Fitting Problem-Based Learning in the Traditional School System

ISTE Standard for Students, the Innovative Designer, contains that “students use a variety of technologies within a design process to identify and solve problems by creating new, useful or imaginative solutions.” The videos from ISTE playlist regarding standard 4 show examples of problem-based learning where students use a variety of technologies within a design process to identify and solve problems by creating new, useful or imaginative solutions. The videos depict k-12 students using the scientific process, engaging in hands-on experimentation, collaborating in designing and building prototypes, and having discussions in order to solve problems. The energy, enthusiasm and engagement of the students is clear evidence of why Problem-Based Learning has gained more popularity in the last few years. While I have seen this approach excel in my after-school Robotics Club, I have not been able to attain the same results in my World Language/Spanish class. From pure observation, I can see that a major difference is the focus of the learning targets and objectives of the lesson. Students choose to participate in Robotics Club. This setting is flexible and relaxed, student led, not graded, and it does not focus on content knowledge. In contrast, Spanish is a required course that is graded for high-school credit, and the curriculum is guided by concrete standards of knowledge that students need to acquire within a specific time. Considering the broad range of classes that middle school and high school offer, I would like to learn what the effectiveness of problem-based learning is in improving students’ achievement, and how this has been demonstrated by research amongst 6th through 12th grade students.

What is the effectiveness of Problem-Based Learning in improving students’ achievement, and how has this been demonstrated by research in grades 6 – 12?

Barrows & Tamblyn explain that Problem-Based Learning is an approach that “has two educational objectives: the acquisition of an integrated body of knowledge related to the problem, and the development or application of problem-solving skills” (p. 12). The term as used by Barrows & Tamblyn defines Problem-Based Learning as student-centered learning, where students, working in small groups, direct their own learning as they try to solve a problem. The role of the teacher is to facilitate and guide students through the discovery process, and to provide constructive feedback. While this approach was initially intended for university medical students, it has gained popularity and has been adopted by other disciplines and grades.

The following table shows the cycle of Problem-Based Learning, as defined by Barrows & Tamblyn.

Hmelo-Silver, C. (2004) Educational Psychology Review 16(3) 237

In Problem-based Learning: Have the Expectations Been Met?, Berkson (1993) reviews the research concerning the effectiveness of Problem-Based Learning. Berkson compares results from traditional and PBL medical curricula from two universities, and concludes that 1) while PBL students hypothesise more often, they did not arrive to the correct answer, so there is no evidence that PBL teaches solving problems better, 2) the results are inconclusive as to the extent that PBL is more or less powerful in imparting content knowledge, and explain that learning depended more on student’s approach to learning. Some students engaged in rote memorization while others seeked deeper comprehension. 3) it is possible that PBL promotes self-directed learning, however because no pre-tests were conducted this research was rendered inconclusive. 4) The quality of feedback had a positive impact in student learning, yet feedback is not unique to PBL. While this review puts the superiority of PBL in question, there is no evidence that it is inferior either. Berkson explains that PBL did offer a solution to deficiencies existing in the traditional model. Its novelty and experiential qualities may be more engaging to students too. 

I am hesitant to consider these results as validation of Problem-Based Learning in 6th – 12th grade because the students in this research were university students. There are too many factors that place university students and k-12 students in completely different categories. I do not believe that a strategy that has proven to be effective, or not, with university students would render similar results from students that comprise a much more diverse group in terms of age, cognitive development, learning needs, and other special circumstances unique to our middle and high school students. Nevertheless, it is helpful because it includes a thorough assessment of specific strategies within PBL that overlap with strategies used in k-12 education, which can be useful. 

When a new teaching approach renders success or hope to improve present teaching strategies that have proven to fail, educators become enthusiastic and can fail to see that one success in one setting may not always produce similar results in a different setting. There are too many variables unique to each class. Several articles warn that the benefits of PBL rely on proper expert implementation of the guidelines unique to the approach, and specific variables unique to a given setting (Nadarajah, 2018Hung, W. 2011 & Hmelo-Silver, C. 2006)

There is extensive research that supports the academic value of Problem-Based Learning in higher education. However, research providing evidence of its effectiveness in improving students’ achievements in grades 6 -12 is limited. In the article, Theory to reality: a few issues in implementing Problem-Based Learning, Hung explains, “various models of PBL have been developed and implemented to afford the specific instructional needs of the institution or learner population.” Because there are differences in the implementation, and variances in the setting and a wide range of students’ needs to consider, research results cannot be generalized.

