A Review of Problem-Based Learning Literature and Research


This paper includes a comprehensive review of literature pertaining to problem-based learning.  In general, the literature seems to indicate that problem-based learning has several positive effects in the classroom, including on critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and student engagement.  These gains are most effectively realized in implementations that appropriately account for student readiness.  Further research needs to be conducted surrounding the use of problem-based learning with reluctant learners and in diverse classrooms, as well as the application of proposed best practices regarding scaffolding and fostering motivation for these groups.

Keywords: problem-based learning, student engagement, student readiness, scaffolding

Educators must engage students in the learning process and help students obtain the necessary knowledge and skills that they will need to enter the workforce upon completion of their education. Both of these tasks might be considered as having increased in difficulty, or at least evolved and changed in recent years.  For one, teachers must compete for students’ attention with myriad distractions, including an ever-widening and increasingly tempting array of technology and entertainment media.  In addition, the requirements for success in the modern workforce are becoming more and more demanding; students hoping to compete in the 21st-century workforce need the skills to match, including the ability to think critically, solve problems independently, work collaboratively, and utilize structured approaches to complete tasks and achieve long-term goals.  Traditional models of learning are not necessarily appropriate for these shifts in the educational landscape, and educators must utilize the most effective ways of relating class activities to real-world, authentic experiences.  However, the complexity and demands of these attempts can cause students to become demotivated, paralyzed or frustrated when working through challenging issues or on projects with long-term payoffs.

One method of approaching these issues is problem-based learning (PBL), “an instructional (and curricular) learner-centered approach that empowers learners to conduct research, integrate theory and practice, and apply knowledge and skills to develop a viable solution to a defined problem” (Walker et al, 2015).  The purpose of this study will be to determine how the implementation of PBL impacts the motivation of reluctant learners in the secondary classroom, with the study itself motivated by this research question: How do teachers describe evidence of students motivation in classrooms in which problem-based learning is implemented?

This study will be rooted in the constructivist theoretical perspective, which explores “perceptions, ‘truths,’ explanations, beliefs, and worldview” (Gall et al, 2015, p. 351).  Since these will necessarily differ for each learner, the instructional needs of each learner will also vary.  Students construct their knowledge from their unique experiences, so an approach that grants students increased agency in their education could improve the relevance and efficacy of this process for that student.  Constructivism considers three major principles: student readiness, the spiral organization of instruction, and student ability to extrapolate or go beyond the information given.  Student readiness could include a student’s ability to function in the independent framework of a PBL-designed classroom, and constructivism recognizes that thinking and learning are “situated in physical and social contexts” (Schunk, 2016).  Constructivism matches well with the holistic, student-centered nature of problem-based learning, which supports the development of factual, procedural, conceptual, and metacognitive knowledge.  Educators are able to observe the student as they engage with a problem and learn throughout the process, constructing their own knowledge of the student’s learning process and the student’s needs.  Therefore, it is fitting to measure student engagement in part via educator perception since “we cannot talk about what is learned separately from how it is learned” (Wilson, 1998).

It is equally important to consider the historical context of PBL, which has its roots in health sciences curricula and was widely adopted in the medical field during the 1990s.  The approach was developed in 1960 at McMaster University medical school in response to the impossibility of retaining increasingly dense information through rote memorization (Davidson & Major, 2014).  As application of this emphasis on critical thinking and application spread, emerging studies questioned whether physicians who studied within a PBL context were as prepared as those who had a more traditional clinical preparation, with all results pointing to equal success upon professional entry.  Further, the anecdotal reports suggested that “students [were] more engaged in learning the expected content” (Torp & Sage, 2002).  With such promising results, PBL has become more popular across a broader range of education, and it is particularly fitting to expand the field of inquiry to learners at the secondary level in an era when increased access to data is similarly displacing emphasis on fact retention in favor of critical thinking and synthesis skills.

Key Terms

For the purposes of this literature review, problem-based learning will be defined within Walker et al’s (2015) context above, as a student-centered classroom approach that allows students to develop higher-order thinking skills during their learning process.  The structure of a PBL-classroom can be further characterized to include “(i) learning in small groups; (ii) a teacher facilitating learning in a group; (iii) learning by means of problems that are first discussed in the group’ and (iv) learning by means of self-study after which a discussion in the group follows” (Dolmans & Gijbels, 2013).

Student engagement is the attention, interest, curiosity, optimism and passion that students demonstrate in the course of learning or being taught.  This extends to the level of motivation they might have to learn and progress in the learning process.  Student engagement reflects the degree of motivation.  This definitions mirrors that of Newmann (1993), who described academic engagement as “the student’s psychological investment in and effort directed toward learning, understanding, or mastering the knowledge, skills, or crafts that academic work is intended to promote.”

