5 Problem-Centered Design Methods For Training Real-World Problem-Solving Skills

Problem-centered Training Design for Problem-Solving Skills

Problem-centred training design has proven its effectiveness in equipping learners with real-world problem-solving skills. Problem-centred training design is depicted through several terms with similar basic intents of developing higher-ordered problem-solving skills in employees/learners. This article will explain 5 most common methods: Problem-based learning (PBL), Project-based learning, Scenario-based learning (SCL), Case-based method (CBM), and Simulation-based learning. Also, two variations namely Problem-based case learning (PBCL) and focussed discussions is explained briefly. To teach general and complex problem solving and troubleshooting, following 7 methods are used:

1. Problem-Based Learning (PBL) for Training Problem-solving Skills

The first set of three methods are generally called “Inquiry-based learning” (Buch and Wolff, 2000). If we think of Problem-based learning, Scenario-based learning, and Project-based learning as a continuum, then Problem-based learning would fall on the left-hand side of the scale while Scenario-based learning falls somewhere in the middle and Project Based Learning falls on the right-hand side of the scale. Thomsen et. al (2010) explained that “At one end of the spectrum is problem-based learning where ‘the problem’, which generally has a predetermined outcome, is used to direct the students to both acquire and assimilate the necessary knowledge in the process of solving it. In PBL the solution may be less important than the new knowledge gained during the process.” 

The method

Problem-based learning (PBL) is both a teaching method and an approach to the curriculum. It consists of carefully designed problems that challenge students to use problem-solving techniques, self-directed learning strategies, team participation skills, and disciplinary knowledge.

PBL was pioneered in the medical school program at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada in the late 1960s by Howard Barrows and his colleagues (Neville, 2009).  Advocates of problem-based learning assume problem-solving should be the intellectual focus of curricula (Barrows, 1986, 1996; Barrows & Tamblyn, 1980).

The learning process in PBL starts with solving problems, instead of content. Barrows and Tamblyn (1980, p. 1) explained that learning in PBL “results from the process of working toward the understanding or resolution of a problem so it is important that the problem is encountered first in the learning process.” Howard Barrows (1996) lists the six original characteristics for the problem-based learning model employed in the medical school as follows:

  • Learning is student-centered.
  • Learning occurs in small student groups.
  • Teachers are facilitators or guides.
  • Problems form the original focus and stimulus for learning.
  • Problems are a vehicle for the development of clinical problem-solving skills.
  • New information is acquired through self-directed learning.

In PBL learning, students learn how to analyze a problem, identify relevant facts and generate hypotheses; identify necessary information/knowledge for solving the problem and make reasonable judgments about solving the problem. This approach was much closer to the real-life situation. PBL is also argued as a learning method that can promote the development of critical thinking skills (Serkan & Odabasi, 2009).

The practical side of this approach is that learning starts with a problem. If problem-solving is the primary job of the participants, then starting the training with a problem puts them closer to the reality of their jobs and they instantly start connecting with the content. Moreover, they themselves get involved in the process of learning.

Where applied?

In PBL, learners are not passive information receivers anymore. They are expected to more actively engage in their learning process. Therefore, you should take into accounts of learner’s motivation, background and learning habits before you think about employing PBL into the classroom.

Any subject area can be adapted to PBL with a little creativity. While the core problems will vary among disciplines, there are some characteristics of good PBL problems that transcend fields (Duch, Groh, and Allen, 2001):

  • The problem must motivate students to seek out a deeper understanding of concepts.
  • The problem should require students to make reasoned decisions and to defend them.
  • The problem should incorporate the content objectives in such a way as to connect it to previous courses/knowledge.
  • If a group project, the problem needs a level of complexity to ensure that the students must work together to solve it.
  • If a multistage project, the initial steps of the problem should be open-ended and engaging to draw students into the problem.

