17 Problem-Based Learning: Developing 21st Century Skills in Online Environments

Chris D Craig


Thriving in the modern world requires more than literacy and numeracy skills (Bourn, 2018; Care et al., 2016; Lai & Viering, 2012). Indeed, Care et al. (2016) found that critical twenty-first-century-skills include:

  • Creativity
  • Communication
  • Critical-thinking, and
  • Problem-solving

Initially developed for medical education (Servant-Miklos, 2019), Problem-Based Learning (PBL) provides an opportunity to develop the essential skills mentioned above. This chapter offers foundational insight for using PBL in online learning environments. I offer insights rooted in the original McMaster Philosophy and from its use in Ontario Tech University’s fully online education studies programs.

Problem-Based Learning (PBL)

PBL acts as a landmark in the transformation of modern education in which educators recognize that formal learning could be more than the rehearsal of facts (Servant-Miklos, 2019). Using an opportunity to revise the medical program at McMaster University, a group of innovators developed a unique program that is now a foundational process in learning across the globe. Building on ideas such as system-based courses, the McMaster Philosophy evolved through dynamic frameworks into what is commonly known as PBL (Servant-Miklos, 2019).

PBL focuses on learning and not the problem itself (Walsh, 2005). Instead, problems stimulate students’ creative and critical thinking abilities while communicating with their peers. In turn, students are encouraged to be self-aware and develop capabilities and characteristics that extend knowledge into practical and flexible applications (Neufeld & Barrows, 1974). According to Barrows and Tamblyn (1980), PBL is “the learning that results from the process of working toward the understanding or resolution of a problem” (p. 1).

PBL requires scaffolding and parallels learning how to ride a bicycle. Typically someone trying to ride on two wheels starts with some extra supports, which, over time, are removed so that the rider requires a greater sense and application of balance. In PBL, an educator first guides the process with support but increasingly provides the student with more responsibility to achieve learning outcomes, requiring more self-efficacy.

Collaborative Learning

While PBL can support individual learning situations (Pease & Kuhn, 2011), it is traditionally a collaborative experience. Working in a team or group is valuable beyond academic study, and further benefits of using collaborative learning include (Burke, 2011). Here are the four primary skills associated with PBL:

  • Creativity. Reflecting on independent insights from each group member can stimulate creative thinking, while the process of problem-solving is creative in and of itself. Also, exploring the problem may require applying knowledge in ways that differ from how it was initially learned.
  • Communication. Developing a cohesive response requires communication.  In PBL, communication is multi-faceted and different strategies will be apparent in different groups.
  • Critical-thinking. Collaborative learning helps students apply insights, requiring critical reflection (e.g., what is known and what isn’t, who will perform specific tasks, why an answer is relevant).
  • Problem-solving. Students must reflect on the problem and navigate diverse opinions towards an answer or solution.

General Guidelines

Implementing PBL into practice may involve an entire course or a single project or assignment. In both scenarios, the process supports a broad spectrum of skills ranging from technical to interpersonal. Student workflow is flexible and independent, requiring adaptability from students and educators (Hillman, 2003).


Educators may create a single problem or case study at the onset of a course or a series of issues throughout the course. When presenting a single problem, it should be focused enough to make sense in the context of the course but broad enough to afford diverse responses, requiring extensive reflection. Multiple problems throughout a course might be independent of each other, emphasizing different skill sets (e.g., developing learning outcomes, activities, and assessment). If a series of problems is scaffolded, you can include multiple interrelated questions at the onset, or students can develop “what’s next?” questions. For example, a team of students might find that a problem is too broad to learn in a set time, so they might choose to refine their initial question.

Conceptual Overview

The following guidelines act as a fluid framework for applying PBL in online learning environments.

