Models & Examples

Four Models and Examples of PBL Implementation and Student Support

This section contains key information to aid the PBL course design process. First, we present some Implementation Models for PBL courses. In these models, we provide examples from a range of institutions that employ these models. Second, we also suggest different Student Support Models that might be adopted by instructors/tutors/facilitators in order to accommodate classes of different sizes and levels of student maturity. The models are suggestive only and designed to show the degree of curriculum change, assessment change and change in instructional strategies that may be required for their implementation. We anticipate that this broad framework could inspire you to devise your own models and methods of implementation.

PBL Implementation Models





Supplementary PBL component

  • Apply PBL to supplement traditional lecture-tutorial format.

  • Little or no content change is required.

  • Give additional credits to students' participation in PBL groups as part of the overall assessment scheme.



Hybrid - voluntary student participation

  • Divide one course into two streams and apply PBL in one while use traditional lecture-tutorial format side-by-side for the other stream.

  • Students participating in the PBL stream are on voluntary basis.

  • Need to consider making the curricula and assessment schemes of both streams comparable but not necessarily identical.



Hybrid - total student participation

  • Apply PBL fully in one or more courses within a department for all students.

  • Required to have large scale changes for curriculum and assessment in these courses.

  • Likely need to reduce content materials to allow for more PBL activities.



Full PBL implementation

  • Apply PBL in a study program or the entire School's curriculum.

  • Required to have large scale curriculum review to plan for designing small group problem-based activities.

  • Required to have re-orientations of all staff and students towards the School's objectives, teaching and assessment methods.


Applying Student Support Models to Different PBL Learners





Dedicated faculty tutor support model

  • Class size of 8-10 with a dedicated faculty tutor.

  • Students are highly motivated but not necessarily experienced PBL learners.

  • Tutor will influence students in construction of learning issues and finding resources.

  • Most suitable for upper level seminar classes.



Floating facilitator support model

  • Class size is flexible but students are assigned in small groups of four.

  • Students have some experience in PBL but are motivated in problem solving.

  • Faculty acts as facilitator and floats among the groups by asking questions and directing discussions.

  • Suitable for small to medium size classes.



Peer tutor support model

  • Class size is flexible and students are assigned to 6-8 per group.

  • Students are novice PBL learners.

  • Advanced UG and experienced PBL students act as dedicated peer tutors for each group to assist the facilitator.

  • Suitable for medium to large and class size.



Tutorless group support model

  • Small class size.

  • No dedicated facilitators or peer tutors are needed.

  • Students are matured and experienced PBL learners.

  • Students conduct learning and assessment entirely on their own in small groups.


Example for Supplementary PBL component

Examples to be provided soon.

The aim is foster collaborative learning in tutorials, to encourage self-directed learning and to encourage students to focus on problems to be solved and to develop their problem-solving abilities. The subject consisted of two lectures and a two hour tutorial each week. In the second part of the tutorial sessions students were given open-ended challenging problems to solve and they were required to work on the problems in small groups. Assessment of problem solutions was by peer-group assessment and reviewed by the instructor.

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Example for Hybrid - voluntary student participation

University of Delaware, USA, Department of Nutrition and Dietetics

The course was taught using two methods of instruction and student performance was compared using several parameters. Both sections were taught using the same learning objectives, textbook, assessment and readings. The lecture section had 75 minute lectures interspersed with some videos, a small amount of group work, and one case. The PBL section had 10 problems, which students worked on in groups for two class sessions each.

The results of comparing the two instructional methods suggested there was no real difference in learning achieved between lecture and PBL methods nor did method of teaching change the preferred learning environment.

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Example for Hybrid - total student participation

The University of Hong Kong, Faculty of Education, Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences

The Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences converted their BSc program to PBL in 1996. The Problem-Based Learning curriculum is based on the idea that knowledge is most effectively remembered in the context in which it is learned. Learners are actively involved in the learning process from the beginning of the learning experience, and must integrate new knowledge with previous learning to achieve the goals set for each problem.

First-year students go to only one conventional lecture per term whereas in the past they would have had more than 10 hours of lectures per week.

Professor Paul Fletcher, head of the Speech and Hearing Sciences Department, has commented: "Many people thought Hong Kong students would not like the new approach, but they adapted to it very well. We have found the change very successful. One difficulty, though, is that staff have to spend a lot of time constructing problems."

The University of Hong Kong, Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Social Work and Social Administration

The department has adopted a PBL approach at both the Bachelor and Masters level since 1998/1999. The aim it to develop students into ethical and competent social workers, develop their critical thinking and practical problem-solving skills, as well a lifelong learning skills.

Instruction is characterized by small group work with carefully structured cases, with faculty members acting as facilitators and tutors. PBL groups comprise 8-10 students and at the Masters level they are expected to be self-directed and co-operative in their learning.