Training Design Tips

  • This approach has its challenges in selecting the correct problem for teaching real-world troubleshooting to the students (Jonassen and Hung, 2008). As I mentioned in my other post, to reap the true benefits of this approach, the problems need to be designed correctly and objectives should be drawn out of the problem rather than problem defined around the objectives.
  • The problem usually has a pre-determined outcome. Therefore it is necessary to ensure that training material clearly states the final outcome expected. But take a note that solution may not be that important but what is important is the “process” of problem-solving and how learner acquires or recognize various knowledge pieces required to solve the problem.
  • A few dry runs of the problem through the pilot group is highly advisable to ensure that problem is understood and the process is validated to ensure that various pieces of knowledge and skills required to solve the problem are well integrated into the problem.
  • Think of a real-world context for the concept under consideration. Develop a storytelling aspect to an end-of-chapter problem, or research an actual case that can be adapted, adding some motivation for students to solve the problem.
  • The problem needs to be introduced in stages so that students will be able to identify learning issues that will lead them to research the targeted concepts.

2. Project Based Learning (PBL) for Training Problem-solving Skills

The method

Project Based Learning is similar to Problem Based Learning with some characteristics differences. Thomsen et. al (2010) explained that “At one end of the spectrum is problem-based learning where ‘the problem’, which generally has a predetermined outcome, is used to direct the students to both acquire and assimilate the necessary knowledge in the process of solving it. In PBL the solution may be less important than the new knowledge gained during the process. At the other end of the spectrum is Project-based learning, where ‘the problem’ is more open-ended and the focus is on the application and assimilation of previously acquired knowledge, in the development of a solution.”

David (2008) states that core idea of project-based learning is that learner’s serious thinking is triggered using real-world problems and they can newly acquired knowledge in problem-solving contexts. On the role of teacher, David (2008) asserts that “The teacher plays the role of facilitator, working with students to frame worthwhile questions, structuring meaningful tasks, coaching both knowledge development and social skills, and carefully assessing what students have learned from the experience”.

Research also indicates that learners are more likely to retain the knowledge gained through this approach far more readily than through traditional textbook-centered learning. In addition, learners develop confidence and self-direction as they move through both team-based and independent work. Assessments in this method are more job-focused and learners can quickly connect to real-life issues.

Project learning is also an effective way to integrate technology into the curriculum. A typical project can easily accommodate computers and the Internet, as well as interactive whiteboards and range of real-world technologies, gadgets and communication devices. By bringing real-life context and technology to the curriculum through a PBL approach, learners are encouraged to become independent workers, critical thinkers, and lifelong learners.

Where applied?

The best application of such method is applying the thinking and hands-on skills. This is a very powerful technique for designing complex problem-solving training where variables cannot be documented to the highest degree and where developing participant’s creativity is also a goal of the training.

The method best suitable where the challenge is to develop skills and perspective of employees which includes personal and social responsibility, planning, critical thinking, reasoning, and creativity; strong communication skills, both for interpersonal and presentation needs; cross-cultural understanding; visualizing and decision making; knowing how and when to use technology and choosing the most appropriate tool for the task, to name a few.

Training Design Tips

  • Since the problem is usually open-ended in the project-based learning, it needs to be orchestrated correctly. In project-based learning, there could be different solutions (since the solution is not pre-determined). Therefore it requires a lot of discussions and facilitation to appraise the overall outcome.
  • Since solutions may vary, the focus of training design is on outlining the project, drafting guidance and providing some solution development process.
  • An extra level care is needed to craft projects used in learning. Since it may lead to different solutions, instructional designers need to be careful in focusing objectives which may be more process oriented and imparting an ability to develop solutions.
  • The research also underscores how difficult it is to implement project-based learning well. So caution in embracing this practice should be exerted unless the conditions for success are in place, including strong school support, access to well-developed projects, and a collaborative culture for teachers and students.

3. Scenario-Based Learning (SBL) for Training Problem-solving Skills

Another subset of inquiry-based learning evolved was Scenario-Based Learning. Scenario-based learning lies somewhere in the middle of this spectrum and different scenarios may be more ‘problem’ or ‘project’ like.

The Method

Scenario-based learning is based on the principles of situated learning theory (Lave & Wenger, 1991), which argues that learning best takes place in the context in which it is going to be used, and situated cognition, the idea that knowledge is best acquired and more fully understood when situated within its context (Kindley, 2002).

Scenario-based learning (SBL) uses interactive scenarios to support active learning strategies such as problem-based or case-based learning. It normally involves students working their way through a storyline, usually based on an ill-structured or complex problem, which they are required to solve. In the process, students must apply their subject knowledge, and critical thinking and problem-solving skills in a safe, real-world context. SBL is often non-linear and can provide numerous feedback opportunities to students, based on the decisions they make at each stage in the process.

