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Problem-Based Learning (PBL)

Motivating students is an important first step in teaching and, according to Dr. Don Woods, one of McMaster's authorities on Problem Based Learning, PBL creates motivation. This motivation could result from an intrinsic quality of problems.

Dr. Woods' research also shows that by using PBL, students develop skills that serve them well in future learning and in the workplace.

Problem-based Learning: PBL is any learning environment in which the problem drives the learning. That is, before students learn some knowledge they are given a problem. The problem is posed so that the students discover that they need to learn some new knowledge before they can solve the problem. Some example problem-based learning environments include:

  • Research projects
  • Engineering design projects that are more than a synthesis of previously learned knowledge.
    The traditional and well-known "Case approach", popular with business schools, may or may not be problem-based learning. Often the case is used to integrate previously-learned knowledge and hence would not be, according to this definition, problem-based learning.
  • What's the big deal about PBL? Posing the problem before learning tends to motivate students. They know why they are learning the new knowledge. Learning in the context of the need-to-solve-a-problem also tends to store the knowledge in memory patterns that facilitate later recall for solving problems.
  • What skills should a student have before entering a PBL program? They should be skilled at problem solving because that skill in needed as the students try to solve the problem.
  • Does using PBL develop problem solving skills? Not without explicit interventions on the part of the teacher. PBL offers an opportunity to develop the skills
  • Is PBL an example of cooperative learning? It depends. If the PBL is an individual project, then it does not require cooperation with others.
  • Why does there seem to be so much confusion about what is and what is not PBL? Problem-based learning, learning because you need to solve a problem, has been around for centuries. Indeed, in the stone age, people learned skills and approaches to solve problems to survive. They just didn't say to each other "Hey, you are using PBL." Similarly, I suggest that all research is PBL, although we don't call it that, we call it research. In the 1960s McMaster Medical School introduced a learning environment that was a combination of small group, cooperative, self-directed, interdependent, self-assessed PBL. Since then this approach has been called "PBL". But PBL, as I suggested previously, can be in any form where a problem is posed to drive the learning. To overcome the confusion, I suggest we use the awkward terminology of small group, self-directed, self-assessed PBL when referring to learning environments similar to the McMaster Medical school approach.

Self Directed Learning

Small group, self-directed, self-assessed PBL is a use of problem-based learning which embodies most of the principles known to improve learning. This learning environment is active, cooperative, self-assessed, provides prompt feedback, allows a better opportunity to account for personal learning preferences and is highly effective.

  • If small group, self-directed, self-assessed PBL is so great for learning, why isn't everyone doing it? Probably, because of fear of the unknown and resources. Using this approach requires that teachers change. Change is not easy. This change, in particular, expects teachers to change their role from being the center of attention and the source of all knowledge to being the coach and facilitator of the acquisition of that knowledge. The learning becomes student-centered, not teacher-centered. For resources, the McMaster medical school model includes a tutor/teacher with each group. The groups are tutored. Hence, there is one teacher for every group of five or six students. This is resource intensive if you do this for only one course. This approach is not so resource intensive ifthe whole program is changed to this format. But what if you want to try small group, self-directed, self-assessed PBL as part of your course? or for only one course in your departmental program? Now, one is faced with classes of 30 to 200 with only one instructor.
  • How can we use this medical school model with only one instructor with large classes of 30 to 300? One answer is to use tutorless groups. Here we provide the students with the training we give to tutors; we empower the student groups to be autonomous and accountable, with the tutor's role being to monitor and hold the individuals and groups accountable for their learning

