In 1969, the Faculty of Medicine at McMaster University in Canada decided to introduce a new approach to teaching undergraduates. The practicing professors knew very well how fascinating medicine could be, but – alas! – the usual lecture format did not allow for this to be communicated to students who were bored in lectures. The excitement of aspiring physicians usually awakened only when they began to practice and work with patients. That is why Howard Burroughs, a university professor, researcher, and renowned scientist, proposed problem-based learning – and, together with his colleague Robin Tamblyn, became the founder of problem-based learning

The learning process under this approach may be different, but the lesson schemes are similar. Experts from the essay writing service, for example, the following:

  • Students must explore and identify a problem;
  • figure out what they already know about it;
  • determine what else they need to know to solve it and where they can get the information or tools they need;
  • consider ways to solve the problem;
  • solve the problem;
  • write a reportable paper.

Over the decades, the ideas of Burroughs and Tamblyn have evolved and are now used in the mainstream of higher or professional education around the world – and not just in medical education.

However, problem-based learning, or problem-based learning (PBL), is an umbrella term under which many independent methods lie. We will talk more about the variations of PBL below, but first, let’s look at the features of problem-based learning. 

Differences between PBL and other approaches

Often training programs are built on the formation of individual knowledge, skills, or competencies that, when combined, should result in a certain “base” for using the knowledge gained in practice. But it can be difficult for students to figure out how to combine the knowledge they learn and truly transfer it effectively to their work, to perform real-world tasks with it. 

It, in turn, is subdivided into many other tasks, the completion of which will lead students to some kind of final result. For example, in a journalism course, this might be the creation of one’s media. In this case, the tasks will include writing an article, selecting illustrations, doing the layout, etc. On the other hand, as part of a “regular” course, students will study the theory of journalism, genres, and basics of stylistics separately. They will not always be able to apply their knowledge in combination to write a correctly structured and literate text.

It is worth noting that in pure PBL, that is, the approach proposed by Burroughs, students had to find the answer or the right solution and determine the area of their ignorance. They had to understand what knowledge or skills were missing in the process and, accordingly, close the gaps that existed. It was especially important for doctors because they have to continue learning throughout their lives, and this factor probably became one of the reasons for the popularity of PBL worldwide. 

Therefore, the process of learning PBL plays a big role: it must be structured in such a way that students end up with a comprehensive understanding of the subject matter they are studying. 

 It works just as it does in real life. Let’s take a simple example: a patient comes to the doctor with a complaint – and the specialist has no additional information. He will have to determine what may be causing the ailment, what tests will help clarify the situation, and what medications can at least temporarily solve the problem. After the initial results, the specialist may adjust the treatment, choose a different approach, or continue research.

However, in educational settings, formulating a problem or case is not so straightforward. For example, in some cases, an entire faculty team develops them and revises them every year. And the same case will look different for students and the educators who teach them: students will have less information to find the “missing” pieces of the puzzle. In addition, the problem must be suitable for learning, that is, feasible for students but also interesting enough to engage them in the process. 

PBL-based learning models

Many different models and variations have emerged from problem-based learning. Let’s look at a few of the most interesting and well-known ones.

Challenge Based Learning

Challenge Based Learning is learning through the challenge. Apple first proposed this model in 2008. Together with American educators, the corporation formulated the main principles of modern education transformation. Since the age of digital technology is especially valuable, soft skills (ability to work in a team, think outside the box, and so on), then the training should be aimed at their development, the company decided. It is how challenging Based Learning came about. “The ‘problem’ in CBL is born out of some big idea or phenomenon that both the students themselves and the community they are located are faced with.

CBL involves three basic steps:

  • Involvement through questions,
  • investigation,
  • action.

For example, if a certain city is regularly affected by floods, a local school that uses the CBL model asks students to find out what causes them, investigate what might trigger the phenomenon, and how it can be prevented. They will have to come up with a potential solution to the problem, such as installing flood barriers every year. 

In Australia, even junior high schools have CBL-based classes. For example, in one local school, children were offered a challenge: to help the local community after a natural disaster. The children studied why these disasters happen and how they affect people. The kids called and wrote to people worldwide to learn about it firsthand.

Pebble in the Pond

Pebble in the Pond is a model proposed in 2002 by researcher M. David Merrill. The learning process, according to Merrill, is built around the problem and is divided into four main phases:

  • Activation of existing knowledge;
  • demonstration of skills;
  • application of acquired skills;
  • Integration or transfer of skills into the real world is a setting other than the classroom.

So, where did this unusual metaphor come from? “The ‘pond’ in Merrill’s view is the educational process, the learning environment that the methodologist designs. “The rock” is the complex task he sets for the students, which they will be able to complete at the end of their education. Once in the “pond,” the “stone” forms several circles, that is, design steps for the Methodist:

  • First circle: demonstration of a complex “problem” or task. It involves not just some description of the problem but a “prototype” that would show students the conditions for solving the problem, its consequences, and the steps to be taken.
  • The second circle: the construction of similar problems. They follow a standard pattern, from simple to more complex, each requiring a new skill to be applied to the solution and, gradually, to the final result.
  • The third round identifies the knowledge and skills that will allow students to solve the assigned tasks. It is necessary to make sure that they form a spectrum of competencies that will allow solving a “big” complex task.
  • The fourth circle: choosing a teaching strategy. It should involve students in solving the problem and help them master the knowledge or skills needed. In this case, each new problem should build on the student’s previous experience. In addition, the strategy should include opportunities for students to interact with each other: discussions, reflection, and even arguments, that is, the need to defend their point of view.
  • Fifth circle: creating the interface. That is, adapting the content and strategy to the specific situation.
  • Sixth Circle: forming evaluation criteria, preparing the material, and launching the course.

