The 14 Steps to Problem-Based Learning


Mark R. Ryan, William J. Rucker Professor of Wildlife Conservation, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Sciences, University of Missouri, 302 Natural Resources Building, Columbia, MO 65211; Phone: 573-882-9425, E-mail:


Joshua J. Millspaugh, Assistant Professor of Wildlife Conservation, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Sciences, University of Missouri, 302 Natural Resources Building, Columbia, MO 65211; Phone: 573-882-9423, E-mail:

Our workshop modeled the use of 14 steps in the application of Problem-Based Learning (PBL) to undergraduate education. The process is intended to enhance higher-order thinking skills and promote content retention. After a brief introduction to the process and benefits of PBL, we guided attendees through a problem case. Our Urban Deer Management case allowed participants to experience PBL firsthand. Several handouts used in our classes were given as examples. In delivering the case, we demonstrated how a variety of active learning strategies (e.g., writing-to-learn, collaborative learning, peer-teaching, active lectures, discussion, use of internet resources) can be used within the PBL teaching framework. In particular, we demonstrated how we apply PBL in our classes and how we use a diversity of short and extended writing assignments intended for diverse audiences (e.g., general public, special interest groups, wildlife professionals,), to promote critical thinking. In resolving the case, attendees were actively engaged in problem identification, review (and peer-teaching) of learning objectives, analysis and evaluation of alternative responses, and selection and justification of a deer management plan.

Below, we outline the 14 steps to PBL discussed in our workshop.

1. Explain to students why problem-based learning is used:

       Creates meaningful context

       Enhances long-term retention of principles, concepts, facts

       Builds critical thinking skills (problem solving, analysis, synthesis, evaluation)

       Creates opportunity to apply knowledge in authentic scenarios

       Increases motivation (students see application of material to authentic situations)

       Improves transfer of knowledge to other contexts including real world situations


2. Establish 4-person teams and assign team member roles

       Random assignment or stratified based on student expertise, gender, etc.

       Possible Roles: discussion leader; recorder; assignment coordinator; devil's advocate


3. Present the case to students prior to presenting lectures, assigning readings, etc.


4. Students read the case and:

        Identify major problem(s) and stakeholders

        Discuss "what do we need to know" to solve the problem

        Discuss what they already know (or think they know)

        Identify concepts, principles, facts that may be used in resolving the case

        List terms (or jargon) presented in the case to be learned

        Brainstorm possible resolutions (consider stakeholder perspectives)

        Generate list of learning objectives


5. Respond to student requests for more background information (mostly pre-prepared)


6. Provide list of instructor's formal learning objectives (supplemented by student list)

        The learning objectives form the basis for subsequent lectures, readings, discussions, etc.

        The learning objectives provide the underlying material needed to address the problem case


7. Student teams assign learning objectives to members for research and preparation of written summaries


8. Lectures, discussions, readings, etc. provide coverage of information related to

learning objectives, case resolutions, and justifications

       Case provides context for interpreting and understanding material, spurs questions,

provides background for discussions


9. Students report within teams on learning objective research

        Share written summaries via peer-teaching within groups

        Instructors review reports and select "good" summaries to share with all teams


10. Teams discuss application of learning objectives, lectures, etc. to case

        Refocus students on case; renew discussion of problem, solutions, and justifications

        Collect (and possibly analyze) additional data related to the case

        Students collaborate to develop case response (may not be consensus)


11. Exchange of ideas among teams ("jigsaw-styled" cross-team interactions)

        Final team discussions on alternative resolutions and justifications


12. Students individually write case resolutions (Formats vary: action plans, popular articles, etc.)

        Oral presentations or debates can replace written responses

        Individuals decide on preferred resolution and justify their decision


13. Debrief the case with class

        Students want to discuss relative merits of alternate solutions, justifications, etc.

        Students interested in instructor's ideas, opinions, etc.

        If the case was a real-world situation, students want to know what happened, current situation, etc.


14. Facilitate discussion to "generalize" the learning from the case experience