Our use of small group, self-directed PBL

Our experience has been with small group, self-directed, self-assessed PBL in tutorless groups. In the chemical engineering program, we use PBL as part of two courses: one topic or problem in a junior level course; and five topics in a senior level course (Woods, 1991). The students concurrently are taking five to seven required courses presented in the conventional format. Both PBL courses have about 30 to 50 students with one instructor. Hence, we use five to ten tutorless groups with five students per group. Before the students they have received about 50 hours of workshop style training in the processing skills. The outcomes for the PBL activity are the Chemical Engineering subject knowledge (process safety and engineering economics), lifetime learning skills and chairperson skills. Each problem is studied for about one week. Before the first PBL activity, the students have workshops introducing them to this PBL approach to learning and workshops on managing change. The students are required to submit journal reports frequently that make explicit their progress and activities within the PBL tutorless groups. The elaboration is done by having three meetings: a goals meeting, a teach meeting and an elaboration/feedback meeting. Student-generated learning issues are validated by the instructor during the goals meeting. The students' assessment of the partial PBL learning environment, as measured by the Course Perceptions Questionnaire (Knapper, 1994 and Ramsden, 1983), is d= +1 more positive than the responses from a control group of engineering students in a conventional program (N=47).

At McMaster University, the theme school program was created. This is a program for interdisciplinary learning that students from all disciplines may elect to take on overload. Based on the research expertise at McMaster, one of the theme schools is on new materials and their impact on society. This school has five 3-credit courses, three 2-credit seminar courses and two 6-credit research internships. Enrolment is limited and by application. About 35 students were admitted in both the first and second year since it was started. Students are from English, biology, physical education, nursing chemistry, mathematics and engineering. The 3-credit courses use the small group self-directed problem-based format. For each course has two instructors and 1 teaching assistant. The first course is sophomore level. In each 13-week course the tutorless student groups handle 2 to 3 cases or problems. Concurrently they are taking 5 to 7 required courses in their major area. Except for the nursing program, all the other courses the students take are presented in the conventional lecture format. The students have received no formal training in the processing skills before they enrolled in the theme school. Our approach has been to develop these skills concurrently. We have five explicit, 1½ hour workshops that are given during the second semester of their sophomore year. The topics are understanding PBL and its expectations, managing change, problem solving, group skills and self-directed-interdependent small group learning. The student evaluations of the program have identified the importance of these explicit workshops and have recommended that these be given before the students encounter their first case problem. Currently, this program does not explicitly include the development of processing skills as valued outcomes nor are these skills formally assessed. I believe that the program would be strengthened if it did. The students are not required to do extensive journal writing. However, their written reports must demonstrate that they have synthesized information and material learned from other members of their group. Student's assessment of the PBL learning environment in the Theme school, as measured by the Course Perceptions Questionnaire is d = +2 more positive than their assessment of their "home" departments. Their responses for their home department were consistent with the responses from a control group of students in a conventional program that has enrolment limited and is by application.

In Civil Engineering, Fred Hall uses small group, self-directed, self-assessed PBL in a junior level course; in Geography, Caroline Eyles and Fred Hall use this approach for a senior level project course.

In summary, these are examples of the use of small group self-directed PBL where tutorless groups of five to six students function effectively. The class sizes are in the range 30 to 50 with one or two instructors. The students concurrently take conventional courses. In these examples, the students work in tutorless groups of about 5 to 6 students.


Knapper, C. (1994) Instructional Development Center, Queen's University, personal communication of the short CPQ version used in the paper D. Bertrand and C. Knapper (1993) "Contextual Influences on Student's Approaches toLearning in Three Academic Departments", Queens University, Kingston ON.

Ramsden, P. (1983) "The Lancaster Approaches to Studying and Course Perceptions Questionnaires: Lecturer's Handbook," Educational Methods Unit, Oxford Polytechnic, Oxford, OX3 0BP

Woods, D.R. (1991) "Issues in Implementation in an Otherwise Conventional Programme", Chapter 12 in "The Challenges of Problem-based Learning" D. Boud and G. Feletti, ed., Kogan Page, London, 122-129.

Books to Help you with PBL

The book "Problem-based Learning: Resources to gain the most from PBL" - written for teachers and instructional development people to give the how to details for most issues that students and teachers encounter in implementing a PBL program. This gives nitty-gritty, how-to details. This was initially published as part of the teacher's guide in 1994. It was expanded and revised in 1995 and sent out to about 40 educators for comments and suggestions. The book has been subsequently revised in 1996.