A key feature of this model is that learning is built around the immediate content or content of the course. The traditional approach, Merrill explains, assumes that the learner simply describes information from the course content, but the real purpose of learning – putting knowledge into practice – is not accomplished. In Pebble in the Pond, as in other variations of PBL, course content depends on its purpose, not the other way around.


4C/ID is a four-part and one of the most current pedagogical models based on problem-based learning. The acronym stands for four components – 4 components and instructional design – pedagogical design. 

 This model was proposed in the 1990s by Jeroen J. G. van Meerienboer, Doctor of Psychology and professor at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Its essence is that the student receives a comprehensive view of the subject, and the knowledge is acquired immediately in practice.

It happens due to the four components of the model:

  1. Learning Objectives. Designing always begins with defining some task that the student will eventually be able to perform or solve. It should be authentic and as close to reality as possible. For example, for future film critics, the task will be to write a great review for a famous magazine and for testers taking a course to find all the bugs in a product created by someone else.

  At the same time, the “root” problem, as in Pebble in the Pond, is multi-component. That is, it is broken down              into many small tasks, from simple to complex. So, first, future film critics will not be asked to prepare an                      article but to come up with a title for an existing one or choose books to refer to in an already-written review.

  Or students might get some kind of solution to a real-world problem and figure out why it was the way it was.              If  we go back to the example with medical students, they would have to decide why colleagues gave a patient a            particular diagnosis.

  1. Accompanying (auxiliary) information – the basic theoretical material is given to the student to solve the problem. It can be lectures, textbooks, articles or studies, and useful examples.
  2. Timely (operational) information – material that is needed to solve narrower problems. For example, checklists, memos, and case studies are selected for individual stages of training. For medical students, timely information would be a “How to Read Blood Test Results” memo, and for writing students, a “Five Elements of an Essay” checklist.
  3. Partial Practice. To solve a “big” professional problem, you need to bring some skills to automatism and build a skill – that’s what partial practice is for. By and large, these are exercises that can be done daily. At the same time, the author of the method himself emphasizes that practice is necessary only if the basic tasks do not allow for the development of the required level of automatism.

However, as with other techniques within PBL, designing a 4C/ID course will require considerable effort and time. Marienburg breaks it down into ten steps, taking the Pebble in the Pond model as his starting point. These, in turn, are grouped into components:

The first component is.

  1. Developing Learning Objectives. The first step involves collecting all the necessary information to identify authentic learning tasks, goals, conditions, and solutions.
  2. definition of assessment criteria. At this stage, it is necessary to build a hierarchy of skills required to solve the authentic task. A standard should be developed for each skill, and evaluation criteria should be defined according to it.
  3. Arranging the sequence of tasks. When training tasks have been identified and correlated with the hierarchy of skills, the course program may be designed. For this purpose, it is necessary to distribute the tasks according to their complexity level and line them up in a needed sequence. The simplest variant – from simple tasks with maximal support of the student to complex tasks, which imply his maximal autonomy.

The second component.

  1. Designing accompanying information. This step requires the preparation of basic theoretical materials that students will need. This step continues the two optional steps (5 and 6), which are necessary if there is insufficient information to design.
  2. Cognitive Strategy Analysis. Cognitive strategies are some sort of algorithm for doing a particular task. If we take the task “To write an analytical article,” the algorithm of actions will be as follows: the study of a subject and selection of sources, analysis, drawing up an article plan, writing the text, coordination, edits, and so on.
  3. Analysis of mental models. Mental models are a general theory necessary to master this or that topic. It includes, for example, concepts, definitions, and principles of work. In the example of an analytical article, the mental models will be the concept and structure of such an article and its design principles.

The third component.

  1. Preparation of timely information. This stage implies the selection of additional materials (memos, checklists, instructions). For this purpose, it is necessary to define in advance when students may need such support.
  2. Analysis of cognitive rules. Cognitive rules are algorithms that, unlike cognitive strategies, allow for repetitive, routine tasks. It is important to determine what rules will be needed to perform certain actions at this stage. For example, when choosing a genre for an article in a copywriting course, the student will be helped by the “Choosing a Genre Depending on the Topic” memo.
  3. Prior knowledge analysis. Prior knowledge is the information needed to apply a cognitive rule. It requires articulating what the student needs to know to correctly select an instruction or pick a solution to a problem. For example, a genre selection memo would be useful for those who already know how genre depends on the topic or audience of the article.

Component four.

  1. Partial Practice Design. The author of the model considers this step optional – the automation of skills is always necessary. However, if the partial practice is still needed, Merienbur suggests using step 8. 



Jana Rooheart is an able professional who can systematize WowEssays’ academic expertise. She is an expert in writing academic papers and provides sound writing advice.