Scenario-based learning may be self-contained, in that completing the scenario is the entire task, or it may be the first part of a larger assignment requiring the student to complete the scenario, and then provide a written or oral reflection and self-assessment on the process (Terry Stewart, Massey University).

Where applied?

SBL can be used in a wide range of contexts, but it works especially effective when used to simulate real-world practice, providing opportunities which may be difficult for students to experience within the confines of a course. SBL can be used as part of either formative or summative assessment

SBL usually works best when applied to tasks requiring decision-making and critical thinking in complex situations. Tasks that are routine to the students will require little critical thinking or decision-making and may be better assessed using other methods.

Clark (2009) is a big proponent of this method making case for SCL as a mechanism to accelerate expertise. She specifies the following checklist to assess whether SBL is the right choice (cited from Terry Stewart, Massey University).

  • Are the outcomes based on skills development or problem-solving?
  • Is it difficult or unsafe to provide real-world experience of the skills?
  • Do your students already have some relevant knowledge to aid decision-making?
  • Do you have time and resources to design, develop, and test an SBL approach?
  • Will the content and skills remain relevant for long enough to justify the development of SBL?

Training Design Tips

  • In order to deliver a real-world experience on complex problem solving the scenarios need to be built on real-world competencies. Designing the scenario which is a true reflection of the actual world scenario is a difficult task. However, without the absence of real scenario or the objectives drawn out of the real-world scenarios, the success of SBL is just incremental.
  • Depending on the complexity, building an SBL can be time-consuming, but the end product can give the student an authentic learning experience which can both challenge and motivate (cited from Terry Stewart, Massey University).

4. Case-Based Method (CBM) for Training Problem-solving Skills

The next major philosophy called the Case Method was developed at Harvard Business School in the 1970s by Barnes and Christensen, and it remains a widely used method today in business, law, and education (Barnes, Christensen & Hansen, 1994).

The method

The Case Method is predicated on the assumption that the “real world is messy” and that there are many variables that can be considered in managing real problems. The class is given a complex problem, the case, to analyze outside of class. The case is aligned with the course learning objectives and usually is designed not to have a single correct answer, but to have multiple reasonable approaches or solutions.

This method situates the knowledge in real-world contexts. Here, the cases provide the primary occasion for learning, rather than serve secondarily illustrations or applications and thus prepare the problem solvers with basic skills in the context of a real problem. The cases that contextualize knowledge may be drawn from real-life examples, or they may be imaginatively assembled for an educational context) (Allchin, N.d.).

Where applied?

Using a case-based approach engages students in a discussion of specific scenarios that resemble or typically are real-world examples. This method is learner-centered with intense interaction between participants as they build their knowledge and work together as a group to examine the case. The instructor’s role is that of a facilitator while the students collaboratively analyze and address problems and resolve questions that have no single right answer.

However, the limitation of this method is that not all case-based learning is problem-based and not all cases may be real. The best benefit of the case-based method has been in honing learner’s ability to use evidence by including both quantitative and qualitative data of varying degrees of relevance (including potentially irrelevant data) presented in a range of forms (narrative, quotes, tables, charts, graphs).

Training Design Tips

  • Time spent teaching cases are time not spent lecturing on other material. The failure occurs when trainer tries to use cases in addition to or in place of other material. However, the rule for success is to use case backbone structure and integrate lecture, activities and other topics as just-in-time knowledge as learner proceed to solve the case.
  • The learner may need time to master the method and pose resistance when using this method. Therefore make them talk about their real job context and challenges they have. Make learner realize that cases are all around them realize that every issue around them is a case
  • The important thing to keep in mind is that the materials you use to make a case should contain the background and information learners may need but not contain analysis. This may mean removing some analytical material from the published sources (if used to develop the case), or adding some factual or definitional information to the published story. Changing, suppressing or adding some information depends upon the type of learning outcome being taught.

5. Simulation-Based Training (SBL) for Training Problem-solving Skills

Lateef (2010) states that “Simulation is a technique for practice and learning that can be applied to many different disciplines and trainees. It is a technique (not a technology) to replace and amplify real experiences with guided ones, often “immersive” in nature, that evoke or replicate substantial aspects of the real world in a fully interactive fashion.”

