Most educators would argue that the main goal of education is to develop students who are effective problem solvers.

PBL involves giving students a well structured problem to work through (usually as a team guided by a tutor). Being more student centred rather than teacher (or institution centred), learning is more effective.

PBL was defined as
“A learning method based on using problems as a starting point for acquisition and integration of new knowledge”

*Relies on Problems (Well defined Cases) to drive curriculum
*PBL relies on real life problems, where students act as professionals.
*PBL problems are not precise –they are not intended to generate neat answers. In their struggle to find the answer, the students will gain essential problem solving and critical thinking skills.
*There are no single correct or incorrect solutions (Problems must be designed so that different appropriate answers might apply) –there is never meant to be just one solution.
*Teaching staff are facilitators or coaches, and must resist providing solutions (Students solve the problems)
*Students are provided with guidance but not answers –they should be given guidance in techniques that might be used for problem solving.
*Assessment should be based upon performance not upon giving correct answers.


There is a strong trend toward the use of PBL by many successful and progressive universities across the world; and graduates from this form of education consistently achieve better and progress faster in their careers than graduates from comparable traditional classroom based education.

*Research has shown that graduates of PBL based courses are far more successful in career advancement over 5 to 10 years following graduation. (Ref: comments by P. Jolliffe, University of British Columbia, in paper at ISHH Hort Education Symposium, Perth 2004)

*Research indicates critical thinking and problem solving skills are not typically addressed in a classroom
(Ref: SCORE Internet Classrooms – )

*Entire medical degrees have been taught this way in the USA, and students from this and traditional systems given the same exams. Research has shown similar success rates in exams, but 10 yrs later, the PBL graduates have more successful careers. (Ref: comments by P. Jolliffe, University of British Columbia, in paper at ISHH Hort Education Symposium, Perth 2004)

*It is widely considered that 50% of what is taught to students will be out of date or of no use by the time students finish a course; and there is no way of predicting which 50% that will be. As such it is more valuable to develop habits and skills for researching information and solving problems; rather than just acquiring factual information

*It prepares students more for “real life” situations

*It initiates the development of networks and networking skills.



There are some problems identified with PBL, such as –

PBL requires a cultural change
Students and teaching staff who are used to traditional education models will often show resistance and may complain.
Teachers who are used to a teacher centred environment (even in distance education) may find it difficult to change to a student centred environment
Students who are used to being “spoon fed” and assessed on the basis of “information retained” may complain when this situation does not apply.

In a classroom situation, the benefit of PBL has been shown to diminish when used as part of a predominantly traditional classroom delivery (lectures & lab classes). It appears PBL only achieves it’s full potential when the entire course is student centred (not teacher centred), and not heavily focussed upon learning and regurgitating factual information.

Response to Problems:
-We should expect students who have rigid and traditional expectations from education to have difficulty accepting and understanding the value of PBL; and to even feel they are not receiving services they have paid for. It should be the aim of ALL writers to foresee and allay such attitudes wherever possible.
-The ACS style seems to largely fit well with PBL; provided we maintain a clear focus, keeping courses as student centred as possible, avoiding excessive emphasis on specific factual information, maintaining a facilitator role (rather than instructor role) in student services, and maintaining a seamless approach to assessment.


However, there are many benefits for PBL.

*Encourage academic proficiency
*Meet traditional learning outcomes or course aims
*Goes beyond simply knowing; forcing the student to think about what they know.
*Develops habits in the way the mind is used (eg. Encourages an attitude of life long learning, social responsibility, career ambition)
*Integrates different disciplines and sub disciplines (encourages a broader multi disciplinary and lateral thinking approach to problems)
*Builds relationship skills (In that it requires interaction with others).
*Assessment is naturally based on criteria more closely related to real world situations
*Is more inclusive (motivates les motivated students; the same projects can be worked on by students with varying skill levels).
*Teachers using PBL methods will report that students have more energy and enthusiasm.

There are commonly three main stages in working through a PBL project:

1. Define The Problem
Students need to first grasp the nature and scope of a problem. At this stage they will develop a hypothesis for the question. A hypothesis is a explanation for observed data/information that still has to be tested. For example, in the case study example below, a student might be given a list of symptoms that a person is suffering from and told that they think they might be suffering from schizophrenia. The student’s hypothesis might be that the person is suffering from schizophrenia.

