Problem-Based Learning

Contributed by Marsha McFalls, PharmD, RPh
Assistant Professor of Pharmacy Practice
School of Pharmacy

I teach a class called Self-Care and Home Diagnostic Testing. It is offered in the second professional year of the pharmacy curriculum. I have taught this class in a didactic-only method from 2001 to 2009. During that time period, I reflected a lot on what the students were retaining from the class as they proceeded through their remaining years in the curriculum. Although students got "good grades" in the class, as I worked with them personally and through feedback from preceptors, I realized that my concerns were valid; students were not able to recollect and apply the information when needed months or even years after the course was offered. I began my research into various methods of instruction with the intent of redesigning my course with a higher emphasis on "active learning". During the summer of 2010, I researched a variety of teaching styles and methods and decided to integrated Problem-Based Learning (PBL) into my class.

It is important to make a distinction between PBL and case-based learning (CBL). The order and manner of which information is transmitted to the student is the key difference. In CBL, the student is typically given lecture material/information prior to beginning a case. In essence, there is still formalized instruction. In PBL, there is no information given to students prior to the case. The students begin the case with no formal instruction. They use their prior knowledge gathered from experience or other classes. The learning takes place as they begin to determine what they do not know and subsequently formulate a plan to find those answers. After a student receives a PBL case, I ask them to do three (3) things:

  1. Write down everything you know about the case ("Facts")
  2. Write down your hypothesis regarding the case ("Ideas")
  3. Write down what they do not know and where they will look to find the answers ("learning issues")

I have found that students will be able to learn this information on their own, and more importantly, will be able to retain and apply the information gathered during the class in a real-world setting. My role in the learning process shifts from being the person responsible for transferring information to the students to being their guide during their own learning process.

Before embarking on this type of adventure, there are few things that I would suggest. First: Gather as much information as possible. Look at what other institutions are doing- both in and outside your field of study. However, be prepared to modify. What works in one does not necessarily fill your needs. Second: Find a few good print references to use as a guide. I started reading anything that I could find about PBL and quickly found myself in "PBL overload." The most informative and prescriptive reference I found was The Power of Problem-Based Learning, edited by Barbara J. Duch, et. al. It is extremely comprehensive, but in a very practical way. It details the PBL process, use of facilitators, assessment, and models a variety of PBL examples. It is a very "nuts and bolts" explanation of how to integrate PBL into a course. Third: Be organized. Preparing a PBL session takes significantly more time than preparing a traditional 50-minute lecture. However, in this instructor's opinion, is well worth the time and effort.