The method

The primary premise of this method is handling situations as opposed to constituent tasks in a complex environment where the ability to handle several variables comes with practice and through situational thinking. In this method, real-life or close to real-life problems or challenges are simulated in a classroom environment or actual job environment. The participants are guided to perform their actual job task in the close to the real-life environment but are monitored. This provides them a risk-free option where they can learn from mistakes and trial-n-error.

Simulation-based training techniques, tools, and strategies can be applied in designing structured learning experiences, as well as be used as a measurement tool to assess competencies associated to complete the whole task and handle situations. This method is different from the problem-based, project-based or case-based method. Depending upon the domain it may or may not be cost intensive. However, in a given situation, the simulation-based method provides much more realistic skills in the actual on-the-job environment or closer to it. Steadman et al. (2008) found in their study that simulation-based method works better than problem-based method in making participants in acquiring critical assessment and management skills

Where applied?

This method is applied where the cost of performing the tasks in real life is not possible so often. Like military, warfare, disaster management, rescue operations, fire drills etc. Such opportunities cannot be created without risk of life and property. Cost aspect is also important. For example, flying an actual plane to learn how to fly it could be costly as well as dangerous. Another example is surgery and other medical areas where decision-making skills and motor skills need to be built with precision and a wide variety of situations are required to give all-rounded exposure to the participants.

However, this suffered from the constraints that all field problems may not be able to simulate or in several cases the boundary conditions of a problem are known fully. For example, a patient struggling with death cannot be simulated to that degree to provide a surgeon skill acquisition on complex decision making required in such instances. In those situations, they are exposed to series of progressive simulated challenges which increased in complexity and difficulty as they progress.

In a technical context, especially for teaching troubleshooting simulation-based teaching became very popular philosophy and these were extended beyond technical fields. This methodology gave a great success to issue based teaching by simulating it right within the training class. This offered close to real-world problem-solving.

Simulation method can be applied in several domains ranging from management strategic thinking to highly complex technical troubleshooting situations to life-n-death challenges. On a general level simulation based training method is generally applied where participants are required to attain:

–          Complex Technical and functional expertise

–          High level of precision and reproducibility of their skills

–          High level of proficiency or mastery to certain minimum level before actually performing the job

–          Higher order Problem-solving and decision-making skills

–          Adapting to several unforeseen situations

–          Interpersonal and communications skills or team-based competencies

–          Actually performing high hands-on intensive task or thinking

–          Involves high level of physical or metacognition

Training Design Tips

  •  Simulation-Based Training requires quite a big preparation. It also requires some field work. As trainer and designer, you need to first experience in-depth how it is like using the simulated environment and then decide how you are going to use for training.
  • In complex problem solving, simulation-based training has three design components – simulation of the environment, simulation of the task and simulation of the issue.  The simulated issue in a simulated environment should lead to the same rationale of decision making. The solutions in simulated based training may not be too open-ended. Use it if participants are required to take specific actions to specific stimuli.
  • Simulating something on the computer is generally viewed as simulation-based training or something of an equivalent of a virtual setup or a game. That’s not completely true. Simulation can be as real as real-world. For example, if you are teaching a technician how to repair a steam engine, how would you simulate it? Your best bet it is to tweak a good operating steam engine, introduce some bugs and have them experience the real-world issue through ‘simulation’. However, before you could do that, you need to get your hand dirty trying to reproduce a symptom and then have a structure ready to solve it. But you need to solve it first using the same method you will be teaching.
  • The simulation should be designed to give the real-feel. For example, if the pilot does not get to experience the variables the way he going to experience in the aircraft, the simulation may actually turn wastage of time and may in some case prove disastrous.

Variations of Problem-Based and Case-Based Method

A. Focused Discussion

A focused discussion was another subtype of case-based technique in which trainer presents a case or a problem and then leads a discussion with the rest of the group. Cases are prepared in advance by the trainer to “capture real life situations in which a professional (representing the students who are training to adopt similar professions) confronts a dilemma common to the discipline.” (Armstong, 2004)

This method is generally applied in management, leadership, decision-making and critical inquiry type of training programs which are fundamentally driven by diverse views of the participants. While the essence of the method is still a case, but the focus is more on reasoning and discussion. In complex problem solving, the approach is used when the outcome is fuzzy or could take several different forms. For example, teaching aviation troubleshooting courses, this method can be used to discuss various possibilities and chalk out the plan of action to nail the real cause of the problem. In complex troubleshooting, the fuzziest part is going from suspect to the culprit causing the issue and it has been seen that focused discussion enhances the speed of learning.

