Problem-Based Learning in Engineering

What is problem-based learning (PBL)?

PBL is an active learning technique that was developed in the 1950s in an attempt to better prepare medical students for problem solving in clinical settings. Since then, its use in education has been studied extensively in medical settings, and is now starting to see applications in other science fields. PBL consists of professors presenting students with ill-structured problems and allowing them to work through finding a solution for themselves. PBL is known for building flexible knowledge, problem-solving skills, self-directed learning, collaborative skills, and intrinsic motivation.

The ten facets of PBL, as originally defined by Howard Barrows, are as follows:

  1. Students are responsible for their own learning
  2. The problem is ill-structured
  3. Learning includes elements from a wide range of subjects
  4. Collaboration is present
  5. The problem and solution must be reanalyzed in light of what students learn
  6. There must be a time at the end of a PBL activity where students discuss what they learned
  7. At the end of each unit, self and peer evaluations are completed
  8. Ill-structured problem and related activities mirror real-world values
  9. Exams align with the goals of PBL
  10. PBL is not mixed in the curriculum with teacher-centered lecture methodology

What do we know about PBL in engineering?

Studies in a variety of engineering fields have revealed that students taught by PBL have at least equal factual knowledge to their counterparts who receive traditional lectures [1, 2, 3, 4]. Further, students in PBL courses are more satisfied and are more confident. Studies have also shown that long-term retention and skill development are higher in PBL students.

Engineering education aims to produce “broad-based, flexible graduates who can think integratively, solve problems and be life-long learners” (Engineering Professors’ Conference). Thus engineers need far more than shallow factual knowledge; they need to know when and how to apply their knowledge. PBL then would be an obvious alternative to traditional lectures in engineering.

Studies in electrical engineering courses have shown that PBL is sufficient for conveying factual knowledge. In Problem-based Learning: Influence on Students’ Learning in an Electrical Engineering Course by Yadav et al., researchers seek to evaluate the effectiveness of PBL in establishing students’ conceptual understandings. A quantitative study based on four pre- and post- tests reveal the PBL set-up to be twice as effective as traditional lecture methods.

Where is PBL going?

PBL requires educators and students alike to reshape their perception of the classroom and the learning process. PBL is strongly student-centered and places much of the education burden on the students themselves. Such teaching requires teachers to redesign their curriculum and students to open their minds to a new style of learning.

Further research must be conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of PBL with respect to students transferring their knowledge to new situations.


[1] Antepohl and Herzig. Problem-based learning versus lecture-based learning in a course of basic pharmacology.

[2] Dochy, Segers, Van den Bossche, and Gijbels. Effects of problem-based learning: a meta-analysis.

[3] Gijbels, Dochy, Van den Bossche, Segers. Effects of problem-based learning: a meta-analysis from the angle of assessment.


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