Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Physician Assistant Program

Problem Based Learning (PBL)


PBL is a learner-centered educational method

In PBL, learners are progressively given more and more responsibility for their own education and become increasingly independent of the teacher for their education.  PBL produces independent learners who can continue to learn on their own in life and in their chosen careers.  The responsibility of the teacher in PBL is to provide the educational materials and guidance that facilitate learning.

PBL is based on real world problems

In PBL, learning is based on the messy, complex problems encountered in the real world as a stimulus for learning and for integrating and organizing learned information in ways that will ensure its recall and application to future problems.  The problems in PBL are also designed to challenge learners to develop effective problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

The PBL method has several benefits for students

The PBL Learning Process

In the PBL learning process learners, in small groups of 6-8 students, encounter a problem and attempt to solve it with information they already possess allowing them to appreciate what they already know. They also identify what they need to learn to better understand the problem and how to resolve it. Once they have worked with the problem as far as possible and identified what they need to learn, the learners engage in self-directed study to research the information needed by finding and using a variety of information resources (books, journals, reports, online information, and a variety of people with appropriate areas of expertise). In this way learning is personalized to the needs and learning styles of the individual. The learners then return to the problem and apply what they learned to their work with the problem in order to more fully understand and resolve the problem. After they have finished their problem work, the learners assess themselves and each other to develop skills in self-assessment and the constructive assessment of peers. Self-assessment is a skill essential to effective independent learning.

The PBL Curriculum

The series of problems encountered by learners with this process make up the curriculum.  The problems are put together as a group to stimulate learning of content appropriate to the course.  In the PBL process, learners characteristically learn far more in areas relevant to their personal needs.

The Role of the PBL Teacher

The principle role of the teacher in PBL is that of a facilitator or tutor guiding the learners in the PBL process. As learners become more proficient in the PBL learning process the tutor becomes less active. This is a new skill for many teachers and specific training is required.

The objectives of PBL are to produce learners who will:

The PBL method used at the Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine Physician Assistant Program has a number of unique factors

For more on a learner’s perspective on PBL see Dias, A. (2006). Is problem-based learning causing a decline in medical students’ knowledge? The Clinical Teacher. 3:198-201.

Above information based on input and publications by Dr. H Barrows of SIU School of Medicine.