B. Problem Based Case Learning

Later case-based learning and problem-based learning was integrated into several attempts and. Problem-based case learning (PBCL) was basically a contemporary effort to integrated PBL and case method into one. The “real-time” aspect of the PBCL approach heightens the recognition that there are no pre-determined “correct” answers in most authentic business scenarios, but rather messy situations with multiple perspectives on the issues (Making Learning Real, n.d.).



  1. Armstrong, E. (2004). Overview: Advantages of the case based Approach. < http://pedicases.org/teaching/overview/approach.html>
  2. Barnes, L.B., Christensen, C.R. and Hansen, A.J., 1994. Teaching and the case method: Text, cases, and readings. Harvard Business Press. https://hbr.org/product/teaching-and-the-case-method-third-edition-text-cases-and-readings/4030-HBK-ENG.
  3. Barrows, H. S. (1986). A taxonomy of problem-based learning methods. Medical Education, 20, 481-486.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3796328.
  4. Barrows, H. S. (1996). Problem-based learning in medicine and beyond: A brief overview. In L. Wilkerson & H. Gilselaers (eds.), Bringing problem-based learning to higher education: Theory and practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Inc. < https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ535963>
  5. Barrows, H. S. Tamblyn, R. M. (1980). Problem-based learning. New York: Springer.  http://apps.fischlerschool.nova.edu/toolbox/instructionalproducts/edd8124/fall11/1980-BarrowsTamblyn-PBL.pdf
  6. Buch, N & Wolff, T 2000, “Classroom teaching through inquiry,” Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education and Practice, vol. 126, no. 3, pp. 105–109, http://dx.doi.org/10.1061/(ASCE)1052-3928(2000)126:3(105).
  7. Clark, R., (2009). Accelerating expertise with scenario based learning. Learning Blueprint. Merrifield, VA: American Society for Teaching and Development.
  8. David, J. L (2008) What Research Says About Project-Based Learning, Teaching Students to Think, vol. 65, no. 5, pp. 80-82
  9. Duch, B. J., Groh, S. E, & Allen, D. E. (Eds.). (2001). The power of problem-based learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus.  https://www.amazon.com/Power-Problem-Based-Learning-Undergraduate.
  10. Jonassen, D. H., & Hung, W. (2008). All Problems are Not Equal: Implications for Problem-Based Learning. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning, vol 2, no. 2.  http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1080&context=ijpbl
  11. Kindley, R. W. (2002). Scenario-based e-learning: a step beyond traditional e-learning. ASTD Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.astd.org/
  12. Lave, J. and Wenger, E., 1991. Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge university press.  http://www.universidad-de-la-calle.com/Wenger.pdf.
  13. Sendag, S. & Odabasi, H.F. (2009). Effects of an Online Problem Based Learning Course on Content Knowledge Acquisition and Critical Thinking Skills. Computers & Education, vol 53, no. 1, pp. 132-141. https://www.learntechlib.org/p/67224/.
  14. Steadman RH, Coates WC, Huang YM, Matevosian R, Larmon BR, McCullough L, Ariel D. (2008) Simulation-based training is superior to problem-based learning for the acquisition of critical assessment and management skills. Critical Care Med. Vol. 34, no. 1, pp. 151-7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16374169 and https://www.academia.edu/13567678/Simulation-based_training_is_superior_to_problem-based_learning_for_the_acquisition_of_critical_assessment_and_management_skills.
  15. Thomsen, BC, Renaud, CC, Savory, SJ, Romans, EJ, Mitrofanov, O, Rio, M, Day, SE, Kenyon, AJ & Mitchell, JE 2010, “Introducing scenario based learning: experiences from an undergraduate electronic and electrical engineering course,” IEEE Education Engineering Conference EDUCON 2010, Madrid, IEEE, Piscataway, pp. 953–958, http://dx.doi.org/10.1109/EDUCON.2010.5492474 and http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/18955/1/18955.pdf or  https://www.researchgate.net/profile/John_Mitchell24/publication/224148729.


Originally published June 7, 2015.

What leaders say....