  • What is the problem? There are many ways to present a problem, such as statements providing diverse insights into a situation or a case study that helps skill development through subject-related contexts (Belt, 2018).
  • Creating a group. Self-selected groups may be preferential for students, but it can reflect increased socialization versus focusing on the task at hand. Try randomizing the groups or personally assigning them for a fully-immersive PBL experience with increased learning potential (Burke, 2011). A benefit of many online conference tools is that you can randomize breakout sessions, which can help facilitate the process.
  • Limit the number of students. Larger groups can reduce learner opportunities to participate, while pairs may not support diverse ideation, so keeping groups between three and five is recommended (Burke, 2011).
  • Good Problems. The problem presented should be relevant to the field of study and adequately represent potential scenarios (Hillman, 2003).
    • Authentic. Reflecting on how a situation may have real-life implications can enhance student intrigue and perceptions of relevance (Fogarty, 1997). Similarly, it can help learners understand real-world scenarios for their field of study (Gibbs et al., 1994).
    • Ill-structured and ambiguous. Real-life problems don’t follow a particular set of rules, extending to your proposed issues (Fogarty, 1997).
    • Learning outcomes should be clearly defined. Students need to know/determine the end goal before they begin.
  • Distribute power. Distribute power equally among the educators and learners (Childs & van Oostveen, 2016). The process affords critical reflection, an integral part of teaching and that instructors and students need to learn and grow.
  • Establish ground rules (e.g., a learning contract) for the PBL, or follow ones outlined at the beginning of the course. Developing ground rules can even be created through a mini-PBL (see Activity 1 of this chapter).
  • Think long-term. PBL is a particularly effective form of education for long-term knowledge retention (Yew & Goh, 2016).
    • It could be painful. Building on our bicycle reference earlier: Taking away traditional learning supports (e.g., explicit guidelines) may lead to some road-rash. Students are used to performance measures and quantitative guidance (Stommel, 2018), so changing a traditional paradigm may not be a smooth process for everyone.
  • Learning is socially constructed. Lave and Wenger (1991) propose that learning occurs through social processes where knowledge builds on insights developed through a social and physical environment. Working in small groups can offer a similar experience.
  • Formative Process. PBL-based work is intended to support the formative development of students (Neufeld & Barrows, 1974) and may not easily lend itself to summative or final assessment rubrics or guidelines.

Key Roles

  • Educator refers to anyone responsible for guiding content to achieve learning outcomes. In this context, examples of educators include a clinician, professor, teacher, or teaching assistant. This role is commonly referred to as a tutor and requires adaptability and support for learner cohesion and task orientation. As such, an educator does not dominate discussions, give away answers, or ignore conflict.
  • Student or learner. In this chapter, I use the terms students and learners interchangeably. If I were to differentiate, a student might be considered an individual enrolled in formal education while learners include life-long, informal, and nonformal learning.
  • Group. A small collection of students or learners connected with the intent of collaboratively exploring a shared problem.

PBL Process

The following seven dynamic steps outline the PBL process (Neufeld & Barrows, 1974; Walsh, 2005):

  1. Identify a problem. The learning goal is problem exploration, not a diagnosis. Learners should be encouraged to start with the Five Ws of problem-solving.
  2. Explore pre-existing insights. Identifying a spectrum of information can support problem identification and critical thinking processes. In this step, clarifying information and determining meaning through personal and group reflection is crucial for deeper understanding.
  3. Generate a hypothesis. Building on previous insights, learners conceive of characteristics and mechanisms regarding the nature of the problem.
  4. Identify issues. Now that there are some knowns, learners should identify unknowns, such as gaps in personal knowledge or skills related to addressing the problem. Also, learners may note missing insights into the problem itself in this step.
  5. Self-study. Often, learners will retract to areas of existing comfort rather than exploring novel insights of the previously unknown. This step can include using personal time to reflect on emotional, physical, and social gaps that might inhibit awareness.
  6. Reflect & re-evaluate. Groups reconvene and consider insights about the problems and their abilities to seek a solution. In this step, the tutor may work as a mediator to help learners consolidate and develop potential actions.
  7. Culmination. In this step, the groups present a consolidation of their solution or responses. Educators will likely find self and peer feedback or assessment beneficial in summarizing the learning experience.

