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Problem-Based Learning (PBL)

Sociology, Criminology, and Criminal Justice

What is Problem-Based Learning?

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is a  student-centered approach in which real-world problems are used to stimulate deeper engagement in course content to foster deeper understanding of social topics, problems, or other relevant factors and/or issues. Students explore problems that do not have a clear/obvious solution. Students are asked to define a problem, identify what needs to be investigated, determine what is know, build an evidence-based solution or means of addressing the problem.

For sociology, criminology, and criminal justice courses, PBL builds core knowledge as well skills for researching, analyzing, and addressing complex real-world problems that extend beyond the classroom. Small groups of students  are presented with tangible, specific, open-ended problems as case studies or scenarios. Like real-world problem-solving, they are presented with insufficient information for a ready solution and must engage in critical thinking and problem-solving to identity key concepts/principles related to learning objectives they need to work out potential solutions.  

Instructors can design and facilitate learning activities that create collaborative, student-driven, and constructive investigation through inquiry, knowledge gathering, and the generation of potential solutions. As with other active-learning techniques, the goal is to beyond only using teacher-/lecture-centered knowledge transmission and challenge students to become thoughtful researchers, problem solvers, and effective communicators.

PBL teaching and learning activities are related to large and encompassing social topics, issues, or problems where students are required to come up with plans, hypotheses, solutions, etc. The problems used for assignments and activities should constructively align with the intended learning objectives of the program, course, and/or section. 

There are 4 steps in the problem-solving process:

  1. Present the Case/Scenario: Introduce students to a specific, open-ended problem.

  2. Initial Investigation: Utilize prior knowledge and conduct further research to understand the problem's facets.

  3. Collaborative Problem Solving: Divide responsibilities for different problem components, fostering higher-order thinking.

  4. Solution Presentation: Groups present their solutions, demonstrating their critical analysis and collaborative effort.

Why is PBL Important for Sociology, Criminology, and Criminal Justice?

PBL is an important tool because many students in these degree programs will go on to become licensed practitioners, researchers, or otherwise obtains jobs in private, state, or federal agencies/organizations that deal with complex solution problems, often with limited success. PBL facilitates the development of skills for licensure, effective workplace and community communication/collaboration, and a deeper understanding of complex issues from a solutions-based approach. 

Designing a PBL Project

Designing a PBL project requires that instructors construct an ill-defined/open-ended current and relevant problem related to your field or subject in the form of a case study or scenario. Instructors must determine who groups will be formed/assigned and of course project assessment. As mentioned elsewhere, it is a good idea to plan these projects the semester before the course begins and maybe design these activities for one class per semester since the design can be time-consuming. 

Problem Case/Scenario Construction

The problem or case study should focus on the central concepts of the discipline and learning objectives outlined in the course/program and be based on a real problem in the area of inquiry. Consider the intended learning objectives for the course/program and develop a good problem case that is around a paragraph long (For an overview of steps to creating good PBL problem cases please see Searight & Searight, 2009). 

Keep in mind that the problem case study or scenario instructors create needs to be specific enough for students to come up with tangible solutions but also leaving room for collaborative/creating thinking in groups. In other words, the problem case study or scenario should have a predetermined scope of inquiry. By giving students hints and clues to certain areas or places where they can potentially explore solutions can lead students toward real-world solutions and applications, without giving them specific solutions. For example, hinting at services, funding, or other potential help is available, without specifically spelling it out. 

While the problem case should leave plenty of room for novel solutions for a problem that has yet to be solved, I advise that there be enough specifics, contexts, and resources alluded to spur critical thinking. For my course, I call around, or have the students call, local community stakeholders, nonprofits, or other agencies and organizations to find potential real-world problems or sometimes have students identify these problems in the community in other course projects. 

Group Assignments

When creating groups, you can predetermine the group topics/categories based on learning outcomes or allow students to pick from a list of choices. Alternatively, you can meet with students individually or in groups to determine potential problem case studies; however, this means that you may not be able to plan the cases/scenarios in advance. 


As mentioned with other collaborative-based learning approaches, instructors may either have the students self-select into groups or assign them based on some criteria. My preferences is to have the students fill out a questionnaire at the beginning of the semester regarding their interests, backgrounds, and career goals to form diverse groups of student to maximize productive diversity and problem-solving. It is noted in several research studies that students may be more intrinsically motivated if they self-selected into groups. The problem, however, is homophily. One of the cornerstones of collaborative-based approaches is harnessing the power of diversity in groups. Therefore, if you let students groups, they may self-select into less diverse groups without even realizing it.

It is recommended to an equal number of small groups with an equal amount of members in each group. But stay creative! Each course is different and each environment you work in is unique so be reflexive and prepared to adapt to each course or group of students. 