Although more research evidence is needed to answer this question, I believe that teachers can successfully improve students’ achievement using elements of Problem-Based Learning that have already proven to be successful.  

Using Problem-Based Learning as Authentic Assessment

Until just a few days ago, I was categorizing Problem-Based Learning as a teaching approach that guided the teaching strategies and activities which are intended to improve content knowledge from class specific content standards. However, in the article Establishing Twenty-First-Century Information Fluency, O’Connor & Sharkey list Problem-Based Learning as an example of Authentic Assessment. Instead of redesigning an entire lesson, teachers can replace, enhance or transform their traditional assessments.

O’Connor & Sharkey recommend to use more than one assessment type in order to better evaluate “what and how” students are learning, and explains that good assessments:

·        Clearly identify in what ways the assessment matches the content and competencies established by the learning outcomes

·        Identify alternate solutions that could influence how students demonstrate the behavior or complete the assessment, which might include taking into consideration student motivation, relevance to what is being learned, or equal access to specific tools, and

·        Establish what the assessment is supposed to do and what the data are expected to indicate.

The following table illustrates four main kinds of assessment, as described by O’Connor & Sharkey. Note that problem-based learning can be used as Authentic Assessment.

Problem-Based Learning and Rubrics

One of the prevalent recommendations as an alternative to grades is the use of rubrics. Recommendations amongst researchers support the use of rubrics for learning, which can be used for grading as well. For example, Buck Institute for Educators’ website facilitates many rubrics free for download and use. This site also includes a resource file on How to Use PBLWorks’ Rubrics for Success Skills in PBL that includes suggestions on what their rubrics assess, not assess, how they align with Common Core State Standards, how to use them, and how to assign scores or grades. However, no clear guidance on grading is given. Because these rubrics do not include a numerical scale, PBLWorks suggests teachers decide how to assign grades depending on the teacher’s/learning goals. Some criteria included in PBLWorks rubric on Creativity and Innovation read “uses ingenuity and imagination, going outside conventional boundaries when shaping ideas into a product” and “includes elements in presentation that are especially fun, lively, engaging, or powerful to the particular audience.” How can one grade ingenuity, imagination, fun, and lively objectively? Should those elements even be graded? I would caution teachers when grading elements such as “imaginative, creative, lively, and fun.” I do believe that these elements can be included in a rubric for learning, but not in a rubric for grading. O’Connor warns that poorly used or inappropriate assessments can have a negative influence on learning.

Grading Problem-Based Learning

Because Problem-Based Learning focuses learning on process-oriented outcomes, how can teachers assign grades to such behaviors like collaboration, thinking, and problem solving? The fact is that grades are part of our current education system, and teachers have to regularly turn in grades. In the article, The Elephant in the Room: Grading in Project Based Learning Larmer addresses the questions that many teachers are asking in regards to grading Project-Based Learning. She recommends making the following adjustments:

·         Do not give one grade for the entire project, instead grade products or summative assessments.

·         Use rubrics and have them practice using it on exemplars and for formative self-assessments at checkpoints during the project.

·         Fewer homework assignments and fewer graded assignments.

·         Use checkpoints with deliverables that have no grades or points, but only feedback to inform students when they are ready to move on to the next phase of their project.

·         Give far greater weight to individual work, not group work.

·         It’s OK to use traditional measures like quizzes and tests.

·         Consider NOT grading the final product or presentation. The process is as (or more) important than the final product in PBL.

 Evaluate pros and cons of Problem-Based LearningIt is important that teachers using Problem-Based Learning be as prepared as possible. While there is little professional research on this approach as it pertains to 6-12 grades, the Internet resources are extensive. Marcus Guido, from Prodigy, a company that specializes in educational resources explains 5 advantages and disadvantages of PBL [+ activity design steps] Guido provides clear guidance for those seeking to incorporate PBL in their classrooms. The following table summarizes Guido’s suggestions.