PBL and Digital Technology

Digital technology provides unique opportunities for students to build on the effectiveness of pen and paper PBL. Traditionally, a lecture hall would be loud and visibly busy, whereas breakout sessions provide students with personalized learning spaces to support individual learning and communication strategies. And, recognizing that synchronous activities such as breakouts aren’t always feasible for diverse student groups, cloud-based documents such as Google Docs provide excellent opportunities for asynchronous communication. The shareable documents also mean that there is no longer a need for designated note-takers, with each group member can explore the problem and reflect on the same page at the same time as their peers. Similarly, students may elect to use digital messaging platforms (e.g., text messages, Facebook, or TikTok) to communicate ideas or debate. Also, digital library hubs, Google Scholar, and web search engines increase student access to high-quality information that may otherwise be unavailable in traditional libraries or lecture halls.

The integration of digital tools also supports diverse delivery methods. One example is using video or multimedia-based case studies to represent problems, reflecting real-life or simulated events (van Oostveen et al., 2019). Educators can share video case studies that reflect problem scenarios. You can also have students develop a video-based case study to present to their peers, which I build on in the activities section. The process of video creation has become much more accessible and timely, with cameras being a standard accessory in cell phones. Also, recent advances can take video-based case studies to the next level, providing diverse fields such as physics and EFL opportunities to engage in immersive experiences through augmented and virtual reality (Chen et al., 2021; Fidan & Tuncel, 2019; Jivram et al., 2021).

Using Online Breakout Sessions

Breakout sessions are a crucial aspect of the collaborative PBL process. Online learning environments such as Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, or Zoom allow students to engage in small, face-to-face, peer learning groups. Below are three evidence-based guidelines for effective group sessions (Burgess et al., 2020; Thrall et al., 2016; Ulfa et al., 2021):

  1. Manage but don’t direct. Maintain your teaching presence by circulating breakout rooms, responding to direct questions, clarifying and stimulating discussion. Let your learners control and lead the discussion.
  2. Timely feedback. Your ability to respond and provide timely feedback can increase engagement and reduce the chance of students diverging off task.
  3. Self and peer-assessment support student self-efficacy (Liu et al., 2018; Mao & Peck, 2013) while also providing insights into while also providing insight into learning. Consider collecting and reflecting on student insights regularly so that they understand expectations and stay informed.

Potential Challenges

Four basic challenges that you might experience when implementing PBL in online environments include:

  1. Technical requirements. Whether fully online or hybrid, students engaged in online learning may have differing access (e.g., shared technology with family, time zones, or funds for additional resources).
  2. The educator (tutor) overreaches. Students need to take the lead in PBL scenarios, meaning that educators will need to be active participants rather than being the leader (Walsh, 2005).
  3. Less effective for short-term learning. While there are many advantages of PBL, short-term learning is not likely one. PBL develops creativity, communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving over an entire course.
  4. Differences in implementation. Reflecting on previous research, Yew and Goh (2016) found a variety of PBL strategies across different fields of study. I recommend considering the guidelines here and adapting them in a way that works best for your situation.

Tools to Get Started

  • Canva is a drag-and-drop style multimedia editing platform for making visually appealing presentations, videos, infographics and more with limited technology skills. There are restrictions with the free version and various plans to fit your needs.
  • LabXChange is a free platform that provides collaborative STEM labs for low-stakes (as in, things don’t go boom in real life) experimentation and problem-solving.
  • Social media platforms offer diverse content types (e.g., text-only or multimedia) and opportunities to reflect on current problems or share them.
  • Synchronous document platforms such as Google Workspace and Microsoft 365—which are often offered through the school board or institution—provide opportunities for real-time collaboration and feedback.
  • TedTalks and TedEd provide opportunities to recruit unique situations or case studies on diverse subject matter.
  • The Knowledge Compass is your one-stop-shop for developing questions.
  • Thinkrolls is a paid app for youth aged three to eight that supports the development of critical thinking skills.


