Characteristics of Problems for Problem-Based Learning: The Students’ Perspective

Main Article Content

Nachamma Sockalingam
Henk G. Schmidt


This study aimed to identify salient problem characteristics perceived by students in problem-based curricula. To this end, reflective essays from biomedical students (N = 34) on characteristics of good problems were text analyzed. Students identified eleven characteristics, of which they found the extent to which the problem leads to desired learning outcomes as the most important characteristic. The extent to which the problem stimulates elaboration and the extent to which the problem promotes team effort were considered to be the least important problem characteristics. We clustered the eleven characteristics into two categories, “features” or “functions,” based on the perceived roles of the characteristics. Identification and clustering of the eleven characteristics provide a useful basis for future problem design and evaluation.

Article Details



Albanese, M., & Mitchell, S. (1993). Problem-based learning: A review of the literature on its outcomes and implementation issues. Academic Medicine, 68, 52-81.

Alwis, W. A. M., & O’Grady, G. (2002, December). One day-one problem: PBL at the Republic Polytechnic. Paper presented at the 4th Asia-Pacific Conference on PBL, Hatyai, Thailand.

Anderson, J. R. (1990). Meaning-based knowledge representations. New York: Freeman.

Araz, G., & Sungur, S. (2007). The interplay between cognitive and motivational variables in a problem-based learning environment. Learning and Individual Differences, 17(4), 291-297.

Blumberg, P., & Michael, J. A. (1992). Development of self-directed learning behaviours in a partially teacher-directed problem-based learning curriculum. Teaching and Learning in Medicine, 4(1), 3-8.

Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18, 32-42.

Clark, R., Nguyen, F., & Sweller, J. (2006). Efficiency in learning: Evidence-based guidelines to manage cognitive load. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

Cohen, P. A. (1981). Student ratings of instruction and student achievement: A meta-analysis of multisection validity studies. Review of Educational Research, 51, 281-309.

Cohen, L., Manion, L., & Morrison, K. (2007). Research methods in education (6th ed.). Abigdon, UK: Routledge.

De Volder, M. L., Schmidt, H. G, Moust, J. H. C., & De Grave, W. S. (1986). Problem-based learning and intrinsic motivation. In J. H. C. van der Berchen, T. C. M. Bergen, & E. E. I. de Bruyn (Eds.), Achievement and task motivation (pp.128-134). North America: Swets (PA4).

De Volder, M. L., Schmidt, H. G., Moust, J. H. C., & De Grave, W. S. (1986). Motivation and achievement in cooperative learning: the role of prior knowledge. In J. H. C. van der Berchen, T. C. M. Bergen, & E. E. I. de Bruyn (Eds.), Achievement and task motivation (pp. 123-127). North America: Swets (PA4).

Des Marchais, J. E. (1999). A Delphi technique to identify and evaluate criteria for construction of PBL problems. Medical Education, 33(7), 504-508.

Dolmans, D. H. J. M., Schmidt, H. G., & Gijselaers, W. H. (1995). The relationship between student-generated learning issues and self-study in problem-based learning. Instructional Science, 22(4), 251-267.

Dolmans, D. H. J. M., Snellen-Balendong, H., Wolfhagen, I. H. A. P., & van der Vleuten, C. P. M. (1997). Seven principles of effective case design for a problem-based curriculum. Medical Teacher, 19(3), 185-189.

Dolmans, D. H. J. M., Wolfhagen, I. H. A. P., & Schmidt, H. G. (1996). Effects of tutor expertise on student performance in relation to prior knowledge and level of curricular structure. Academic Medicine, 71(9), 1008-1011.

Gijselaers, W. H., & Schmidt, H. G. (1990). Development and evaluation of a causal model of problem-based learning. In Z. H. Nooman, H. G. Schmidt & E. S. Ezzat (Eds.), Innovation in medical education: An evaluation of its present status. New York: Springer Publishing.

Hmelo-Silver, C. E. (2004). Problem-based learning: What and how do students learn? Educational Psychology Review, 16(3), 235-266.

Hoffler, T. N., & Leutner, D. (2007). Instructional animation versus static pictures: A meta-analysis. Learning and Instruction, 17(6), 722-738.

