Interprofessional Problem-based Learning (iPBL)

CanMedEd-ipedia: The CORAL Collection. Concepts as Online Resources for Accelerated Learning.


Problem-based Learning (PBL), as you will learn, is particularly well suited to interprofessional case-based discussions and learning 1. This CORAL Cell will help orient you to, and begin your preparation to, be an effective facilitator of iPBL.

Learning Objectives (what you can reasonably expect to learn in the next 15 minutes):

  1. Compare and contrast PBL with case-based learning
  2. Explain the important elements of PBL (and iPBL)
  3. Describe the process or steps followed in PBL.

To what extent are you now able to meet the above objectives? Please record your self-assessments. (1 is not at all and 5 is completely)

Compare and contrast PBL with case-based learning
Explain the important elements of PBL (and iPBL)
Describe the process or steps followed in PBL.

To get started, please take a few moments to consider your experiences learning from cases. What are the elements of case-based learning? How might PBL be different? Write your ideas out here or somewhere handy so you can refer back to them shortly:

Now proceed to the next page for the rest of this CORAL session on iPBL.

Interprofessional Problem-based Learning

Compare and contrast PBL with case-based learning

Case-based learning: generally in case-based learning, students learn from teachers or on their own (or some combination of those two) what they need to address a clinical or workplace situation. The teacher then presents a case and expects the students in groups, or on their own, to apply their knowledge and skills to the situation presented. Learn first, meet the case, then apply learning.

PBL: Everything in case-based learning takes place in PBL except first, before learning what they need, teachers present the students with the case, or parts of the case. Students then decide what they need to know to address the situation in the case, learn it, then bring that new knowledge to bear on the case. The case, introduced and explored early, becomes the imperative guiding and motivating the learning.

Important elements of PBL

  • The problem*: Howard Barrows, one of the fathers of PBL, states that “Learners acquire and apply their knowledge and skills by managing authentic problems that they are likely to face in the workplace.”2 He defines it this way: “A problem exists whenever you are looking for a better way to accomplish something or whenever you would like to make an unacceptable situation acceptable. A problem occurs when you are faced with a number of alternatives to take and the best is not obvious, or possible, or you can’t think of a good alternative.”
  • A systematic approach: Learners determine what they know about the problem/patient, what important pieces of information are missing, what further questions they should ask of the patient and of themselves, and what information they should research (generally called ‘learning issues’) to acquire the necessary information and validate or augment what they think they already know. The students direct their work on the problem based on their knowledge gaps, areas of interest, and, in interprofessional PBL, on their professional roles.
  • The facilitator helps guide the group through the systematic approach to the problem at hand. Rather than giving information and demonstrating, the facilitator helps the group to be more self-directed and for members to learn on their own and from each other.
  • Progressive disclosure: The problem details unfold in progressive stages over two or more group sessions simulating an authentic problem from the clinic or workplace. The group carefully considers new information in light of how it might lead to a resolution of the problem.

* A problem is essential to PBL, however, not every approach to learning and/or teaching that includes a problem is what we have here defined as Problem-based Learning (PBL).

Describe the process or steps followed in iPBL

  • group process activity and interprofessional relationship building
  • module/case objectives
  • progressive disclosure of a problem with exploration/discussion/collaboration
  • collaborative generation of hypotheses, group learning needs, and an approach to the problem
  • Independently (or in pairs, sometimes) students search for the “missing” information needed to address the problem.
  • learning with, from and about the other health professions represented in the iPBL group

Check for Understanding

1. Which of the following are activities of case-based learning (CBL), problem-based learning (PBL), or both?

a. Learners are presented with a case to manage.

b. Learners prepare a resolution to the problem. (CBL. PBL, both)

c. Learners attend lectures to prepare them for application exercises. (CBL. PBL, both)

d. Group members decide what they need to find out to manage the case. (CBL. PBL, both)

e. Learners teach each other what they found to help figure out the case. (CBL. PBL, both)

2. Which of the following statements are true (or false) about iPBL?

The Problem

i. Problems involve calculations and decisions that we would not normally expect in the workplace.

ii. A problem is a situation that we can or want to make better.

Systematic approach

i. One of the first steps is for the group to consider what they collectively already know about the situation.

Progressive disclosure

i. All the relevant information about the entire case is disclosed on separate sheets at the beginning.

ii. After each batch of information is presented, group members use a systematic approach to think about the situation.

3. Without looking back, arrange these step in the typical PBL order: There are other steps in the iPBL process but these four are arranged in the order in which they would fit into the overall iPBL process.

a. Progressive disclosure of problem information

b. Completion of an approach to the problem or even a formal action plan

c. Group process activity

d. Group members identify their learning needs


To what extent are you NOW able to meet the following objectives? (0 is not at all and 5 is completely)

1. Compare and contrast PBL with case-based learning
2. Explain the important elements of PBL (and iPBL)
3. Describe the process or steps followed in PBL.

To what extent WERE you able the day before beginning this CORAL Cell to meet the following objectives? (0 is not at all and 5 is completely)

Classify statements that express or do not express the CPT
Explain the important elements of the CPT
Describe some implications of embracing the CPT.
Concept map of related CORAL Cells: Learning
Concept map of related CORAL Cells: Learning

Thank you for completing this CORAL Cell. We are interesting in improving this and other cells and would like to use your answers (anonymously of course) along with the following descriptive questions as part of our evaluation data.

Provide feedback on module

Thanks again, and come back soon!

The CORAL Cell Team


1 McKee N, D’Eon M, Trinder K. Problem-based learning for inter-professional education: evidence from an inter-professional PBL module on palliative care. Canadian Medical Education Journal. 2013;4(1):e35.

2 Barrows HS, Wee KN. Principles & practice of aPBL. Southern Illinois University School of Medicine; 2010.

Additional Reading 

D'Eon M. A blueprint for interprofessional learning. Journal of Interprofessional Care. 2005 May 1;19(sup1):49-59.

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