Activity 1: Establishing a Rubric, an Introduction to PBL


As educators, we can immerse students into a PBL experience through a small-scale activity in the first and second classes by co-creating ground rules for the term. The ground rules act as a learning contract or rubric that will guide self and peer assessment for a fully online PBL curriculum. Students engage with a shared goal as an icebreaker at the onset of a course as an added benefit.


In the spirit of PBL, this activity will require you to fill in the details, guided by the question, What factors will you need to consider to make this work? (e.g., time, subject, or technology platform). The following steps act as a general guide:

Step 1

  1. Present the learning outcomes and outline how they relate to the field of study.
  2. Gather group insights about the learning outcomes.
  3. Outline a class schedule (Note: I like this idea because it involves modelling the expected attention to details) but expect to adapt it over the remainder of the class.
  4. Present the problem. In this case, you may use a series of questions such as: “Concerning the learning outcomes, what do you expect from yourselves? What do we expect from your peers? And, what do we expect from our teacher/educator/tutor/TA/EA?”
  5. Build self-efficacy early. Advise students that they will need to find the course outline in the course shell (learning management system) and record (e.g., write on paper or type) the questions for reflection in the next step.
  6. Provide technical details such as how to connect with you in the breakout sessions. The details should support student success but aren’t a part of the exercise.
  7. Divide the class into groups. Put students into groups of three to five by randomizing breakout rooms.
  8. Visit each room and ask questions.
  9. End the breakout session.
  10. Anticipate confusion as there is a strong chance students won’t know how to build a rubric.
  11. Generate a discussion about what information students think they need to answer the questions better. Alternatively, reflect on what they think they know. Using something like a Jamboard may be beneficial here.
  12. Start breakout rooms again with new randomized groups, so students work with new individuals.
  13. Regroup and collect each group’s ideas on the Jamboard.
  14. Provide sample rubrics and insights for developing them as homework.

Step 2

    1. Discuss students’ new insights about rubrics.
    2. Example. Provide the previous Jamboard.
    3. Start breakout sessions with randomized students.
    4. Revise previous insights. Students develop a rubric based on the last session and their new insights in this step.
    5. End breakouts.
    6. Pitch. Each group shares their rubric and outlines why they think it’s a good idea.
    7. Vote. Students vote on what they believe is a challenging but reasonable set of expectations for the term.
    8. Collect the responses and add them to the course outline or learning shell.

Next Steps

  • Have students use the rubric to guide their self-assessment of activity contributions.
  • Use the rubric at least once before the end of the course for self and peer assessment (e.g. mid-term assessment).

Possible Challenges

  • Some students may miss the first class and feel left out.
  • The aspects of the co-created rubric might not lead to challenging expectations.
  • This activity might go longer than anticipated if students do not engage.


Activity 2: Problem-Based Learning Objects (PBLOs)


Problem-Based Learning Objects (PBLOs) are shareable digital multimedia modules communicated through various platforms such as presentation software, websites, or spreadsheets (van Oostveen et al., 2018). Essentially, PBLOs consist of video case studies and supporting materials that present an ill-defined situation to stimulate thinking and discussion. Building on a proposed problem, learners gather, develop, and share information towards context-appropriate solutions. Educators may use the objects to present problem-based case studies in asynchronous or synchronous learning environments. For over a decade, the latter has been a foundational experience for BA students in Ontario Tech’s education program.

PBLOs build on the Fully Online Learning Communities (FOLC) framework, providing an opportunity for collaborative online learning. The framework fosters social and cognitive presence, collaboration, and co-creating a digital space (Blayone et al., 2017). Please note that while we share a streamlined process here, the development and implementation of PBLOs will benefit from a dynamic reflection between the phases and steps.


In this two-stage activity, groups of learners will learn to orient themselves towards independent study that focuses on authentic, cooperative, and multi-disciplinary work. The first stage of a PBLOs involves three development phases.

Stage 1: Research and Development

1.1 Investigation. Developing a topic and scenario is rooted in an authentic learning experience. The case should be relevant to the learners and challenge their existing assumptions, stimulating them to learn more independently.