2. Deal with Relevant Information
Students need to access, evaluate and select what is most relevant, then utilise what is selected.
Access – Students can access information via internet searches, online libraries or traditional text books.
Evaluate – the student must consider the following about the information that they have found –
How up to date?
Where has the information come from?
Utilize – The student will then utilize the information they have gained and use it to answer the question.
At this stage, the student might change their hypothesis. Using the previous example, they might find that the symptoms do indicate that the person might have schizophrenia.

3. Develop a Solution
Students need to construct and present a solution. This will require decision making, followed by developing detail within the decision and then communicating the solution (eg. Perhaps putting together a paper, report, multi media presentation).


The students and tutor involved will use clear and established documentation as a reference point, to control the nature and scope of the project and ensure predetermined learning outcomes are attained.

There are many different and valid ways of structuring a PBL project. The following is one such way:

Components of the Documentation:

1. Aims or Learning Outcomes
This may or may not be given to the student; but well defined aims or outcomes should be established which a Problem aims to achieve. (ie. A list of things which the student will be able to do upon completion of the case at hand)

2. Problem Definition
A real world scenario needs to be presented to the student(s). This may be done in any number of ways. One way would be by constructing a Problem Statement, which contains the following…
…It casts the student in a particular role
…It contains a problem
….It gives a task
(The problem statement may be as little as half a page of writing, but could be much more. It may or may not involve illustrations or photographs as well).

3. Team Structure (Who is involved in the project, and what roles will each team member serve), and Mode of Interaction (How team members will communicate with each other, determine delineation of tasks, etc).

4. Discussion Questions (Questions to be dealt with and tasks to be undertaken by the group in the course of pursuing a solution)

5. Resources (eg. References, web links or anything else relevant to the case)

6. Guidelines - may be given for both a/ Dealing with Information; and for b/ Solution Development
Qualify and quantify the work expected from a student….so they do not do either too much, or too little on a project.
a. Dealing with Information
Information might be accessed from print or electronic media, from people (interviewing, emailing, phoning etc)
Students must decide what is current, what is out of date, what is relevant, etc. They must manage their effort according to time and resources available.
There may be an indication of how research or other responsibilities are to be split/delegated amongst a team.
Theories need to be constructed and tested against the information, and where it becomes obvious that there are gaps in information; those gaps must be filled.
b. Solution Development
Options must be considered and best options selected. Details of solution implementation need to be developed, and refined; then a presentation prepared (The presentation could be extensive, or perhaps as short as a half page report).

PBL projects may be short or long.
They may involve no more than a couple of hours work in total; or they may require a full time effort for perhaps two or three weeks.
Experience has shown that PBL projects should generally not extend beyond around 3 weeks.

PBL has been delivered effectively through distance education.
There are various ways this might be done at ACS.

As part of the development of any PBL project for Distance Education, the project writer must clearly define the following parameters:
a/ Who will be working together
b/ How they will interact.

Who Will Work Together
PBL projects should normally be undertaken as by a “team” of two or more people.
The team structure should normally be defined.
Possible Team Structures might include:
-Student (in the hypothetical role of a consultant) and Tutor (in the hypothetical role of a project supervisor for a consulting firm).
-Student (as a hypothetical team leader); One, two or more people who are not students, but have agreed to work with the student on the project (They need not be experts, but they might be. They could be friends, colleagues, relatives or members of an organisation that has an interest in the project)
-Two or more ACS students who have met through the ACS student room and agreed to undertake a project together.
-Student (in the hypothetical role of a businessman), Providers of services or goods from Industry (who service businessmen such as this), Tutor (in the role of a consultant to that type of businessman).
-Two or more students who meet together either in person, or over the internet; each filling a designated role in a hypothetical team.

How Will they Interact
The way in which the interaction occurs between team members is less obvious with Distance Education (compared with on campus delivery). The mode(s) of interaction should be defined, qualified and quantified.
This might include:
-Via Chat facility in the student room
-Via forums in the student room
-Via email
-Over telephone
-Through face to face meetings
-Via fax or mail (postal system)
-A combination of the above

The interaction between team members needs to be quantified and qualified. This might be done in the following ways:
-Students may be required to communicate at specified intervals (eg. A message must be posted daily on a forum, for a period of 2 weeks. The message must be meaningful, and a response must be posted to any posted responses within 48 hrs. Failure to do this will risk failure in the project).
-Students working solely with a tutor may be required to submit 3 meaningful questions and a progress report every week during the project
NB: We may need to define what a “meaningful” question is. We may need to define the size and content of progress reports. The student may be entitled to commence a project any time they wish; but once commenced, it may need to be completed within a set time frame (eg. 3 weeks).
-The school may assign students to work together (Note: This will only work for courses with larger annual enrolments of perhaps 25 or more). In such cases, two, three or more students may be asked to work as a group, interacting over the internet through prescribed chat sessions or forums set up for use exclusively by that team. A tutor would coordinate each working group.
-Modules may be developed for delivery entirely by PBL; in which case tutors may work with small groups facilitating a series of several projects (perhaps 3 projects, designed to achieve a predetermined set of outcomes. The ACS Workshop curriculum or Research curriculum may well be developed for delivery this way.


