PBL: project- or problem-based learning — an updated guided tour

PBL can be thought of in terms of the following elements, which are played out in relation to a number of tensions.(updates)


  1. Scenario (or case) in which the problems are not well defined, which invites the
  2. Students or participants who bring their own interests into play as they formulate and pursue
  3. Inquiries, which typically open out wide at first and evolve in unexpected directions, before the student focuses in to generate a coherent
  4. Product that is shared with other students and perhaps more widely, and from which other students learn. The inquiries are aided by the
  5. Instructor-coach, who composes the scenario, coaches the students through the opening-out and focusing-in process, introduces
  6. Tools and processes to help students organize inquiries and foster support and engagement among the students, points to
  7. Resources, such as contacts, materials, and reading suggestions drawn from the instructor’s own work and life and from previous students’ projects. (The internet makes it easier to explore strands of inquiry beyond any well-packaged sequence of canonical readings, to make rapid connections with experts and other informants, and to develop evolving archives of materials and resources that can be built on by future classes and others), and elicits dialogue and reflection on the
  8. Experiences from the combination of the elements above, which, it is hoped, include how much can be learned in a short time using the PBL structure (where learning is not only about the topic of the scenario but also about oneself as an inquirer and learner) and re-engagement with oneself as an avid learner. What makes this re-engagement possible is a combination of:
    • the tools and processes used for inquiry, dialogue, reflection, and collaboration;
    • the connections we make among the different participants who bring diverse interests, skills, knowledge, experience, and aspirations to the PBL; and
    • the contributions to the topic laid out in the scenario on which the PBL is based.




  • Scenarios–Content coverage: How tightly is the steps and responsibilities scripted in the scenario so as to ensure that each student acquires specific knowledge, themes for interpretation and analysis, and skills versus aiming for content coverage by the class as a whole versus assuming that a well-written scenario will ensure that most of the problems defined and investigated by the students will relate to the subject being taught, but accepting gaps and some “curve balls” (in return for student engagement in self-directed inquiry)
  • Scenarios–Real-world application: Are the scenarios insulated from messy world or real world complexities versus learning and synthesizing that motivates further digestion and opens up directions for inquiry, yet happens within a “container” and is not tested by application and constituency-building in real world versusdesigning real-world action or change as well as build a constituency around them, thus stimulating ongoing cycles and epicycles of Action Research.
  • Students/Experiences–Directedness: How much consideration is given to students entering a PBL with a conventional sense of fulfilling explicit directions and being awarded a grade versus assuming that students finding their own feet — their self-directedness and re-engagement with themselves as avid learners — will overcome any initial disorientation–indeed will be a stronger experience for being able to look back on those initial reactions to PBL.
  • Students/Inquiries/Products–Group vs individual: Do individuals or small groups generate the products? How much do students support each other? …share and get feedback on their inquiries? …on the final products?
  • Instructor-coaches–Responsibilities vs. responsiveness: How much does the instructor monitor and assess students’ progress and and organize student-to-student exchange and support during the PBL unit versus wait and respond to what the student brings up for discussion and interaction?
  • Resources–Inverted pedagogy: How much can PBL motivate students to identify and pursue the disciplinary learning and disciplined inquiry they need to achieve the competency and impact they desire versus customizing PBLs to match the command of fundamentals achieved before trying to tackle PBL scenarios.
  • Experience–Jostling: How much does PBL highlight the need to be jostled by the interplay or tensions between the different considerations or tensions (or more generally those that are arise when making space for taking initiative in and through relationships versus programming a sequence of defined learning objectives.


Resources and References:
Anon. (n.d.) Untitled. http://condor.admin.ccny.cuny.edu/~jt7387/edpaper.doc (viewed 8 Sept. 12)

  • looks like an M.Ed. student paper, but is unnamed. It provides many weblinks and a medium-size bibliography. The paper 1) mostly affirms the PBL guided tour above, 2) differs from it in one significant way–use of teams, and 3) adds thoughts about disadvantages

Greenwald, N. (2000). “Learning from Problems.” The Science Teacher 67(April): 28-32.
Taylor, P. J. (2001). http://www.faculty.umb.edu/pjt/journey.html#challenges (viewed 20 August 2014)

  • challenges for the teacher/facilitator related to the challenge of helping people make knowledge and practice from insights and experience that they are not prepared, at first, to acknowledge

more to be added


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor teaches and directs programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He studies the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context as well as innovation in teaching, group process, and interdisciplinary collaboration (see bit.ly/pjtaylor). He is especially interested in conversations with others who are, in diverse ways, "troubled by heterogeneity" (bit.ly/tbhblog)

4 Responses to PBL: project- or problem-based learning — an updated guided tour

  1. Teryl Cartwright says:

    I really like the gathering of elements and how they are expressed since it is helpful to have everything to consider together. I’ve been trying to think how to come into reflective practice from a new perspective which might be helpful to me if not CCT. I have been looking at IBL and wondered if a hybrid–PIBL might work. The diagram is useful and I think about what happens when certain elements are hidden from view. This could also be a covering technique used in the problem/scenario when you don’t know everything whether due to the magnitude of the problem or the “where to begin” issue. Then you are approaching around the edges and having more revealed as you go in order not overwhelm or from the other side in order to trust. My daughter thinks it would be interesting to look at crisis hotlines and see the techniques used quickly on the phone to help others when you don’t know what you are dealing with. Another reflective practice might be a “rock” practice in which you must remain in an action/belief despite the attempts of others or situations to enact change in you. I really appreciate the emphasis of reflective practice to not be about problem solving since sometimes fixing things or trying to can make situations worse. Another PBL might be to look again at the indirect PBL or metaphorical one. If a situation is too close or too big, using a story or redirected to a smaller (though not always similar) problem might be a way to take stock, somewhat like how actors get into a role projecting those skills and thinking processes to some other scenario. An interesting reminder might be just as PBL doesn’t have to solve the problem, sometimes we have to let go of sense making as well. Sometimes like PBL in which we are focused on the learning over the problem, we have to be content with the practice of reflection over the results.

  2. IBL = inquiry-based learning? PBL as described in the post overlaps a lot with inquiry-based learning, but I prefer to teach PBL at the ill-defined problems end of the spectrum. IBL typically begins with instructors knowing the knowledge that they want the inquirers to make their way towards.

    • Teryl Cartwright says:

      Can inquiry based learning be more unspecified and emergent though? Does the instructor have to know or can one act like a private investigator to find what isn’t known even about self? (P.I.B.L) Instead of the problem as the container for learning perhaps opportunities and paradoxes as scenarios might be as easily case studies for learning the skills and thinking to grow from the encounter. What about two problems at the same time as a duel/dual PBL–sort of the immovable object versus unstoppable force idea. What can one do with the problem that is actually several smaller that are jostling and opposing–what if trying to solve one creates a bigger one in another area?

  3. Pingback: CPR space | Probe—Create Change—Reflect

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