1.2 Discourse. For educator-based PBLOs, the intent is to stimulate learner discourse. The resulting conversation can support critical reflection to guide potential changes. For learner-based PBLOs, the objects are developed through multiple group meetings (e.g., weekly if PBLOs are a full term in duration) to ensure inclusivity, challenge personal perceptions, and explore creative ideas on the subject.

1.3 Creation. Before Stage 2, reflect on the goal of the scenario and how to convey a situation that stimulates curiosity. The challenge in the creation phase is to remain open, sharing a problem that does not express personal bias.

Stage 2: Implementation

The second stage focuses on developing the four-part object. The scope of this process lends itself to development over a longer time, such as a semester, but it may be adapted for shorter periods as well.

2.1 Video case study. Here, the aim is to stimulate thought processes and encourage the viewers to imagine themselves in the situation depicted. Embed the video using closed captioning. The content includes

  • A title/topic;
  • 4-5 analysis questions to prompt and provide context for inquiry;
  • A video-based case study (1-2 minutes) with an authentic problem with room for viewer interpretation;
  • A transcript; and
  • A brief description of the video clip setting.

2.2 Contextual information. Our goal is to provide further insight and background information for the video case study on page 1. The content includes supporting documents and resources for the video and video references.

2.3 Theoretical lens. This page or section intends to provide information that promotes critical inquiry through alternative perspectives, essentially viewing the initial problem from a different lens. Content includes

  • ill-structured information promoting creative reflection about the problem (no more than 400 words); and
  • new references and resources to develop personalized insights.

2.4 Synthesis is the final page or section, providing an opportunity to share, discuss, and debate solutions and reflections. Here, learners will need to engage in the act and expression of creative and critical thinking. Content includes:

  • Repeat 2.1, but replace analysis questions with synthesis questions.
  • Learners are encouraged to use the questions to discuss insights and perspectives in group discussions.

Possible Challenges

  • Creating problems. Traditional learning outcomes consist of concise and structured information leading to defined answers. Initially, students may find it challenging to develop ill-structured situations to create more questions than answers.
  • Video creation. Students might not have created a video of this nature before, requiring skill-development time they may not have anticipated when planning the assignment. I recommended that you offer subtle hints about the challenge long before the deadline.


General Resources


Barrows, H. S. & Tamblyn, R. M. (1980). Problem-based learning: Rationale and definition. In, Problem-based learning: An approach to medical education. Springer.

Belt, S. (2015). Problem based learning (PBL)-A case study from environmental sciences. Planet, 4(1), 17-18. https://doi.org/10.11120/plan.2001.00040017

Blayone, T. J., van Oostveen, R., Barber, W., DiGiuseppe, M., & Childs, E. (2017). Democratizing digital learning: Theorizing the fully online learning community model. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 14, Article 13. https://doi.org/10.1186/s41239-017-0051-4

Bourn, D. (2018). Understanding global skills for 21st Century professions. Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-97655-6

Burgess, A., van Diggele, C., Roberts, C., & Mellis, C. (2020). Team-based learning: design, facilitation and participation. BMC Medical Education, 20(2), 1-7. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12909-020-02287-y

Burke, A. (2011). Group work: How to use groups effectively. Journal of Effective Teaching, 11(2), 87-95. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1092109.pdf

Care, E., Anderson, K., & Kim, H. (2016). Visualizing the breadth of skills movement across education systems. Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. https://www.brookings.edu/research/visualizing-the-breadth-of-skills-movement-across-education-systems/

Chen, C. H., Hung, H. T., & Yeh, H. C. (2021). Virtual reality in problem‐based learning contexts: Effects on the problem‐solving performance, vocabulary acquisition and motivation of English language learners. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 37(3), 851-860. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcal.12528

Childs, E., & vanOostveen, R. (2016). Moving beyond read, post, repeat in online courses: the integration of PBL methodologies into online learning courses and programs. In Canadian Society for the Study of Education Annual Conference.

