Making Learning Real with Problem-Based Case Learning
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How does PBCL compare to Project-Based Learning?

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Although both PBCL and Project-Based Learning have some similarities (e.g., working in teams, producing a product, and active learning in context), PBCL makes a direct connection to a real-time workplace situation as the context for learning knowledge, skills, and attitudes required by course objectives.

Is PBCL a specific curriculum?


No, PBCL is not a curriculum; instead it is an approach to learning that depends on going outside the textbook and classroom environment to make connections to the real-world of application in the workplace.

Why is there so much emphasis on starting with a "real-time" situation?


Real-time situations provide a variety of benefits that others don't:

  • No solutions have been implemented, so the situation is wide open for exploration.
  • There's a level of importance and urgency that motivates all of the participants.
  • Students can interact with the business partner, whether to identify resources or refine their solution(s) to fit the situation.

Why do we see only IT and architecture fields in the examples on the website?


The instructors whose classes were accessible at the time we were videotaping for the website were teaching in the fields of IT and architecture. The activity and commentary provided by these instructors and their students illustrate the processes embedded in the PBCL approach: planning, problem solving, investigating, collaborating, communicating, and thinking with skill and intentionality. These processes apply across all fields.


Approaches similar to PBCL are used in my institution for capstone or other types of final projects. Can PBCL actually be used with students who do not have introductory or basic content information already?

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Students in introductory-level courses can take PBCL-based courses. These courses incorporate foundational concepts as well as the skills in high demand from business and industry, e.g., clear communication, critical thinking, effective teamwork, problem solving, and adaptability. The impact of experiencing the concepts and skills in the context of real-time business situations minimizes memorization, engages learners, and sets expectations for performance at the beginning of a program of study rather than waiting until the capstone experience to draw it all together.

How much of the term should be used for a PBCL approach?


There's no set number of classes or percentage of a term that's required by PBCL, although we recommend that students have at least three weeks to progress through the PBCL cycle. The duration of a PBCL approach, like the duration of any classroom approach, depends upon its complexity.

For instructors trying out PBCL for the first time, we recommend starting with something simple—as long as it's also "messy" enough to allow multiple perspectives and full student engagement. Many instructors have found it useful to start by introducing just one part of a business partner's larger problematic situation.

What should I do if, because I am using PBCL, there are topics we don't cover?


Instructors don't need to force every topic into a PBCL approach. In fact, unless a topic is organic to the problematic situation, trying to address it as part of a PBCL experience may be seen as contrived by both the students and the business partner. Instead, for topics that aren't included in the PBCL experience, instructors can simply choose another instructional approach.

Some fields, like architecture or web design, seem to have projects built in inherently. However, I teach physics/calculus/statistics/developmental math and I can't imagine using an approach like this effectively. Is it possible?


Absolutely. Since there are business applications of almost any STEM subject matter, there's likely a business partner dealing with a relevant issue. Finding the business partner and the problematic situation may require more creativity when teaching a "theoretical" science than when teaching "applied science," but the payoff is much greater. For example, the ITL team recently implemented a PBCL experience in a developmental math course to teach the concept of slope. The business partner was Caterpillar Financial Services, which needed ways to forecast trends in consumer behavior in order to improve their customer service. Students who were involved in the PBCL experience demonstrated a higher rate of acquisition and retention of the concept than those students who learned the concept of slope via more traditional methodology.


I am interested in this approach but am not sure it is right for me. What should I do?

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Try it. Start with a PBCL experience developed with a business partner and keep the number of objectives from the course to one or two. Plan to take no more than three sessions for in-class work. Introduce the PBCL Cycle to students at the beginning of the course and focus on making sure they learn how to use the tools, i.e., the PBCL Cycle, Need to Know Board, Learning Log, Assessing Teamwork, Habits of Mind Checklist, Checking for Understanding, and Scoring Rubric for Presentations.

What is the most important thing to do to get started with this approach?


Start with a local business partner who has a problematic situation in his or her workplace. You can begin with partners you already know. Initiate a conversation about the course you are teaching and your desire to bring a real-time, current situation for students to work on using the PBCL Cycle. It is quite likely that the business partner will be familiar with the stages of the PBCL Cycle since it mirrors similar processes in the business world. Call on your ITL staff or local PBCL coach for support as you begin the Course/Business Matching and Framing stages of the PBCL Cycle. Contact us.

If I turn to "facilitation" as a primary instructional strategy, how can I use all the lecture notes I’ve prepared?


First, using the PBCL approach doesn't mean an instructor can never lecture again; different circumstances lend themselves to different instructional approaches.

