Outside Traditional Learning Technique: Problem and Case Based Learning


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 [1]. 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” [2]. 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 [2]

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 [2]

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 [3]:

[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 [4]:

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 [6]. 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. [5] 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.

Final thoughts:

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. 🙂


  1. Barrows, Howard S. (1996). “Problem-based learning in medicine and beyond: A brief overview”. New Directions for Teaching and Learning1996 (68): 3–12.doi:10.1002/tl.37219966804
  2. Problem-Based Learning: An Introduction by James Rhem; link: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1002/ntlf.10043
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. 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.
  6. Boud, D., & Feletti, G. (1997). The challenge of problem-based learning. Psychology Press.

6 thoughts on “Outside Traditional Learning Technique: Problem and Case Based Learning

  1. Hi Ri,

    I enjoyed reading your blog post, with such detailed narratives of existing research and your opinions on the pedagogical appraoches. I fully agree with your comments that there are contexts that we should consider while considering the different teaching appraoches, including traditional learning. Students come into classrooms with different backgrounds, and considering those backgrounds is important in planning out the strategies. In the end, we should not see pedagogies as “one-size-fit-all”, but as contextual components in the learning and teaching process.

    1. Thank you for your valuable input, KJ!
      Learning and teaching can be a challenging task. It depends on a great number of variables. The best we can do is that we can consider different teaching techniques and use the one that meets our need. It is also possible to combine multiple teaching techniques and get the best of multiple approaches. This can be achieved by the efforts of both teachers and students.
      ~ Ri. 🙂

  2. Thank you for providing such insight. With the information you presented, I grasped a different perspective about CBL and PBL that I had not considered. Particularly for CBL, I had only though about the use of case studies but the enter learning experience structured to have students engage with CBL. Also, I considered my own experience with reading case studies and having a discussion about them in class and feeling as though it was ineffective learning experience. You mentioned that CBL could also include fictional cases, which I did not realize and I think that is a very important note. Some existing cases studies are not easy for students conceptualize so creatively crafting a case could be the best approach to help students learn a topic. I will incorporate some of what you discussed into my pedagogical practices.

    1. Thank you for your valuable input, Amilia.
      I learned a lot about PBL and CBL while researching on them. Both approaches offer a lot. I am really glad that I can offer you some takeaways to be used in your pedagogical practices. Best of luck!
      ~ Ri. 🙂

  3. Hi Ri! I really enjoyed reading your post — and your attention to detail is very nice! I, too, agree that there are different ways to teach and learn. I also wanted to add that some undergraduate classes are ‘unconventional.’ For instance, I’m thinking about field study ‘classes’. The idea is to apply one’s knowledge, while developing new skills and insights. I am going to make a bold claim and say, in essence, this resembles a CBL pedagogical approach because students are encouraged to deepen their knowledge of a particular case/concept, while also leaning on the faculty to help facilitate dialogue between team members at a site. What are your thoughts on this? Do you think it’s not the same, or do you see similarities?

    1. Hello, Stephanie! Thank you for your valuable input!
      I just realized about the field study classes. I really like the way you put it “…students are encouraged to deepen their knowledge of a particular case/concept, while also leaning on the faculty to help facilitate dialogue between team members at a site.” In my opinion, CBL requires preparation beforehand then in the class the students go through a particular case (historical or fictional). According to this, field study classes can be a form of CBL with the proper steps. I definitely see the similarities.
      Again thank you so much for bringing this notion to my attention.
      ~ Ri. 🙂

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