Educational Technology Research and Development

, Volume 59, Issue 4, pp 529–552

Theory to reality: a few issues in implementing problem-based learning

Development Article


The success of an intervention depends not only upon its theoretical soundness, but also on proper implementation that reflects the guidelines derived from its theoretical conception. Debates surrounding the effectiveness of problem-based learning (PBL) have focused on its theoretical conception and students’ learning outcomes, but implementation is seemingly absent from the picture. This paper attempts to describe what research evidence is needed to fill in this missing information and provide a clearer picture of PBL. The author examines current PBL implementation practices and identifies potentially confounding variables that may play a role in inconsistent or conflicting research results in PBL. For example, various models of PBL have been developed and implemented to afford the specific instructional needs of the institution or learner population. These PBL models are in fact quite different in terms of the nature of problem solving and the degrees of self-directed learning, which theoretically, should result in different types of learning outcomes. Without distinguishing the models used, the results of comparative PBL research could have been confounded. Furthermore, human factors are another set of confounding variables that could influence the students’ learning processes and consequently affect PBL implementations and research results. To remedy these problems and reach PBL’s full potential, as well as obtain a more accurate picture of PBL as an instructional method and its effects on students’ learning, some fundamental changes are needed.


Problem-based learning Implementation Problem solving Self-directed learning Student learning 

Copyright information

© Association for Educational Communications and Technology 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Instructional Design & Technology, Department of Teaching & LearningUniversity of North DakotaGrand ForksUSA

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