But even if an instructor has significantly curtailed the amount of lecturing in a course, the lecture notes continue to be incredibly valuable for instructors and students. Instructors can use the notes when creating checklists of topics to cover or when designing evaluation rubrics. Students can use the notes as resources for their research if the instructor has distributed the notes or published them online.

What happens to the textbook that I've used and that my students are required to purchase?


Although many textbooks were published to fit a traditional instructional approach, that doesn't diminish their value. Instructors may simply choose to change the way the textbooks are used. For example, they can become a first-line resource for student research.

What happens if I don't follow the PBCL Cycle exactly?


The structure of the PBCL Cycle enables and even invites flexible adaptation. Instructors who use the PBCL Cycle as a compass, helping to keep them and their students heading in the right direction, can get as much value from the PBCL Cycle as those instructors who use it as a roadmap with turn-by-turn directions.

How do I respond to resistant students in a way that encourages their participation in PBCL?


Students (especially adult students) who have a "mental model" of what instructors and students are "supposed to do" may feel a need to push back. After all, instructors can also be resistant to changes like those that might be required by PBCL.

Many instructors, when facing resistance, have found ways to turn it into a constructive experience: for example, using it as a lens with which to explore learning.

What happens if some team members don't work well with each other?


First, know that this is going to happen. It happens in the workplace, too. Teamwork problems in the classroom can become opportunities for students to acquire essential skills and attitudes they need in the workplace.

Depending on the circumstances, get the whole class or each team to discuss how to handle teamwork problems. You might provide coaching to team leaders and then let them work it out.

Our experience suggests that teams are looking for permission to handle problems themselves and that they deal with problems at least as effectively as instructors might.

What can I do to encourage frequent and productive interactions between student team members?


To encourage ongoing and valuable teamwork, instructors can:

  • Set initial expectations by distributing the rubrics that will be used to consider teamwork when evaluating individual student performance.
  • Explain how each individual's contribution to the team will have a result on the individual's grade and, likely, on the quality of the team's product and the other team members' grades.
  • Use the Teamwork Observation tool to monitor individual members and to communicate praise, encouragement, or concern with teams or individuals.
  • Encourage students, in teams, to brainstorm about the value of teamwork skills and attitudes in educational and workplace settings.


PBCL and other similar approaches offer great benefits, but they seem to make it harder to assess student work and assign grades. Is this true? What do you do about it?

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Assessing PBCL does take more thought and intentionality. Unlike traditional methods that often include a bank of tests and even specific instructions for testing and assigning grades, PBCL focuses on assessing and evaluating content within the learning process and requires the student to actually use what is learned. This is not necessarily harder; in fact, in some ways it is easier because the instructor and students are collaborators in the process with frequent feedback, self-monitoring, and clear expectations for performance and deliverables. Tools for gathering assessment data and guidelines for evaluating end products and performances are provided as templates that can be adapted for a specific application.

How can I calculate a grade for individuals when they are working in teams?


First it's important to recognize that instructors may want to grade individuals partly based on how they work as team members. Among the possible approaches for this, instructors can use the Teamwork Observation tool.

Instructors can use the team presentations and the Scoring Rubric for Presentations to help determine a student's grade. In addition, depending on the duration of the PBCL experience, instructors can establish a schedule for frequent deliverables by individual students. For example, students might be required to turn in their Learning Logs weekly. This policy could have the added benefits of encouraging greater individual student participation and enabling the instructor to monitor individual student progress.

How can I know if students understand the technical content of the course?


This is a natural and valid concern for instructors. In one approach to resolving this concern, you might start with a checklist of technical concepts and skills that must be covered in the targeted PBCL experience. Instructors can use the checklist throughout the PBCL cycle. If something on the checklist isn't being addressed by one or more teams, instructors can introduce it in a variety of other ways: lecture, discussion, activity, etc.


I am interested in implementing PBCL in my program, but none of the other teachers in my department use approaches like this, nor are they likely to. I don’t see any way to do this kind of methodology unilaterally.

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While you may be the only one in your department who is ready to use PBCL, you are not alone. Through the online PBCL community, you can find the support you need to implement your program. The ITL staff is ready to assist as well. We can pair you with a PBCL coach as a mentor even though others in your department are not yet interested or involved. Contact us.

Where do I go for help when I get stuck?


The Innovation in Teaching and Learning for Technological Education (ITL) project team that created this website has helped many instructors to smooth out any bumps in the road. In addition, instructors can turn to online communities of PBCL practitioners or to local colleagues who have implemented PBCL in their courses. The Community Connections page has information about how to contact the ITL project team and how to join an online community of practice.

And don't forget to consider business partners. Many instructors have found that a conversation with a business partner helped to get them over a hurdle.

Jack Wallace joins his architectural design students at a construction site
Jack Wallace joins his architectural design students at a construction site on the Nashville State Technical Community College campus.