Project Assessment 

While you as the instructor can solely assess performance of students at various stages of the project, including a final summative assessment, there are other options more in line with the new learning and active-learning philosophies or approaches. For example, in addition to assessment by the instructor, peer assessment, and self-assessments are also recommended.

Instructor Assessment

It is recommended that instructors use rubrics for uniformity in grading and clarity in instructor expectations for performance/final product. For an overview of how to create and use rubrics for assessing learning, click here. Rubrics should be given out at the beginning of the semester and students should be trained on how to use and understand a rubric as a tool toward increased performance. Keep in mind that rubric development can be crucial for communicating expectations around group work and performance (perceptions and expectations of and individual student performance in group work can be one of the main challenges for collaborative-based learning techniques). 

Peer Assessment

As mentioned, the fear and perception of group work can be a challenge for instructors and students. As with active-learning based techniques, generally, adequate time at the beginning of the course should be dedicated to outlining the benefits of the group learning and work, the project expectations and rubric, and any other relevant information about student logistics and performance.

A way to both reduce this fear or negative perception and potential frustration about group performance and work is to included a peer-assessment component. Peer review may reduce group conflict and provide incentive for all students to carry their own weight. Students will likely take the assessments more seriously when their feedback is incorporated into their peers' final grade. Again, it should be clearly outlined how peer evaluations will be used and why at the beginning of the semester. Students should be trained on how to complete fair and consistent peer reviews. 

Rubrics should be designed that addressed the fundamental dimensions of expectations and performance. For example, your rubric could use letter grades to help assess the quality of group work, team membership, and team communication. Each course and project is different. The important thing is to consider this prior to the course.


Self-assessments allow the students to reflect on their own work/performance, as well ass the entirety of the project/group processes. Metacognition is an important skill to develop and part of the goal of continuous assessment, where assessment happens throughout the semester instead of with an exam at the middle/end of the semester. Self-assessments can also provide instructors with important information about individual and group performances and contributions and any differences in perceptions that arise. 

Considering a Target Audience

PBL projects may provide beneficial opportunities beyond the classroom. If instructors and/or students work with local community stakeholders in consideration and design of the PBL projects, instructors might consider inviting interested stakeholders to the final presentation. Alternatively, instructors and students could post group projects, presentations, or multimedia projects online to create a knowledge ecology. Allowing stakeholders, students, instructors, and experts to comment and asynchronously communicate about the potential solutions could create another environment of collaborative intelligence that extends beyond the classroom and benefits the community at large. 

Inviting the students to present for stakeholders or create an project or portfolio for everyone to see, can offer a chance to make real-word impacts on the community, make connections, and develop lifelong skills, interests, and opportunities. Stakeholders may included nonprofit organizations, probation/parole offices, police, social services, faith-based organizations, etc. 


 Managing PBL Projects: Role of the Instructor

The role of the instructor in PBL projects is typically more of a guide that doesn't structure group work, time, or group leadership and doesn't facilitate the students on their specific processes of solution or design. Instructors are there to set reminders and keep the groups on track. Since the fundamental concept is problem-solving, questions about how or what to do should be turned back to the students in order for them to learn how to solve problems in their own way. Just as in the design of the actual PBL activity, instructor input should be specific enough to keep them on course but vague enough to aid them in developing their own problem-solving methods and skills. 

Instructors can choose whether to give the students options for how they will present or defend their proposed solutions when confronted with different solutions from other teams, peer-to-peer assessments, etc. Often, at the end of the course, the students are presented with an “expert” solution that the students can use to evaluate the quality of their solutions; this could also be used as part of the rubric for peer-to-peer assessments.


One of the main objectives of PBL is to get students to take responsibility for their own learning. This means your role as an instructor is to guide, probe, and support students in their processes of problem-solving and collaboration but not provide easy answers. Keep in mind that the length of time for each PBL assignment will vary depending on the complexity of the issue. Sometimes it can take several weeks to complete an activity. It is recommended to build the in-class meetings, presentations, and any other group work in the schedule so students know in advance.. This helps keep students focused and on track. 


For presentations, gives the students time to present the solutions to their problem. Allow time for interaction across the class. Instructors may then weigh in with the information that would have been shared in a traditional lecture but from more of an application standpoint. You might included in your lecture something from each group’s presentation to showcase their contributions or bring up any relevant or substantive issues to increase learning across the subject matter. 


PBL modules require planning upfront. It is often recommended to design active-learning activities the semester prior to the course. It may feel different to fill class time with group work instead of just lecture. Teaching assistants can be helpful for planning/execution.

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