Table of contents for "Problem-based Learning: Resources to gain the most from PBL"

  1. How to... move toward PBL
  2. How to... run the core "processing" skills workshops
  3. How to... run the enrichment "processing" skills workshops
  4. How to... set up courses and course objectives
  5. How to... select instruments for assessment and program evaluation
  6. How to... assess
  7. Table of contents of related books
  8. Author index
  9. Annotated index

For students

To help our students in our own program, we wrote the book "Problem-based Learning: how to gain the most from PBL". To order any of these books use your favourite bookseller and request them using these ISBNs

  • PBL: How to Gain the Most - 9780666239617
  • PBL: Resources to Gain the Most - 9780666242129
  • PBL: Helping your Students - 9780666242112 .

Table of Contents for "Problem-based Learning: How to gain the most from PBL"

  1. Are you ready for change?
  2. What is problem-based learning?
  3. Problem solving skills.
  4. What is small group, problem-based learning?
  5. Group skills.
  6. What is self-directed, interdependent, small group, problem-based learning?
  7. Self-directed learning.
  8. What is self-assessed, self-directed, interdependent, small group, problem-based learning?
  9. Self-assessment skills.
  10. Putting it all together.

Appendix, Student Feedback Forms and Annotated index.

Prices excluding taxes and shipping and handling: for orders from Canada: C$

For teachers

The above book has been very popular with teachers. Thank you for your interest and support. However, to help teachers get an idea about PBL, sample it, implement some form of PBL, we have written a separate book for teachers that

  • addresses many of the questions teachers have about implementing PBL;
  • guides teachers in the use of "How to gain the most from PBL" to enrich their courses.

This book we call "Problem-based Learning: Helping your students gain the most from PBL". It's table of contents is:

  1. Why PBL? Improving learning and selecting a version of PBL that is suitable for you
  2. On being a coach/facilitator
  3. What about processing skills used in PBL?
  4. Issues about setting up small group, self directed, self assessed PBL
  5. Questions and answers about assessment
  6. How might I use the companion book "How to gain the most from PBL"
  7. Literature resources for PBL

This book was published in late 1994, revised in 1995, sent to about 40 educators for comments and is now revised (1996) and available free via the web.

Sample, browse, copy and use any of this book that you want. We would appreciate receiving comments and suggestions for improving it.

One of the first videos on McMaster Problem Solving using Problem Based Learning methods.

The McMaster Problem Solving (MPS) Program - Dr. Don Woods provides an outline of this program with many live links to lessons constructed to provide problem solving skills.

The MPS program and evaluation of its effectiveness



MPS Units 1 to 18: focus on individuals solving relatively well-defined problems

I have tried to give background, objectives, timing sheets and transparencies for the Units as I complete the documentation. You may use these in your context. I would appreciate your acknowledging the source.

  1. Awareness

    Evidence-based targets to improve problem solving
    Self Assessment Journal
    Visuals for workshop power point

  2. What is Problem Solving?

    Timing sheets
    Workshop Visuals

  3. Self-assessment

    Evidence-based targets to improve problem solving
    Timing Sheets
    Workshop Visuals
    Workshop activities
    Self Assessment Journal
    Workshop Visual Power Point

  4. Strategies

    Timing sheets
    Evidence-based targets to improve problem solving
    Visuals for Workshop Power Point

  5. I want to and I can: Stress Management

    Evidence-based targets to improve problem solving
    Visuals for Workshop
    Self-Assessment Journal
    Visuals for Workshop Power Point

  6. Analysis: classification

    Evidence-based targets to improve problem solving
    Visuals for workshop
    Self-Assessment Journal

  7. Creativity

    Evidence-based targets to improve problem solving
    Visuals for Workshop

  8. Define the stated problem

    Evidence-based targets to improve problem solving

  9. Translation

    Evidence-based targets to improve problem solving

  10. Getting Unstuck
  11. Identifying Personal Preference and Implications

    The Unique You
    Visuals for workshop
    Self assessment journal
    Visuals for workshop Power Point

  12. Learning Skills

    Evidence-based targets
    Timing sheets
    Visuals for workshop

  13. Analysis: Consistency
  14. Creating the Look Back and Extending Experiences Objectives
  15. Exploring the Situation to Identify the Real Problem
  16. Tactics
  17. Time Management for Individuals