A benefit of this resource is that it is intended for k-12 educators. It provides real examples of the drawbacks and benefits of PBL as well as recommendations on how to resolve possible problems implementing PBL.

Collaborate to learn

More than evidence from research and books, I have learned and improved my teaching strategies by collaborating with experienced fellow teachers. I highly suggest reaching out to other teachers that have already implemented or mastered the art of Problem-Based Learning. Even if some colleagues are not experienced, there is a mutual gain when teachers collaborate. The evidence on the benefits of collaboration is well established. Just like our students benefit by engaging in the collaborative process unique to Problem-Based Learning, so do educators, and there is substantial evidence to support this. Professor John Hattie conducted research that ranked 252 influences from six areas, student, home, school, curricula, teacher, and teaching and learning approaches that related to student achievement. I was surprised to learn how low a teaching approach ranked compared to teacher expertise, efficacy and collaboration.The following tables were taken from Hattie’s TEDx video from YouTube.

Problem-Based Learning ranked 168 & .15 in the effect-size

Teacher collaboration ranked 1st & .93 effct-size.

According to Hattie, students benefit when they practice and receive plenty of feedback. Students need to know what success looks like – feel success – experience success. His suggestion is to increase collaboration. He asserts “new teachers need more support from experienced teachers but experienced teachers also learn from new teachers.” Collaboration does not have to be limited to a content area. Teachers from multiple disciplines can collaborate to create a learning community or lesson where students can experience learning, Problem-Based Learning or other, as they incorporate a wider range of knowledge. 


In conclusion, although the evidence that Problem-Based Learning directly improves student achievement of students in grades 6th -12th has not thoroughly been demonstrated by research, it is undoubtedly a viable approach that should be considered and continue being investigated. Problem-Based Learning is one of many paths to improving student achievement, and helping students use a variety of technologies within a design process to identify and solve problems by creating new, useful or imaginative solutions. As Bates explains, “there is no one best way to teach that will fit all circumstances… Good teachers usually have an arsenal of tools, methods and approaches that they can draw on, depending on the circumstances” (chapter 2). And, considering Hattie’s research, the best resource for a teacher is another teacher, and the best activity is engaging in collegial collaboration.

Robert John Meehan, Photo by Never Cease To Learn on flickr.
Retrieved February 21, 2021


Barrows, H, & Tamblyn, R. (1980). Problem-Based Learning: An Approach to Medical Education. Springer Publishing Company, Inc.

Bates, A. W. (n.d.). The nature of knowledge and the implications for teaching. In Teaching in a digital age (2). Retrieved from

Berkson, L. (1993) Problem-based Learning: Have the Expectations Been Met? Invited Review. Academic Medicine, 68(10) S79-S86

Geoff. (April 2, 2019) Problem Based Learning and supporting English Language Learners Emergent Math.

Guido, M. (December 14, 2016) 5 advantages and disadvantages of PBL + activity design steps. Prodigy.

Hattie, J. (2017) Hattie Ranking: 252 Influences and effect sizes related to student achievement. VisibleLearning

Hmelo-Silver, C. (2004) Educational Psychology Review 16(3) 237

Hung, W. (2011) Theory to reality: a few issues in implementing problem-based learning. Educational Technology Research and Development 59, 529-552

Kuo, F.-R., Chen, N.-S., & Hwang, G.-J. (2014). A creative thinking approach to enhancing the web-based problem solving performance of university students. Computers & Education, 72(c), 220–230.

Larmer, J. (April 26, 2019). The elephant in the room: Grading in Project Based Learning. PBL Works

Nadarajah, V. (April 2018) Problem Based Learning: A time to reflect and remediate. South-East Asian Journal of Medical Education 10(2).

O’Connor, L. & Sharkey, J. (2013). Establishing Twenty-First-Century Information Fluency. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 53(1) 33-39. Accessed on 21 February, 2021, from doi:

 Why are so many of our teachers and schools so successful? John Hattie at TEDxNorrkoping 

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