Case-based learning vs. Problem-based learning: What’s the difference?

During my class readings, I became confused over the differences between the concepts (pedagogical approaches) of case-based learning (CBL) and problem-based learning. This lingered in my mind as I proceeded to class. Intriguingly, I was not the only one who experienced such confusion. During the class, the trend of discussion demonstrated that other students were also confused over the differences of the two approaches and at what point does one approach become appropriate for application over the other.  During discussions, the professor was clear enough to indicate that there exists a strong interconnection between the two approaches; something literature also highlights. However, due to the apparent confusion, I chose to consult the literature for clarity on the approaches to guide my thoughts and that of other class members.

What does the literature say? For context, let’s define the terms. According to the teaching, learning, and research centers at Queen’s University, Yale University, and the University of Michigan; CBL is the application of real-life problems or case studies in teaching to allow students think analytically to collaboratively arrive at solutions while the instructor serve as facilitator. PBL on the other hand, involves the application of “carefully designed problems that challenges students to use problem solving techniques, self-directed learning strategies, team participation skills, and disciplinary knowledge”(CLRT, University of Michigan). Further confused?  Let’s dive into the differences for clarity.  According to Yale’s Poorvu Center, “the features distinguishing the two approaches include that PBL involves open rather than guided inquiry, is less structured, and the instructor plays a more passive role.” Srinivasan, Wilkes, Stevenson, Nguyen, & (2007) simply described the differences in a study on comparing the preference of methods between CBL and PBL. In that study they conclude that students and faculty preferred CBL which is a guided inquiry than PBL which is open inquiry.

Based on literature, it is important to recognize the dimension of the differences. Basically, the difference hinges on CBL being a guided inquiry, well-structured case studies involving an active role from the instructor based on a set of questions to direct and guide learning; whereas PBL is less-structured and involves limited interventions from the instructor with not well-defined problems to allow learners self-direct their learning (open inquiry).  Therefore, the choice as to when it is appropriate to apply CBL or PBL relies on the context and objective of the instruction (Poorvu Center, Yale University).

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4 thoughts on “Case-based learning vs. Problem-based learning: What’s the difference?

  • September 15, 2019 at 9:32 am

    Hi Johnny,
    Thank you so much for your post. I was also quite confused, both during and after lecture. One other classmate and myself had a very long discussion about what the difference was and honestly, we still could not come to a consensus. I agree on your conclusion about who ends up driving the whole process and that was the same basic conclusion that I came to – CBL is more driven by the instructor and PBL is driven by the students themselves. It was (and is, as I do this first assignment) quite frustrating trying to write about something that you can’t quite uniquely define.

  • September 15, 2019 at 3:28 pm


    I was the one who was also confused ( I am still confused :)). However, your post helped me a lot to place them better in my mind. I am curious if you have taken any classes specifically CBL or PBL during your undergrad or grad studies.

    • September 15, 2019 at 5:25 pm

      No, I haven’t taken any class on CBL or PBL. I am currenlty enrolled in this class and another practicum class where these methods are part of the course modules. However, I have experienced a task in grad school which looks similar to what CBL will account for.

  • September 17, 2019 at 7:45 pm

    To preface, I earned a MSEd in Educational Psychology & Research Methodology.

    The most fundamental differences between case-, problem-, and project-based learning units are along the following two dimensions: scaffolding and time. First, scaffolding increases from project-based learning units to problem-based learning units, and again from problem-based learning units to case-based learning units. Second, time increases from case-based learning units to problem-based learning units, and again from problem-based learning units to project-based learning units.

    However, active learning techniques of the same name can still vary in practice across fields. For example, consider the following from Smith, Sheppard, Johnson, and Johnson (2005): “PBL, as studied in medical education, typically involves seven to ten students with a designated tutor, whereas the model of PBL in engineering usually involves groups of three to four, often using formal cooperative learning models, typically without a tutor” (p. 93).

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