Student readiness shall refer to the learner’s ability to “take responsibility for the learning context to reach their learning objectives” (Cigdem & Ozturk, 2016).  Motivation is an aspect of learner readiness, measuring both satisfaction and student achievement.  It can include both instructional readiness and social skills.

When discussing scaffolding in the context of PBL, the term refers to Belland’s (2013) interpretation as “support provided…that allows students to meaningfully participate in and gain skill at a task that they would be unable to complete unaided.”  Increased support and structure would be provided to students not ready to engage in some of the more independent tasks of student-centered, problem-based learning.

Review of the Literature

A common feature of PBL implementations is the use of technology.  Given that today’s workplace and world require the use of technology to complete complex tasks and that teachers must make learning engaging for students who are already accustomed to making heavy use of technology in their everyday lives, technology and PBL seem like a natural fit.  Studies on technology-driven implementations have generally shown a positive impact for PBL on student outcomes.  In a 2014 study, Bradley-Levine examined the effect of technology-based PBL on eighth-graders and found significant gains in comprehension, critical thinking and problem-solving skills compared to groups receiving lecture-based lessons and to groups taught with technology but without PBL; this study did not contain a control group with PBL but without technology.  Blumenfeld (1991) discusses technology as a motivating factor for both teachers and students, noting that technology’s effect is positive when used in tandem with PBL but that technology does not supplant the role of the teacher.  Edelson (2016) also recognizes the importance of the teacher as an important factor in successful PBL and technology implementations.  This study utilized an extensive longitudinal analysis of software and curriculum in the geosciences and presents suggestions for improving the classroom design related to PBL and technology, including the need for effective teacher support and the need for more research to determine what exactly such support would entail.  The existing literature suggests that technology and PBL, paired together, can improve student outcomes, though most researchers also agree that technology cannot substitute for effective teaching and other aspects of the learning environment in the implementation of PBL.

Some studies have focused on characteristics of the classroom environment that might be conducive to learning in a PBL-designed curriculum and the effect of PBL on the classroom environment, especially when PBL involves collaborative learning. Ferreira & Trudel (2012) studied the impact of PBL on a classroom with forty-eight high school students, including on “student attitudes toward science and perceptions of their learning environment.”  Results, collected via teacher reflections and researcher examinations of student work, indicated a significant improvement in student outcomes for all three elements, and teachers also observed a stronger sense of classroom community.  This positive result is in contrast to an older study on a private school from Hertzog (1994), who found that traditionally time-structured classes do not allow for fully effective project development, though the chief obstacle in Hertzog’s study was parental and administrative reluctance to embrace non-traditional curriculum.  Achilles & Hoover (1996) also emphasized the importance of class schedules in their study reviewing the results of PBL at three middle schools and one high school. This study found that PBL was most effective during longer classes, as shorter periods can require increased creativity and workload from the teacher.  In addition, if students are not yet ready for more independent, long-term versions of PBL, simpler problems with a shorter timeframe can be more effective than longer, more complex assignments.

Another form of progression in PBL can be moving from more-structured to less-structured approaches as students progress in the development of social and critical thinking skills.  This type of scaffolding is recommended by Davidson & Major (2014) in their comparison of PBL to other forms of small-group learning, as they argue that “exposing students to problem-solving learning in sequence from more structured to less structured will provide scaffolding to prepare them to succeed.”  An emphasis on the development of social skills is supported by the results of Gultekin’s 2004 study on fifth-grade social studies students.  Learning in a PBL framework resulted in academic success, and teachers and students found the process engaging and meaningful; however, intra-group disagreements often impeded the completion of assignments, and the PBL implementation did not have support as immediately apparent as in a traditional model.  There are clear benefits to be gained from PBL relating to achievement, the classroom environment, and social skills, but potential obstacles in group work mean that these benefits will only be fully realized with an appropriate scaffolding of the skills and support needed to fully implement a PBL-designed curriculum.

It is not necessarily the case that well-functioning collaboration is required for an effective PBL implementation.  Sprujit et al (2013) investigated the use of PBL in seminar-sized classes of about 25 students at the university level, as many implementations of PBL have been carried out in small-group settings.  They found that PBL had a positive effect on learning, but, surprisingly, much of the learning in the course was reported as occurring via students interacting with the teacher and material rather than each other.  That said, this study, as with many other studies on PBL, relied on anecdotal teacher feedback as its primary method of assessment, which may color the results somewhat in the absence of triangulation of student-centered feedback.

