Problem-based Learning and Theories of Teaching and Learning in Health Professional Education


  • Rebecca E Gewurtz McMaster University
  • Liliana Coman McMaster University
  • Shaminder Dhillon McMaster University
  • Bonny Jung McMaster University
  • Patty Solomon McMaster University



Problem-based learning, theories of teaching and learning, health professional education, scoping review methodology, university-based learning


Although problem-based learning (PBL) has been linked to several theories of teaching and learning, how these theories are applied remains unclear. The objective of this paper is to explore how theories of teaching and learning relate to and can inform problem-based learning within health professional education programs. We conducted a scoping review on current theories of teaching and learning and considered their relevancy to the problem-based learning approach. The findings suggest that no single theory of teaching and learning can fully represent the complexity of learning in PBL. Recognizing the complexity of the PBL environment and the fluidity between theories of teaching and learning, we proposed eight principles from across 11 theories of teaching and learning that can inform how PBL is operationalised in university-based health professional education: 1) Adult learners are independent and self-directed; 2) Adult learners are goal oriented and internally motivated; 3) Learning is most effective when it is applicable to practice; 4) Cognitive processes support learning; 5) Learning is active and requires active engagement; 6) Interaction between learners supports learning; 7) Activation of prior knowledge and experience supports learning; and 8) Elaboration and reflection supports learning. These eight principles provide the foundation for curriculum design recommendations relevant to PBL within university-based education programs. Specifically, our findings suggest that active engagement and interactions should be encouraged, that students should be prompted to activate their prior knowledge and experiences, and that elaboration and reflection on learning is critical. The small group format of PBL can facilitate this engagement if students question each other, consider alternative perspectives, and are actively involved in setting learning objectives. Further research is needed to develop the empirical basis for these principles and examine if PBL is an effective approach for implementing these principles.

Author Biographies

Rebecca E Gewurtz, McMaster University

Rebecca E. Gewurtz, BSc(OT), PhD is an Assistant Professor in the School of Rehabilitation Science at McMaster University.

Liliana Coman, McMaster University

Liliana Coman, BHSc(PT), MSc., MD is an Assistant Professor and Department Education Coordinator in the School of Rehabilitation Science at McMaster University.

Shaminder Dhillon, McMaster University

Shaminder Dhillon, BSc(OT), MSc is an Assistant Professor in the School of Rehabilitation Science at McMaster University.

Bonny Jung, McMaster University

Bonny Jung, BSc(OT), PhD is an Associate Professor in the School of Rehabilitation Science and Director of the Program for Interprofessional Practice, Education and Research (PIPER) at McMaster University.

Patty Solomon, McMaster University

Patty Solomon, PhD is a Professor and Associate Dean in the School of Rehabilitation Science at McMaster University.


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