6-Step Problem-Based Learning!

6-Step Problem-Based Learning!


One of the greatest gifts a teacher can give a student is the opportunity to ask and respond to questions. Problem-solving is a 21st Century skill that students need to successfully navigate high school, college, and future careers. According to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, an important learning and innovation skill is for students to “identify and ask significant questions that clarify various points of view and lead to better solutions” (2011). The curiosity of young children should be encouraged and celebrated. We need to encourage our students to keep asking, “Why?!”

Problem-based learning (PBL) is “a teaching technique that educates by presenting students with a situation that leads to a problem for them to solve” (Delisle, 1997). Students are encouraged to ask questions, brainstorm responses, evaluate their options, and share what they have chosen with others. This multi-step problem-solving process is critical in today’s classrooms. Students need opportunities like this to work with other students to determine the best alternatives for various situations.

PBL began as a process used in medical schools. In the past 15 years, it has moved from medical schools into college and high school classrooms. Now, teachers in elementary schools are using the strategy more and more often to meet the needs of their diverse students. However, elementary schools and medical schools do not have a lot in common. So obviously, the framework needs to be adjusted to better meet the needs of young learners and their teachers.

The following six steps are a great way to teach using problem-based learning in elementary and middle school classrooms:

  1. Introduce the Problem: It is important to make sure that the students feel connected to the problem. Introduce the problem to get students excited about the learning.
  2. Brainstorm Possible Solutions: After learning about their task, students should have multiple opportunities to brainstorm solutions. All suggestions should be accepted and recorded.
  3. Learn the Necessary Content: For some problems, the students will determine what content they need to learn. On others, the teacher decides what to teach based on the problem and other necessary content objectives. The content discovered by students during the lessons will play an important role in their success with the unit problem.
  4. Revisit the Problem: While the students learn the content, the teacher has to keep revisiting the unit problem. If the unit problem is completely set aside, student might lose interest. Further, students will not be as likely to make that important connection between the content and the real world.
  5. Respond to the Problem: Communicating the results is important. Students need to be able to brainstorm possible responses, work together to evaluate their options, choose the best response, and communicate it effectively.
  6. Evaluate the Response: It is critical that students be given the opportunity to look back at the process and evaluate how they did. Students should evaluate their own work, the collaborative work done by their group, and the unit problem.

What to Watch Out For!

As you follow the steps above, keep the following important tips in mind!

Be Sure to Do This! Don’t Do This!
Let students drive the learning.“Teachers using PBL face the difficult task of guiding without leading and assisting without direction” (Delisle, 1997). Make key decisions for them.
Let students write the questions they want to answer about the problem.“Handing over responsibility to the learner happens gradually, not all at once” (Boss, 2010). Teach students how to write good questions. Do not expect that they already know this. Provide students with a list of questions.
Make students find their own answers. Give students answers.
Create an environment that encourages risk taking.“Risk taking can exist and flourish only when a teacher does not presume ownership of predetermined answers and is open to the flow of new ideas from the students” (Stix, 2004). Suggest solutions (or they will think you are right and will not think on their own).
Ask tiered or leveled questions to allow all students to succeed.“During class discussions, rather than beginning with a single question that is multilayered and complex, use a sequence of questions to build depth and complexity” (The Teaching Center, 2009). Ask only concrete, knowledge and comprehension questions.
Revisit the problem daily (whether for 5 minutes or 45 minutes). Forget the problem while teaching the content lessons.
Provided plenty of resources, including time. Cut the problem because you run out of time.


Boss, Suzie. 2010. Project-Based Learning: A Case for Not Giving Up. Edutopia. http://www.edutopia.org/blog/project-based-learning-not-giving-up-suzie-boss. Viewed April 2011.

Delisle, Robert. 1997. How to use problem-based learning in the classroom. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Framework for 21st century learning. Washington, D.C. http://www.p21.org/. Viewed May 2011.

Stix, Andi N. 2004. Social studies strategies for active learning. Huntington Beach, CA: Shell Education.

The Teaching Center. 2009. Asking questions to improve learning. Washington University in St. Louis. http://teachingcenter.wustl.edu/asking-questions-improve-learning. Viewed May 2011.


Author bio

Emily R. Smith, M.A.Ed.

Emily R. Smith, M.A.Ed., Editorial Director

Emily R. Smith, M.A.Ed., is an award-winning editorial director and former elementary school teacher. She has worked in the field of education as a teacher and editor for 20 years. Emily is currently an editorial director with Teacher Created Materials, Inc. As a former classroom teacher, she knows how hard it can be to reach and engage students in today’s schools. Her experience and insight are valuable tools as she strives to help teachers by creating thoughtful, original products and delivering them in flexible and innovative ways.