Lesson 1: What is problem-based learning?



Participants will define problem-based learning in a written journal response, after watching a video clip and reading an online article.

K-W-L Pre-Assessment

  • Before you begin reading the content in Lesson 1, please make additions to the K-W-L chart. You should add a few comments describing what you know about problem-based learning in the "K" section of the chart. You can then brainstorm a few questions you have about problem-based learning and type them in the "W" section of the chart, indicating what you want to know.
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Case Study

Mrs. Jones is a biology teacher at a local high school. In her high school class, she lectures frequently as students copy notes from PowerPoint presentations. Students are generally engaged during class discussions if they find the topic interesting. After presenting the content information to the class, Mrs. Jones usually has students complete a laboratory investigation focusing on the concepts discussed in class. A majority of students enjoy working with their peers during activities. Mrs. Jones can assess student understanding of the material as they answer the conclusion questions given in the labs. At the end of a unit, students complete a multiple choice test so Mrs. Jones can determine what they learned.
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In your journal, answer the following questions considering Mrs. Jones' classroom and your own.

  • Are Mrs. Jones' teaching methods similar to your own? Why or why not?
  • In your opinion, what aspects of this teaching style are successful for student learning? What aspects are unsuccessful?
  • How could Mrs. Jones' enhance her routine?


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Problem-based learning (PBL) is a strategy that engages students by having them work through real-world questions during a unit of study. Rather than presenting information to students and asking questions at the end of the unit, the questions actually initiate the unit and guide knowledge acquisition. These real world questions are often broad and engage students in the learning process. During the unit, students work on various tasks in order to answer the overreaching question. This type of learning is student-centered, with the teacher acting more as a facilitator. Rather than simply memorizing content, students must use critical thinking and problem-solving skills to learn. Follow the links below to learn more about problem-based learning, before moving on to the assignment portion of the lesson.


  1. Read the following article on problem-based learning. As you read, consider how this learning technique differs from more traditional learning styles. https://www.learning-theories.com/problem-based-learning-pbl.html
  2. Watch the video clip on project-based learning by the Buck Institute for Education (BIE). BIE considers problem-based learning a subset of project-based learning, because the learning activities associated with PBL are usually on more specific topics and have more focused goals. While watching the video, consider if you use any of these techniques in your own classroom. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LMCZvGesRz8
  3. Watch the TEDx Talk with teacher Shelley Wright. While watching, think about how Shelley facilitated her student-centered classroom project. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3fMC-z7K0r4


  • After reviewing the previous links, define problem-based learning in your own words. You can record your definition followed by your name in the "L" section of the K-W-L chart. If any new questions emerged after completing the "Investigation" portion of Lesson 1, you can add them to the "W" section.
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  • In your journal, answer the following question considering what you learned about problem-based learning and the Tedx Talk from this Lesson.
In what ways did Shelley Wright transform her classroom so that her students were learning through the PBL model?


Go on to Lesson 2: How can problem-based learning benefit students?

Return to Problem-Based Learning in the Biology Classroom