One of the issues that may arise as an obstacle to fully effective PBL implementations is a reluctance to accept PBL-designed classrooms, on the part of parents, teachers, or students.  In an examination of negative experiences and challenges related to a PBL implementation at a private school, Hertzog (1994) found that expectations of student engagement with the material varied greatly between the administrators and the parents.  Parents were more likely to view PBL and differentiation negatively, as a means of restricting the challenge of the learning experience and minimizing their preferred approach to traditionally delineated subjects as opposed to the cross-curricular nature of PBL.  Continued research on the effectiveness of PBL at satisfying the needs of various ability groups has played a key role in fomenting the popularity of this strategy since Hertzog’s study.  Teachers may be reluctant to depart from the traditional lesson plans with which they are already familiar, especially since effective PBL implementations can require increased creativity and feedback from the instructor (Achilles & Hoover, 1996).  In addition, student engagement can be negatively impacted by the independent nature of PBL if there is not direct guidance through other means such as self-assessment to guide students and “stimulate them to become self-regulated learners” (Koiriyiah et al, 2015).  This potential negative impact of PBL on student engagement is somewhat at odds with the rest of the literature that has generally found a positive effect, but this contrast can be easily explained by the primacy that other research has placed on student readiness and scaffolding (Davidson & Major, 2014).

One of the most important challenges for PBL implementations is the varying degree of student readiness, and this is also an area which has recently seen a great deal of attention.  Simons (2016) adds to the philosophical discussion and comparison of group work from Davidson & Major (2014) by proposing a three-fold approach to addressing the issue of student readiness for PBL via support and scaffolding: creating an inquiry-based environment, addressing misconceptions, and encouraging reflection.  Simons’ approach is intended to address instruction-based needs and asks educators to be knowledgeable and quick in gauging and supporting student needs, and students are asked to understand that the teacher’s feedback is intended as support rather than a means to introduce additional tasks.  Left unanswered by Simons is how to ensure this student motivation, though Ferreira & Trudel (2012) found a positive impact on student attitudes that stemmed from PBL itself.  Student enthusiasm, or at least indifference to, PBL was demonstrated by Nguyen et al (2016) in a study of university engineering students, a field chosen because professors had expressed concern about student resistance to PBL; however, student surveys suggested no difference in student engagement between PBL, collaborative, or traditional classrooms.

Another possibility for encouraging student motivation could be allowing students a certain amount of freedom in selecting their materials.  Loyens et al (2014) examined the impact of giving students agency to select their own reading materials in a literature classroom and found increases in student-reported motivation and perceived competence, with no loss in conceptual understanding compared to the use of instructor-selected materials.  Since “scaffolding can support student success in PBL, especially when we consider they may not otherwise initiate their own inquiry, understand or integrate new content, or think reflectively” (Simons, 2016), PBL strategies that simultaneously provide this support and also grant students agency in selecting their materials and defining their problems could increase motivation and allow for more effective PBL implementation and differentiation.

Summary of the Findings

The existing literature is in broad agreement on the positive effect of PBL on student outcomes, including comprehension, critical thinking, problem-solving skills, engagement, and the classroom environment.  PBL works well in tandem with other innovative educational strategies such as technology, and the positive impact on student outcomes has been found in a wide variety of classrooms, including online.  When negative effects for PBL have been found, they have often stemmed from a lack of student readiness; for this reason, scaffolding and other progression techniques are important to prepare or differentiate students based on their individual needs.  A lack of student readiness can also negatively impact student buy-in to PBL, an essential factor in successful implementations, so compensating factors, such as increased student agency or real-world technological applications, may be needed to maintain student engagement.

Because one impediment to successful PBL implementations may be reluctance on the part of parents and other stakeholders, research must continue to fill in the gaps.  Further studies are needed linking PBL to achievement and standardized test scores, as parents and administrators often have incentives to value these measures more than teacher-reported observations of critical thinking and problem-solving skills.  In addition, since PBL fits best within a constructivist theoretical framework, it would be desirable for more studies to use student-centric measures of the impact of PBL in addition to teacher and researcher observations.

Student readiness, or the lack thereof, may be the primary classroom obstacle to successful PBL implementations, which may explain why few studies have been undertaken examining PBL implementations for low-ability students.  There is ample evidence for positive PBL effects on high performers, but little evidence regarding low performers, who are often excluded from PBL studies.  More research is needed on whether it is possible to leverage the positive effect on student engagement that PBL has already demonstrated for high performers into a successful implementation for reluctant learners or a means to effective differentiation in a classroom with students of mixed abilities. Some recent articles have theorized the importance of scaffolding and moving from more-structured to less-structured PBL designs as students progress, and more study is needed on the effect of these techniques in actual application.


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