As I ponder on the different formats of learning, I find the fascinating characteristics of different learning formats and what they have to offer. In some formats, the role of teaching and learning frequently rotates over the students and the instructor. Such kinds of formats can be found in Problem-based Learning (PBL) and Case-based Learning (CBL) techniques. Unlike, Traditional Learning technique, PBL and CBL offer learning opportunities to both the instructor and the students by participating in a discussion-based learning format. In this blog post, I seek to find out the benefits and the limitations of these learning formats and where they can be applied most effectively.
Problem-based Learning (PBL):
Problem-based Learning (PBL) is a student-centered learning technique. It was first pioneered by Barrows and Tamblyn at the medical school program at McMaster University in Hamilton in the 1960s . In this learning experience, students learn by participating in solving an open-ended problem in the subject matter. John Cavanaugh, the vice-provost for Academic Programs and Planning at Delaware, finds PBL to be like “discovery-based learning” . Some of the characteristics of PBL are:
- Learning based on solving open-ended problems with multiple correct answers
- Self-directed and motivated learning where students actively investigate to find the answers
- Conducted in small collaborative groups (5-10) students
- The solution is decided by all the members of the group
- The instructor plays the role of a facilitator
This approach helps the students to be self-motivated and have a sense of ownership in the solution. It also develops critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and creative skills. The students achieve a higher level of comprehension and can use the knowledge learned from this technique in future situations and problems. As James Rhem, the Executive Editor of The National Teaching and Learning Forum, says 
problem-based learning simply feels right intuitively.
Loreta Ulmer, who teaches psychology at Delaware Technical and Community College, also points out the benefits of PBL 
This approach gives students immediate feedback. It keeps a constant flow going between teacher and student, and you can’t put a price tag on that.
Case-based Learning (CBL):
Case-based Learning (CBL) is a type of Problem-based Learning (PBL). The key difference between PBL and CBL is that students work on creative cases with advanced preparation in CBL. Students get to work on finished cases based on facts (for the purpose of post mortem analysis), unfinished open-ended cases (to practice prediction and finding a solution), and fictional cases (to brainstorm future problems and their solutions). The instructor plays the role of a facilitator and also learns from the overall discussion. Unlike PBL, the facilitator guides the discussion with more active participation. In a review of the literature, Williams describes :
[CBL] utilizes collaborative learning, facilitates the integration of learning, develops students’ intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to learn, encourages learner self-reflection and critical reflection, allows for scientific inquiry, integrates knowledge and practice, and supports the development of a variety of learning skills.
Although, both PBL and CBL have several merits to them, these approaches have their own limitation. Both of these approaches rely heavily on the self-motivation of the students. This can be a crucial factor if the students are not engaged with the subject matter. As Gijselaers pointed out :
An ineffective problem does not result in motivation for self-study.
Some of the limitations of PBL and CBL are:
- Students need to be self-directed
- Applicable for small collaborative groups (5-10)
- Students might not have prior experience in the subject matter
- The instructor needs to do a lot of planning and hard work
- Can be very challenging to implement
Student-centric learning, such as PBL and CBL may not be able to cover as much material as a conventional lecture-based course . Both of these approaches encourage the students to ask the right questions rather than handing them solutions. Therefore, students with no prior experience in the area may struggle to get the best out of the discussions. This may lead to an unpredicted form of learning experience.
Although PBL and CBL share several similarities they may differ in terms of effectiveness. Srinivasan et al.  conducted research on the effects of curricular shift at two medical institutions. They found the following differences between two small-group adapting to PBL and CBL.
They also studied the perceptions of the students and the instructors from two institutions either following PBL or CBL.
According to the study, a total of 286 students (86%–97%) and 31 faculty (92%–100%) completed questionnaires. CBL was preferred by students (255; 89%) and faculty (26; 84%) across schools and learner levels. The few students preferring PBL (11%) felt it encouraged self-directed learning (26%) and valued its greater opportunities for participation (32%). From logistic regression, students preferred CBL because of fewer unfocused tangents (59%, odds ration [OR] 4.10, P = .01), less busy-work (80%, OR 3.97, P = .01), and more opportunities for clinical skills application (52%, OR 25.6, P = .002).
Therefore, CBL was the more effective learning approach in medical institutions.
Based on my research on PBL and CBL, I found that there is no one solution that fits every teaching classroom. There are situations where Traditional Learning can offer more than PBL or CBL. For example, in undergraduate level classrooms, conventional Traditional Learning can offer clear scientific knowledge and information to students with little to no prior experience. Therefore, entry-level undergraduate courses tend to use more traditional learning, whilst graduate courses tend to use PBL and CBL more often. Many universities use a mixture of different teaching approaches. The main goal is to adapt the technique or the combination of multiple techniques accordingly.
Thank you for reading until the end.
Have a wonderful day!
~ Ri. 🙂
- Barrows, Howard S. (1996). “Problem-based learning in medicine and beyond: A brief overview”. New Directions for Teaching and Learning. 1996 (68): 3–12.doi:10.1002/tl.37219966804
- Problem-Based Learning: An Introduction by James Rhem; link: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1002/ntlf.10043
- Williams B. (2005). Case-based learning – a review of the literature: is there scope for this educational paradigm in prehospital education? Emerg Med, 22, 577-581.
- Wilkerson, LuAnn and Wim H. Gijselaers, eds. “Bringing Problem- based Learning to Higher Education.” New Directions for Teaching and Learning 68 (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, 1996).
- Srinivasan, M., Wilkes, M., Stevenson, F., Nguyen, T., and Slavin, S., 2007. Comparing problem-based learning with case-based learning: effects of a major curricular shift at two institutions. Academic Medicine, 82(1), pp.74-82.
- Boud, D., & Feletti, G. (1997). The challenge of problem-based learning. Psychology Press.