Fidan, M., & Tuncel, M. (2019). Integrating augmented reality into problem based learning: The effects on learning achievement and attitude in physics education. Computers & Education, 142, Article 103635. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2019.103635

Fogarty, R. (1997). Problem-based learning and other curriculum models for the multiple intelligences classroom. Corwin.

Gibbs, G., Rust, C., Jenkins, A., & Jaques, D. (1994). Developing students’ transferable skills. The Oxford Centre for Staff Development, Oxford Brookes University.

Hillman, W. (2003). Learning how to learn: Problem based learning. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 28(2), 1-10. https://doi.org/10.14221/ajte.2003v28n2.1

Jivram, T., Kavia, S., Poulton, E., Hernandez, A. S., Woodham, L. A., & Poulton, T. (2021). The development of a virtual world problem-based learning tutorial and comparison with interactive text-based tutorials. Frontiers in Digital Health, 3, Article 611813. https://doi.org/10.3389/fdgth.2021.611813

Lai, E. R., & Viering, M. (2012). Assessing 21st Century skills: Integrating research findings. Pearson. http://images.pearsonassessments.com/images/tmrs/Assessing_21st_Century_Skills_NCME.pdf

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511815355

Liu, X., Li, L., & Zhang, Z. (2018). Small group discussion as a key component in online assessment training for enhanced student learning in web-based peer assessment. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 43(2), 207-222. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2017.1324018

Mao, J., & Peck, K. (2013). Assessment strategies, self-regulated learning skills, and perceptions of assessment in online learning. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 14(2), 75-95. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1144843

Neufeld, V. R., & Barrows, H. S. (1974). The “McMaster Philosophy”: An approach to medical education. Academic Medicine, 49(11), 1040-50.

Pease, M. A., & Kuhn, D. (2011). Experimental analysis of the effective components of problem‐based learning. Science Education, 95(1), 57-86. https://doi.org/10.1002/sce.20412

Servant-Miklos, V. F. (2019). Fifty years on: A retrospective on the world’s first problem-based learning programme at McMaster University Medical School. Health Professions Education, 5(1), 3-12. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hpe.2018.04.002

Stommel, J. (2018). How to ungrade. https://www.jessestommel.com/how-to-ungrade/

Ulfa, Y., Igarashi, Y., Takahata, K., Shishido, E., & Horiuchi, S. (2021). A comparison of team-based learning and lecture-based learning on clinical reasoning and classroom engagement: a cluster randomized controlled trial. BMC Medical Education, 21(1), 1-11. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12909-021-02881-8

Thrall, Coverdale, J. H., Benjamin, S., Wiggins, A., Lane, C. J., & Pato, M. T. (2016). A Randomized controlled trial of team-based learning versus lectures with break-out groups on knowledge retention. Academic Psychiatry, 40(5), 755–760. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40596-016-0501-7

vanOostveen, R; Desjardins, F., Bullock, S., (2019). Professional development learning environments (PDLEs) embedded in a collaborative online learning environment (COLE): Moving towards a new conception of online professional learning. Education and Information Technologies, 24(2), 1863–1900. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10639-018-9686-6

Walsh, A. (2005). The tutor in problem based learning: A novice’s guide. McMaster University. https://healthsci.mcmaster.ca/docs/librariesprovider125/partners—resources-perks/novice-tutor-guide-2005.pdf?sfvrsn=824ab32a_2

Yew, E. H., & Goh, K. (2016). Problem-based learning: An overview of its process and impact on learning. Health Professions Education, 2(2), 75-79. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hpe.2016.01.004

About the author

Chris is an educator and coach who aims to provide and advocate for quality lifelong learning experiences through creative but relevant opportunities. Work in higher education includes roles as an instructor, academic coach, and microcredential facilitator. Further, insights are grounded in adult education and digital technology studies built on life experiences in art, construction, fitness, and small business. Chris’s recent joy—and sources of conversation outside of education—include coffee, graphic novels, strength and conditioning, and random tv or movies. M.Ed., B.A.EdT., A.S.Phys-Ed., Google Educator II.


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