    Visuals for Workshop
    Self Assessment Journal

  18. Evaluation and Stress Management.

MPS Units 19 to 29 (and 52): focus on interpersonal skills and group problems solving

  1. More on Visual Thinking: Reading P&IDs
  2. Asking Questions
  3. Analysis: Sequences and Series
  4. Broadening Perspectives
  5. Obtaining Criteria
  6. Decision making
  7. Time Management for groups and projects
  8. Listening and Responding: a) Attending and following b) Body language c) Reflecting
  9. Listening and responding: body language
  10. Group Skills

    Workshop activities
    Visuals for workshop
    Timing Sheets

  11. Being an Effective Chairperson

    Evidence-based target
    Workshop activities


MPS Units 30 to 57: focus on solving messy problems

  1. Analysis: Reasoning and Drawing Conclusions

    Evidence-based targets
    Workshop notes
    Workshop activities

  2. Defining Real Problems
  3. Implementing
  4. Coping with Ambiguity
  5. Trouble Shooting

    Evidence-based targets
    Workshop activities
    Workshop triad Instructions

  6. Heuristics or Rules-of-thumb for Problem Solving
  7. Self-Directed Learning: or Problem-based Learning

    Workshop Activities
    Suggestions for students

  8. Simplifying and Generalizing
  9. Consolidating the Knowledge Structure
  10. Creating Tacit Information or Experience Knowledge
  11. Successive Approximation and Optimum Sloppiness
  12. Finding Opportunities
  13. Procrastination and other Attitudes
  14. Giving and Receiving Feedback
  15. Assertiveness
  16. Coping Creatively with Conflict
  17. Coping with Difficult Behaviours
  18. Accentuating the Negative
  19. Communication

    Workshop Activities
    Visuals Part 1
    Visuals Part 2

  20. Coping with Change
  21. Being a Change Agent
  22. Managing Change
  23. Fundamentals of Interpersonal skills (see previous grouping)

    Workshop Activities 1
    Workshop Activities 2

  24. Effective Teams and Team building
  25. Goals, Mission and Vision
  26. Roles and Responsibilities in Teams
  27. Networking: How to enrich your Life and Get Things Done
  28. Convincing Others: Getting a Buy-in
  29. Leadership
  30. Anger Management
  31. Motivation
  32. Emotional Intelligence

It is with profound sadness and sorrow that we announce of the sudden passing of Don Woods, Professor Emeritus, Department of Chemical Engineering on Friday, April 26, 2013.

Don came to McMaster in 1964 and retired in 2000. His work in developing innovative teaching methods, particularly focused on problem-based learning, is known and recognized nationally and internationally. He was the recipient of many teaching awards, at McMaster and elsewhere. For those who didn’t know Don, he was one of the significant builders of this Faculty; current McMaster’s faculty, staff and students are beneficiaries of his contributions to engineering education. I had the privilege of knowing Don from the beginning of his time at McMaster and feel honored to have had him as a colleague.

Several months ago Don was selected to be the recipient of the Faculty of Engineering Teaching Excellence Award at the Applause and Accolades celebration which will be held on May 8. Sadly, this award will be presented posthumously but it will be our privilege to honour him and his memory on that occasion.

Don leaves behind his best friend and beloved wife of 52 years, Diane, and his children - Russell Glen (predeceased), Suzanna Lynn Peters (Denis Dallaire), and Cynthia Jane Veals (Scott). His five all-star grandsons will miss Poppa: Caleb, Marcus and Andrew Veals and Nicholas and Benjamin Peters. In addition to his academic pursuits, he was also an artist, banjo player, square dancer, builder, author, genealogist, and great reader.

