likely supported by correct rationale and incorrect rationales were more likely to be associated with incorrect answers ( Χ 2 (df  =  1, N  =  234)  = 152.93, p  < 0.05).

The incorrect rationales could be grouped into one of the two categories: information errors (28/52, 53.8%) and reasoning errors (24/52, 46.2%). Information errors involved incorrect information or formula in the rationale (See Fig. S3-1 for correct and relevant supporting paragraph; Figs. S3-2 and S3-3 for the errors in the rationale in Supplement 3 ), while reasoning errors involved failed identification of the cues from the question stem, disregard of the cues in the question stem, or arithmetic errors including unit conversion (See Figs. S3-4 and S3-5 in Supplement 3 ).

Prompts 3 (references) and 4 (relevant paragraph) required references for the test items (156 MCQs). In total, 274 references were listed (Table 4 ). The reference lists consisted of URLs including PubMed, articles in journal citation format, and book information. Among these references, 191 (69.7%) had URLs linked to either an irrelevant or a nonexistent site, including PubMed links that did not match the relevant contents. A total of 350 authors were cited, but 59 authors (16.9%) could not be found on PubMed, Amazon, or Google. Even the combination of the existing authors did not find any relevant articles. Although 152 titles of articles or books were given, 148 titles (97.4%) were incorrect. Figure  2 shows a case of errors in referencing. The reference information presented was “Proton pump inhibitors: a review of their pharmacology and their therapeutic uses. Scarpignato, JJ and Zentilin, G. ”. The PubMed Central Identifier PMC1372933 was directed to “Preventive Medicine in World War II. Vol. IV. Communicable Diseases Transmitted Chiefly through Respiratory and Alimentary Tracts. Am J Public Health Nations Health. 1959 Jul; 49(7): 969. PMCID: PMC1372933” and none of the listed authors could be found on PubMed, Amazon, or Google. The reference title, ‘Proton pump inhibitors: a review of their pharmacology and their therapeutic uses’, could not be found in a PubMed search. Even after the references were limited to textbooks and the prompts were modified to require actual books, the errors in the information on authors, book chapters, and pages were persistent (data not shown).

Relevant paragraphs

Prompt 4 (relevant paragraph) asked ChatGPT to identify the relevant paragraphs from each reference (78 MCQs). Only 47 MCQs from Table 5 were provided with paragraphs, which are presented in Table 6 (61 paragraphs). The distribution of the paragraph presentation did not differ significantly between correct and incorrect answers (Table 5 ; χ 2 (1, 78)  = 1.35, p  > 0.05).

Irrespective of the correctness of the reference, the contents of 61 paragraphs themselves could be grouped into (1) correct and relevant to the answer key (47/61, 77.0%), (2) correct but irrelevant to the answer key (6/61, 9.8%), and (3) incorrect information (8/61, 13.1%). As shown in Table 6 , correct and relevant paragraphs are more likely to support correct answers (See the Supplement 3 for the details of each type of paragraph in Table 6 ; especially Fig. S3-1 for a correct and relevant paragraph, Fig. S3-6 for a correct but irrelevant paragraph, and Fig. S3-7 for an incorrect paragraph).

Based on pharmacology MCQs, this study found that the current version of ChatGPT need to be improved to be used as a standalone self-learning tool. ChatGPT’s overall performance (76%) in this study surpassed the ranges reported in the previous literature (61.1%, 95% CI 56.1%–66.0%) [ 14 ]. Its performance may vary depending on the number of subjects covered by each test, the numbers of options per MCQ, as well as the distribution of test items’ cognitive taxonomy. However, its performance below 95% may limit its reliability as a self-learning tool [ 14 ]. ChatGPT outperformed Korean students in terms of overall accuracy in its response (76% vs 55%), but performed poorly on problem-solving MCQs (45%) despite its supposed critical thinking and problem-solving abilities. This result suggests that ChatGPT is still limited in its ability to apply critical thinking and reasoning skills to real-world problems.

Another issue with ChatGPT was the randomness of the generated responses. ChatGPT answered 23.1% of the test items inconsistently across the lead-in prompts. While randomness may be useful when generating creative content or exploring different ideas, it can be a critical problem when answering factual questions [ 21 ]. A particularly problematic form of randomness is hallucination, a phenomenon where ChatGPT generates plausible-sounding but incorrect or misleading [ 22 , 23 , 24 , 25 ]. The hallucinations can be caused by training data biases, lack of required information, limited real-world understanding, or algorithmic limitations [ 26 ]. The rationales for the answer and the supporting references were especially susceptible to hallucination. Among all the generated rationales, 22.2% were incorrect and involved information errors or reasoning errors. Generated URL links were often incorrect or unavailable (191/274, 69.7%), and some authors could not be found (59/350, 16.9%). Consequently, while ChatGPT did provide paragraphs to some of the paragraph-requiring prompts, it was not possible to evaluate their veracity because most of the reference links were unavailable. This poor performance demonstrates a weakness of ChatGPT as a standalone self-learning tool. In the medical domain, it is crucial to ensure that information is accurate, as errors or inaccuracies can have detrimental consequences [ 27 ]. However, any inaccuracies and misinformation in self-study guides cannot be corrected without references, which would lead to erroneous absorption of information that can negatively impact learning outcomes. The absence of appropriate references may also deprive the students of access to additional information, which in turn could limit their comprehension and understanding related to the subject matter [ 28 ].