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Example for Full PBL implementation

The University of Hong Kong, Faculty of Dentistry

Since 1998 the Faculty of Dentistry has implemented a Problem-Based Learning (PBL) curriculum, which offers an integrated curriculum with emphasis on student-centered learning and relevance to the community. Substantial staff resources have been devoted to curriculum development and the development of key PBL materials. All Faculty staff are fully trained as PBL facilitators and many as problem-writers. Facilities include a PBL Suite consisting of some 14 rooms, the development of polyclinics in many areas and significant investment in electronic learning resources.

It is anticipated that graduates of the new PBL curriculum will be life-long learners with abilities to access information from many sources, and independently and critically use thought processes to find solutions.

The curriculum is being converted year-by-year so that eventually it will all be delivered by fully-fledged Problem-Based Learning.

McMaster University, Canada, Faculty of Health Sciences

The development of health professional education at McMaster University began in 1946 when the School of Nursing was established in the University's Faculty of Science. Further development occurred in the mid-1960s when, persuaded by then University President Harry Thode's long-standing vision that McMaster should start a new kind of medical school and by the enthusiastic support of the Hamilton community, the Ontario Government awarded a medical education program to McMaster.

Under the leadership of founding Dean John Evans, a group of reform-minded educators began developing an undergraduate medical program and a philosophy of health sciences education that departed radically from the prevailing North American norm. To keep pace with the modern world's rapidly expanding knowledge base, the Faculty's founders believed students needed new tools to become life-long, self-directed learners possessing strong problem solving and teamwork abilities.

Maastricht University, Nederlands

Maastricht University was founded in 1976 and holds a unique position among the Dutch universities in that all seven of its faculties engage in Problem-Based Learning: Health Sciences, General Sciences, Economics and Business Administration, Arts and Culture, Medicine, Law, Psychology.

University of Newcastle, Australia, Bachelor of Medicine

This course was introduced in 1978 after calls for improvements in student selection, medical education and practice. The curriculum differs from traditional medical courses in its early orientation towards clinical medicine and its focus on problem-based self-directed learning where students work in small tutorial groups to analyze and solve clinical problems, and gain understanding of relevant scientific data.

Clinical and basic sciences are integrated rather than taught as separate subjects and all traditional subject areas of a medical course are covered, together with studies which are community oriented.

Students admitted to the course must have both the intellectual ability needed for university success and personal qualities important to practise medicine. These include an insight into human feelings, flexible attitudes, and confidence in handling professional relationships.

Griffith University, Australia, Bachelor of Nursing

The central focus of this fully integrated PBL course is nursing. Concepts from psychology, sociology, science, law, bioethics and other health related studies are drawn upon as they relate to this central disciplinary focus. The approach to learning is problem-based and situation oriented, encouraging graduates to integrate closely theory and practice to become effective professional registered nurses.

Samford University, USA

As part of the Samford Initiative, five schools participated in implementing PBL at Samford in 1998-1999. Each course had the involvement of one instructor of record and two associate facilitators. Faculties which implemented PBL course at Samford during the Fall 1998 semester included the following: Arts and Sciences, Business, Education, Nursing, Pharmacy.

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Example for Dedicated faculty tutor

McMaster University, Canada, Faculty of Health Sciences

The McMaster medical school model includes a tutor/teacher with each group of students. This is resource intensive if you do this for only one course. It is not so resource intensive if the whole program is changed to this format.

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Example for Floating facilitator model

University of Delaware, USA, Art History Department

Students in the course developed solutions for assigned problems by working together in small groups. Each group had 5-6 members and met for three hours at a time. Members of the group worked on aspects of the problem individually over the following week and then reconvened at the beginning of the next class meeting to synthesize their findings. While the students worked in their groups, the instructor circulated among them, monitored their progress and participated in their discussions to assist them toward a solution. A week later, at the next class meeting, each group submitted a brief written report summarizing their response to the problem.

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Peer tutor model

University of Delaware, USA, School of Science, Department of Biology

First year Science majors worked with peer tutors under the supervision of the instructor. Since the course was first offered in 1993, and informal and formal feedback from both students and peer tutors has been consistently positive. In addition to guiding students through biology discussion, the peer tutors were able to help students to bridge the gap between the learning culture and expectations of the high school versus college experience.

The author also points to the need to bolster the tutoring skills of the peer tutors with guidance from the faculty, for example, in knowing when to intervene in group discussions, knowing how to ask the type of question that motivates students to go beyond a superficial level of understanding, and how to respond effectively to student behaviors that undermine the group process, and how and where to find information on the learning issues their students identify.

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Example for Tutorless groups

Chemical Engineering, McMaster University, Canada

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 PBL is used for only a limited number of courses in a department of if faced with classes of 30 - 200 with only one instructor, the dedicated tutor model can be adapted to use tutorless groups. Students are provided with the training that is usually given to tutors and student groups are empowered 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.

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