Huning, M. (2007). TextSTAT (Version 2.7). [Software].

Hung, W. (2006). The 3C3R model: A conceptual framework for designing problems in PBL. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 1, 55-77.

Jonassen, D., & Hung, W. (2008). All problems are not equal: Implications for problem-based learning. 2(2), 6-28.

Jacobs, A. E. J. P., Dolmans, D. H. J. M., Wolfhagen, I. H. A. P., & Scherpbier, A. J. J. A. (2003). Validation of a short questionnaire to assess the degree of complexity and structuredness of PBL problems. Medical Education, 37(11), 1001-1007.

Loyens, S. M. M., Rikers, R. M. J. P., & Schmidt, H. G. (2007). Students’ conceptions of distinct constructivist assumptions. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 12, 179-199.

Mamede, S., Schmidt, H. G., & Norman, G. R. (2006). Innovations in problem-based learning: What can we learn from recent studies? Advances in Health Sciences Education, 11, 403-422.

Majoor, G. D., Schmidt, H. G., Snellen-Balendong, H., Moust, J. C. H. & Stalenhoef-Halling, B. (1990) Construction of problems for problem-based learning. In Z. Nooman, H. G. Schmidt & E.S. Ezzat (Eds.), Innovation (pp. 114-122). New York: Springer.

Mayer, R. H. (1999). Designing instruction for constructivist learning. In C. M. Reigeluth, (Ed.), Instructional-design theories and models: A new paradigm of instructional theory (volume 2, pp. 141-160). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Munshi, F. M., El Zayat, E. S. A., & Dolmans, D. H. (2008). Development and utility of a ques- tionnaire to evaluate the quality of PBL problems. South East Asian Journal of Medical Education, 2(2), 32-40.

Norman, G. R., & Schmidt, H. G. (1992). The psychological basis of problem-based learning: A review of the evidence, Academic Medicine, 67, 557.

Savery, J. R., & Duffy, T. M. (1995). Problem based learning: An instructional model and its constructivist framework. Educational Technology, 35(5), 31-38.

Schmidt, H. G. (1983). Problem-based learning: Rationale and description Medical Education, 17, 11-16.

Schmidt, H. G. (1985). Attributes of problems for problem-based learning. Unpublished manu- script. Maastricht, the Netherlands: University of Limburg.

Schmidt, H. G., & Boshuizen, H. P. A. (1990, April). Effects of activation of prior knowledge on the recall of a clinical case. Paper presented at the Meeting of the American Educational Research Association.

Schmidt, H. G., & Gijselaers, W. H. (1990, April). Causal modeling of problem-based learning. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Associa- tion, Boston, MA.

Schmidt, H. G., van der Molen, H. T., Te Winkel, W., & Wijnen, W. H. F. W. (2009). Constructivist, problem-based learning does work: A meta-analysis of curricular comparisons involving a single medical school. Educational Psychologist, 44, 1-23.

Shaw, M. E. (1976). Group dynamics. NewYork: McGraw-Hill.

Soppe, M., Schmidt, H. G., & Bruysten, R. (2005). Influence of problem familiarity on learning in a problem-based course. Instructional Science, 33(3), 271-281.

van Berkel, H. J. M., & Schmidt, H. G. (2000). Motivation to commit oneself as a determinant of achievement in problem-based learning. Higher Education, 40, 231-242.

vanden Hurk, M. M., Wolfhagen , I. H. A. P., Dolmans, D. H. J. M., & vander Vleuten, C. P. M. (1999). The impact of student-generated learning issues on individual study time and academic achievement. Medical Education, 33(11), 808-814.

Verkoeijen, P. P. J. L., Rikers, R. M. J. P., Te Winkel, W. W. R., & van der Hurk, M. M. (2006). Do student-defined learning issues increase quality and quantity of individual study? Advances in Health Sciences Education, 11, 337-347.

Weber, R. P. (1990). Basic content analysis. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Zanolli, M. B., Boshuizen, H.P., & De Grave, W. S. (2003). Students’ and tutors’ perceptions of problems in PBL tutorial groups at a Brazillian medical school. Educational Health (Abingdon), 15(2), 189-201.