Problem-based learning in corporate settings

In problem-based learning (PBL), learners attempt to solve a fuzzy problem which has no clear-cut solution. The problem should reflect a real-world situation that the learner will face.

Learning theories implicated in PBL include:

  • constructivism
  • social learning
  • situated cognition

The benefits of PBL

Studies suggest that PBL:

  • increases learner engagement by enhancing feelings of autonomy (deVries, Schmidt, & deGraaff, 1989)
  • enhances metacognitive skills since learners become conscious of the strategies they use to define problems and implement solutions
  • enhances teamwork skills since learners share their strategies with fellow learners (Boud & Feletti, 1991)

A PBL learning experience develops learners who are better equipped to meet the messy problems they’re likely to experience in the workplace (Brine & Shannon,1994).

Implementing PBL in corporate settings

One model for PBL in corporate settings is illustrated below.

A model for PBL

Technology that learners can use includes:

  • Concept mapping tools to represent a problem and knowledge gaps
  • Brainstorming tools to identify potential solutions
  • Discussion forums to collaborate and flesh out solutions (however, small face-to-face group discussions may be more timely and more practical)

The role of the instructor in a PBL setting  is as a facilitator, pointing learners to data resources and assisting with role-playing scenarios to test proposed solutions. The instructor/facilitator should help learners identify facts, concepts, and principles they need to know and should provide information anchors to help learners progress.

Challenges for instructors

  • Instructors won’t be able to point learners to an existing right answer
  • Instructors will need to act as facilitators, mentors, and models for learners and to respond “on-the-fly” to problem scenarios
  • Instructors will face challenges in assessing learning—PBL does not lend itself to automated assessment

Challenges for learners

  • It takes time for learners to collect information on a problem and to devise an action plan for solving the problem
  • A real-world solution to a problem typically requires learners to know how knowledge is distributed across an organization, which may be particularly difficult for someone new to a company
  • Learners may have to go outside of their comfort zone to actively engage in the learning experience

In formal learning settings, the use of problem-solving activities often just scratches the surface of job-related problems. However, case-studies, scenarios, simulations, and more in-depth PBL opportunities can still help learners have more relevant learning experiences and make transfer of learning to the job more likely.

In informal learning settings, managers and/or mentors need to be actively involved in training, requiring time and resource commitments that may strain an organization. However, the benefits for relationship-building and long-term worker independence offer significant advantages. Assessment can be facilitated by providing rubrics or checklists to both managers and learners at the outset of a PBL project, providing learners with the opportunity to go over  a completed project with their manager using the rubric/checklist as a guideline to obtain feedback and suggestions for improvement. There’s no reason why the project can’t be something that the learner is actually working on as part of his or her job. There’s also no reason why rubric/checklist has to be applied rigidly. The important goal is for learners to become aware of their problem-solving  strategies and to obtain  guidance to evolve better learning strategies.

An example of a prototype  for an eLearning module which includes PBL elements  is provided  here. The goals of the program are described in this short module. Because  this prototype  was developed to describe an online learning experience,  it’s more structured than a PBL opportunity necessarily has to be or should be; however, the basic approach used in this module could readily be adapted to a blended learning setting or a face-to-face setting.


Boud, D., & Feletti, G. (1991). The challenge of problem based learning. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Brine, J. & Shannon, S. (1994). Consolidating professional skills and developing the confidence of graduating students. In S. E. Chen, R. M. Cowdry, A. Kingsland & M. J. Ostwald (Eds), Reflections on Problem Based Learning. Sydney, Australia: Wild & Wooley Pty Ltd.

DeVries, M., Schmidt, H., & deGraaff, E. (1989). Dutch comparisons: Cognitive and motivational effects of problem-based learning on medical students. In H. Schmidt (Ed.), New Directions for Medical Education, pp. 231-238.

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