Problem-Based Learning (PBL): A guided tour

Problem-Based Learning (PBL)
begins from a Scenario in which the problems are not well defined*,
Students brainstorm so as to identify a range of problems related to the scenario and choose which of these they want to investigate and report back on.
* e.g., (from a biology-in-society course)

The problem-definitions may evolve as students investigate and exchange findings with peers. If the scenario is written well, most of the problems defined and investigated by the students will relate to the subject being taught, but instructors have to accept some “curve balls” in return for

  • a) student engagement in self-invented inquiry, e.g.,
  • b) content coverage by the class as a whole, e.g.,, and
  • c) increased motivation for subsequent, more-focused inquiry (see “inverted pedagogy” below), e.g., the student who produced in response to the scenario in b), went on to complete a term paper reviewing citizen-based governance of science, which is under revision for a Science Studies journal. She then participated in the Public Impact Campaign associated with the “Unnatural Causes” health disparities project. (This student was a college-librarian with no prior science background.)

Interdisciplinary Coaching. In the case-based learning, the instructors facilitate the brainstorming and student-to-student exchange and support, coach the students in their individual tasks, and serve as resource persons by providing contacts and reading suggestions drawn from their longstanding interdisciplinary work and experience.

Inverted pedagogy. The experience of case-based learning is expected to motivate students to identify and pursue the disciplinary learning and disciplined inquiry they need to achieve the competency and impact they desire (This inverts the conventional curriculum in which command of fundamentals is a prerequisite for application of our learning to real cases.) E.g., the same student as above later took a course in social epidemiology for non-specialists.

KAQ framework for inquiry and exchange,
By linking Knowledge and Action, this framework promotes the emphasis of one strand of science and technology studies since the early 1980s on examining what it takes in practice to establish knowledge or make technology reliable.

Internet facilitation. The internet makes it easier to explore strands of inquiry beyond any well-packaged sequence of canonical readings, make rapid connections with experts and other informants, and develop evolving archives of materials and resources (e.g., presentations to the class, new cases, annotated bibliographies) that can be built on by future classes and others (see

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