Donations in memory of Don may be made to St. James United Church, Christian Children’s Fund of Canada or to a charity of your choice. To leave a written message of condolence, go to this link:

Condolences Received from Chemical Engineering Chairs, Colleagues and Friends on the news of Don Woods sudden passing

The whole chemical engineering community is mourning the passing away of Don Woods. Don has been a source of inspiration not only for chemical engineering professors but to educators in a wide range of disciplines across universities worldwide using his pioneering problem based solving ideas, concepts and techniques. With warm regards,

Michel Prof. Michel Perrier, ing., Ph.D., MACG, D.h.c. Directeur Département de génie chimique École Polytechnique

 This is very sad news. Don was such a wonderful, positive and enthusiastic person, and made such an impact in engineering education.
Please extend our deepest sympathies to his family, and to his colleagues and friends, on behalf of the Chemical Engineering department at Queen's.Don was an alumnus of Queen's, and I can still remember him bounding - yes, bounding - up the stairs for his 50th reunion in 2007. One of Don's classmates was the first woman to graduate in chemical engineering from Queen's. One of the primary instructors at that time had been quite sexist and unwelcoming to her, and Don was still seething about it 50 years later. Don cared very much about engineering, education and people.

A wonderful man.

James McLellan
Professor of Mathematics and Statistics Academic Director, Queen's Innovation Connector


So sad to hear about Don's sudden passing. Canada lost a pioneer and an innovator in education methods. There are very few who have contributed so much to Chemical engineering education. I have very nice memory of Don when he visited our Department several years ago. I always enjoy reading/referring his books on design and rule of thumbs. It is a great loss for all but above all for his family. My sincere condolences to Don's family. Regards Peter

Peter Engelzos, UBC


I am very sad to her of Don's passing. He was a great man, a great mentor and among, if not the, greatest engineering educator in Canada. Please pass our condolences to his family. On behalf of University of Calgary's Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering.

Best regards,

U.T. U. Sundararaj, Professor and Head Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering University of Calgary


Very sad news indeed. He was the Chemical Engineering educator par excellence not only in Canada but worldwide. My condolences to you, your Department and his family.

Dimitrios Berk, McGill University


As you can see from the note from the Chair of McMaster Chem Eng, below, Professor Don Woods passed away this past weekend. As many of you know, Don was a Chemical Engineering Professor at McMaster who had a significant impact on engineering education. Though I didn't know him well, I knew of him by reputation and by a few memorable talks I saw and through the work of others who worked with Don (e.g. Kim Woodhouse, now Dean at Queens). I still recall Don giving a seminar in our Department many (likely more than 15) years ago about problem-based learning. Many years before that he had taken his sabbatical and spent it like a student, attending classes in the chem eng curriculum. What a radical idea! One of his discoveries was that, though we frequently herald problem solving as a key skill that our students learn, he found that we don't in fact teach it. This lead him to be a pioneer in problem-based learning as a way of teaching engineering. In my likely overly simplistic view, it's about putting the problem first, then having students discover (with 'coaching') what principles, information, etc. you need to solve it. That's as opposed to the more conventional approach where we teach principles and then give out problems that require the principles we just taught. Our conventional approach likely allows us to cover more material but at the expense of depth and what 'sticks' (i.e. becomes more intuitive) long term (less=more). Don's findings led to significant changes in the curriculum at McMaster, with several problem-based courses. His papers, presentations and people he interacted with also impacted the engineering community well beyond McMaster. For my part, though I still teach mostly in the conventional way, I do use a problem-based approach (my version of it anyway) as well. Don also spoke of the importance of taking short 'breaks' from lecture about every 15 or 20 minutes to keep students engaged and he used this to great effect in his own talk...something I also try to use. His approach is also an inspiration to the potential great value of labs where we also actively think and do...and hence much value in the Unit Ops Renovation as part of our Advancement campaign. A great Canadian Engineering educator who will be missed.

Grant Allen, University of Toronto


I considered Don a true friend , We worked off and on together for 20+ years. To my surprise Don attended my Fathers Visitation a few years ago and he talked to my Sons and Daughter. When Don left, my kids came to me and said he knew what sports they were involved in and their work. They said “what a real nice guy” and that I was lucky to work with such people. He was the spokes person for my departmental retirement and wow he certainly gave me a send off. It was an honour and privileged to say we knew him. Val, Gord, Wayne, Maxine and Neil

Gordon Slater, Port Dover, Ontario

Dr. Scott Fogler Lecture 2017