This is a simplistic example to give you an idea of a brief PBL.

Claire is a twenty four year old. She has anorexia nervosa, but refuses to accept that there is anything wrong with her. She has been involuntarily admitted to a local psychiatric hospital by her parents and a psychiatrist. She is 5’ 5” tall and weighs 73 lbs. She has a history of drastic weight loss since the age of 13. She has not menstruated for two years and has several medical conditions.

*Claire has been admitted with anorexia nervosa. She refuses to admit that she has the condition. You need to prove to Claire that she is suffering from this condition by telling her the characteristics and symptoms of this condition.

*People with anorexia often suffer from additional medical problems. What are these?

Annie is admitted to the same ward with bulimia nervosa.

*What is the difference between bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa?

*What treatments might be given to Claire to help her to overcome her anorexia?

*There are many different theories of what causes anorexia nervosa. What are they?


(Note: A typical project document will be between 3 and 8 pages in length)


ACADEMIC SUPPORT OFFICER (ie. Member of teaching staff)

1. Project Aim

2. Learning Outcomes

3. Problem Definition

4. Team Structure & Mode of Interaction

5. Discussion Questions

6. Resources

7. Guidelines

8. Final Report


1. Develop a PBL Manual (no more than 10 pages), as a generic guide to students for undertaking PBL Projects.

2. Develop one initial PBL Project for each of the following disciplines, that could be used both in a course, but also as an example.
-Horticulture (Plant Health)
-Human Nutrition

-These need to be consistent in structure; and need approval by the principal and two tutors before being finalised.
-These need to be written to replace a specified component (eg. Set task) in a course that sells reasonably well; and upon final approval, may be also incorporated into that course (substituted for the work it is based upon).

3. A training video will be developed and produced to instruct staff in how to
develop PBL projects.

4. The video and other material will be incorporated into one of our Training Skills courses.

5. PBL will be progressively incorporated into a wide range of courses.

<<<<Notes for Students>>>>
Students need to be supplied with some guidelines or introduction at least prior to attempting their first PBL Project. The following may be utilised in part or full:

Education for Tomorrow


Traditionally, students learn by listening to lectures and reading. They are assessed on their ability to recall and communicate what they have learned.

Another way of learning is problem-based learning. Students are given problems to solve, and learn much more in the process.

Many successful and progressive universities around the world use problem based learning (PBL), and ACS courses have always incorporated a PBL approach.



Research shows that PBL gives the learner greater long-term benefits than traditional learning. Graduates of PBL courses advance faster and further in their careers.


Other benefits of PBL:
• Develops critical and creative thinking;
• Creates effective problem-solvers;
• Increases motivation;
• Encourages lateral thinking;
• Improves communication and networking skills;
• Is based on real-life situations.


The problems that you will solve in your course will relate to what you are learning.

They are problems that you might encounter when working that field, but they will be adapted to your level of study.

Sample problems:
• Plan pest and disease control for a tropical vegetable garden (horticulture);
• Design a library display on human respiration suitable for all ages (science);
• Create a 4 page lift-out section on a topic for a magazine (publishing or writing).


Every PBL project is carefully designed by experts to expose you to the information and skills that we want you to learn.

When assigned a project, you are given:
• A statement of the problem (eg. diseased animal; failing business; anorexia case study);
• Questions to consider when solving the problem;
• A framework for the time and effort you should spend on the project;
• Support from the school.



Students who are accustomed to traditional education might think that PBL is not what they need. However, research backs PBL in all areas of learning. After you have complete a PBL project, you will see why.



<<<<At some stage, we may develop a PBL Manual containing the following:>>>>

Carefully read the following guidelines before you begin your project.

Possible headings
• Stages of a PBL Project
• Scope and Duration of a Project
• Forming Your PBL Team: options, how to
• Locating Resources
• Communicating for Improved Problem-Solving

• Project Assessment