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Overview of Problem-based Learning: Denitions and Distinctions

John R. Savery


Problem-based learning (PBL) is an instructional approach that has been used success- fully for over 30 years and continues to gain acceptance in multiple disciplines. It is 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 dened problem. This overview presents a brief history, followed by a discus- sion of the similarities and dierences between PBL and other experiential approaches to teaching, and identies some of the challenges that lie ahead for PBL. Keywords: Problem-based learning, denitions, characteristics


When asked to provide an overview of problem-based learning for the introductory issue of this journal, I readily agreed, thinking it was a wonderful opportunity to write about a subject I care about deeply. As I began to jot down ideas about “What is PBL?” it became clear that I had a problem. Some of what I knew about PBL was learned through teaching and practicing PBL, but so much more had been acquired by reading the many papers authored by experts with decades of experience conducting research and practicing problem-based learning. These authors had frequently begun their papers with a context-setting discussion of “What is PBL?” What more was there to say?

Origins of PBL In discussing the origins of PBL, Boud and Feletti (1997) stated:

PBL as it is generally known today evolved from innovative health sciences cur- ricula introduced in North America over 30 years ago. Medical education, with its intensive pattern of basic science lectures followed by an equally exhaustive clinical teaching programme, was rapidly becoming an ineective and inhu-

The Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning volume 1, no. 1 (Spring 2006) 9–20


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