AMEE Medical Education Guide No. 15: Problem-based learning: a practical guide

Med Teach. 1999;21(2):130-40. doi: 10.1080/01421599979743.


This practical guide for health professions teachers provides a perspective of one of the most important educational developments in the past 30 years.Problem-based learning (PBL) is a continuum of approaches rather than one immutable process. It is a teaching method that can be included in the teacher's tool-kit along with other teaching methods rather than used as the sole educational strategy.PBL reverses the traditional approach to teaching and learning. It starts with individual examples or problem scenarios which stimulate student learning. In so doing, students arrive at general principles and concepts which they then generalize to other situations. PBL has many advantages. It facilitates the acquisition of generic competences, encourages a deep approach to learning and prepares students for the adult learning approach they need for a lifetime of learning in the health care professions. It is also fun. PBL helps in curriculum planning by defining core, ensuring relevance of content, integrating student learning and providing prototype cases. There are also drawbacks associated with PBL. Students may fail to develop an organized framework for their knowledge. The PBL process may inhibit good teachers sharing their enthusiasm for their topic with students and student identification with good teachers.Teachers may not have the skills to facilitate PBL.The problem scenario is of crucial significance. It should engage the students' interest and be skilfully written. While the medium selected for presentation of the scenario is usually print, other media may be used.The clinical tasks carried out by the student may replace the problem scenario as the focus for learning.Students are supported during the PBL process by tutors and/or study guides.The amount of support required is inversely related to the students' prior learning and understanding of the PBL process. A range of additional learning resources and opportunities may be made available to the students, including textbooks, videotapes, computer-based material, lectures and clinical sessions. Tutors require group facilitation skills, an understanding of the PBL process and knowledge of the course and of the curriculum in general.They need special personal qualities and it is preferable if they have expertise in the content area.While special assessment processes have been developed to assess students learning by the PBL method, the general principles of assessment apply to PBL courses and a mixed menu of assessment methods needs to be employed. Curriculum design involves a skilful blend of educational strategies designed to help students achieve the curriculum outcomes. PBL may make a valuable contribution to this blend but attention needs to be paid to how it is implemented.