Designing Problems for Problem-based Learning

As the name implies, problems are absolutely essential for problem-based learning (PBL). Problems initiate students’ learning in PBL. In other words, if there are no problems, there will be no problem-based learning.

Although there are plenty of real-life problems around us, identifying the suitable problem to guide and direct students in their learning can be challenging. Often, course developers who are new to PBL find it challenging to go about designing problems.

How do you design a problem for PBL? Do you try and find an interesting article/case study that is relevant to your learning objectives and pose relevant questions? Or do you identify the learning objectives and pose questions on it? Is there a systematic way of designing problems?

This article aims to provide some guidelines on how to go about designing problems for PBL based on our current understanding of problem characteristics.

Recent studies suggest that problems effectiveness could be defined by 11 characteristics. These 11 characteristics are classified into two categories: feature characteristics and function characteristics. Feature characteristics are design elements of the problem. Function characteristics are the desired outcomes of the problem.

In designing problems, the characteristics to be manipulated are the feature characteristics; namely,

  • problem clarity,
  • problem format,
  • problem difficulty level,
  • problem familiarity and
  • problem relevance.

Other than the feature characteristics, it is important to consider the function characteristics in designing problems. The function characteristics are the extent to which the problem:

  • leads to the intended learning issues,
  • promotes self-directed learning,
  • stimulates critical reasoning,
  • stimulates elaboration,
  • promotes teamwork, and
  • triggers interest.

Ok, so we know what constitutes an effective problem. But how do we incorporate these characteristics into our problem design?

Making it relevant and realistic
In designing problems for problem-based learning, one could start off with analyzing student characteristics and students’ learning needs which will shed light on students’ prior knowledge, and which content/context would be familiar to students (this is likely to provide information on problem familiarity, difficulty and relevance), their learning styles (which will provide information for problem format) and comprehension capabilities (which will provide information on problem clarity). Such information needs to be incorporated into the presentation of the problem. This layer of the problem design could be likened to the user-interface of the problem.

Underlying the user-interface is the content. In selecting the content, problem designers would need to identify the learning issues that need to be focused on and tailor it to students’ prior knowledge and learning needs. Hence it becomes essential to first analyze student characteristics and learning needs to develop problems. This content then needs to be framed in a relevant and realistic context that students can relate to and apply in other courses or in other areas of their life. Contextualizing the problem is similar to coming up with a story line.

In addition to the user-interface and the story (content/context), one needs to also focus on what is expected from the students as a result of working on the problem. That is, one needs to keep in mind the message intended by the “story.” If the problem is meant to stimulate critical reasoning, there needs to be activities that are weaved into the problem design which require students to reason critically.

Overall, in designing problems for problem-based learning, function characteristics/learning outcomes (not just content but also what behavioral skills, such as self-directed learning, critical thinking) need to be considered and the issues should be framed in the appropriate context and presented using the optimal feature characteristics/user interface. Essentially, the steps in designing problems are similar to writing a story. Thinking of the message (outcome) as well as story line (content and context) and then the presentation (user interface) would be a logical way to designing problems.


Sockalingam, N., Rotgans, J., & Schmidt, H. G. (2010).Student and Tutor Perceptions on Effective Problems. Higher Education (in press). DOI: 10.1007/s10734-010-9361-3.

Nachamma Sockalingam PhD, Lecturer, Teaching and Learning Centre. SIM University, Singapore.