Despite its limitations, ChatGPT could still be useful as a self-study tool when used under supervision [ 29 ]. As a part of preparing students for the challenges in the future, they could be trained to critically evaluate and challenge factually incorrect or misleading responses from ChatGPT, such as tracing evidence to its primary sources to verify the model’s assertions [ 28 ]. For instance, students can ask ChatGPT for its chain of thoughts through prompts such as “Explain your reasoning process for the answer” or “Explain your chain of thoughts for the answer” [ 30 ]. The responses to these prompts can help students understand ChatGPT’s reasoning, think critically about the underlying information, and develop their own reasoning and critical thinking skills based on the experience. ChatGPT can be an engaging way of learning, but it is important to use it in moderation and not let it replace independent thinking. Students should be cautioned against overreliance on ChatGPT, as it could impair their higher-order cognitive skills, such as creativity and problem-solving [ 31 ].

This study contributed to the previous literature by providing evidence that the current version of ChatGPT is not suitable as a standalone self-learning tool and exploring the potential for supervised use of ChatGPT.

However, this study also has several limitations. Firstly, the study employed only 78 test items derived from the K-CBMSE pharmacology. While the sample size is adequate for the purposes of this study, it is still relatively small and may not fully represent all categories of medical examination questions. As a result, future research may seek to utilize a larger and more diverse set of medical examination questions for a more comprehensive evaluation of ChatGPT’s capabilities. Secondly, this study’s primary focus was centered on examining ChatGPT’s capacity to address medical examination MCQs, specifically those pertaining to pharmacology. The outcomes of this research may not necessarily be generalizable to other types of inquiries or domains. To enhance the transferability of the study’s results, subsequent investigations may explore ChatGPT’s efficacy in answering questions in fields other than medicine or in other answer formats such as essays. This approach would aid in establishing the generalizability of the findings and providing more robust support for future practical applications. Thirdly, ChatGPT is rapidly evolving. Significant advancements have occurred during the research process, which could potentially make some findings less relevant. For example, GPT-4 was released while this research was underway, and it is known to be significantly more powerful than ChatGPT [ 32 ]. Fourthly, overall performance of ChatGPT may have been overestimated in this study due to the imbalanced distribution of cognitive taxonomy levels in the test items. Only 17.9% of the test items are problem-solving, while 56.4% are recall. To ensure fair comparison across studies, the distribution of cognitive taxonomy levels should be standardized. Finally, there are several key components that can contribute to the effectiveness of learning tools, such as students’ perception and interaction [ 33 , 34 ]. This study did not assess ChatGPT’s efficacy on these dimensions.

The introduction of new technologies such as internet, mobile devices, and ChatGPT in education presents both opportunities and threats. The introduction of new technologies such as internet, mobile devices, and ChatGPT presents both opportunities and threats in education. Artificial intelligence (AI) technology has the potential to revolutionize education [ 35 ], offering personalized virtual assistants and adaptive learning experiences for every student [ 31 , 36 , 37 ]. AI-powered systems can provide timely and immediate feedback, tailored recommendations, and interactive and engaging learning activities [ 26 , 36 , 38 ]. Although some may fear the threats of plagiarism and misinformation posed by ChatGPT, efforts to ban emerging technologies in higher education have been futile historically. ChatGPT is unlikely to be an exception [ 39 ].

Instead, we should embrace ChatGPT and other language models as self-learning tools while striving to minimize the associated risks. One possible approach is to develop strategies for appropriate supervision. For example, students can ask ChatGPT to generate a solution to a complex problem, and then evaluate the solution to determine its feasibility or effectiveness [ 30 ]. Such setups would require the students to use their problem-solving skills and to think critically about the different factors involved in the problem. By doing so, we can stimulate students’ learning and motivate them to develop higher cognitive skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving. Empirical studies also should be performed to investigate whether using ChatGPT with supervision can truly improve critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

The current version of ChatGPT has limitations as a useful self-study tool despite its performance in correctly answering MCQs. The answers could be inconsistent when the same inquiry is repeated; the generated rationale could be incorrect; and the generated references were nonsensical. To maximize the potential benefits of AI technology while minimizing its risks, it is imperative to develop effective supervision and moderation strategies.

Availability of data and materials

The datasets used and/or analyzed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

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WC is grateful to the Medical Education Assessment Corporation in Korea (MEAC) for providing the K-CBMSE test items and quality control data for this study. MEAC has kindly granted permission for some of the K-CBMSE test items to be included in this research manuscript. WC also thanks to Chungbuk National University for its support.

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Additional file 1: supplement 1..

Korean Comprehensive Basic Medical Sciences Examination (K-CBMSE). Supplement 2. ChatGPT’s accuracy across the prompts. Supplement 3. The cases of incorrect responses.

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Choi, W. Assessment of the capacity of ChatGPT as a self-learning tool in medical pharmacology: a study using MCQs. BMC Med Educ 23 , 864 (2023).

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