Dr. Agnes Tiwari, Assistant Professor, Department of Nursing Studies, Faculty of Medicine, The university of Hong Kong, G/F., Block B, Queen Mary Hospital, Pokfulam Road, Hong Kong.


Dr. C.M. Wong, Department of Community Medicine, University of Hong Kong, 2/F., Patrick Manson Building, Sassoon Road, Hong Kong. 


Dr. Patrick Lai, Educational Development Centre, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hung Hom, Kowloon, Hong Kong.



Applying the context-based problem-based learning (PBL) model in graduate education.


Number of words




Although PBL has been advocated as an effective learning strategy, its implementation may be fraught with difficulties.  The educational philosophy of the teacher, learning needs of the students and availability of resources can significantly influence the feasibility of using this mode of learning.  In some instances, it may be necessary to modify the approach.  The context-based PBL model is an example of the modifications.  This paper reports on the features of the context-based PBL model and describes how it was used in a Master's level course in nursing education. 



Context-based PBL model, variant of PBL, graduate education





There are theoretical and empirical bases for suggesting that PBL promotes student learning, particularly in the areas of knowledge retention (Norman & Schmidt, 1992), integration of basic science knowledge to the solution of clinical problems (Barrows, 1985), self-directed learning skills (Barrows & Tamblyn, 1980; Blumberg & Michael, 1992), and increased motivation for learning (Barrows & Tamblyn, 1980; Schmidt, 1983).  Despite the promises, the introduction of PBL has to be congruent with the learning needs of the students, the educational philosophy of the teachers, and the availability of resources.  Under certain circumstances, modifications may be necessary in order to meet the various needs or overcome certain constraints.  An example is the initiation of the context-based PBL model, which is designed to help ease the transition from a teacher-dominated, examination-oriented system to a learner-initiated, student-centred learning environment.  The intention is that the context-based PBL model would preserve the philosophy and retain the key elements of PBL while allowing for modifications in response to specific teaching and learning context.  In this paper, the features of the context-based PBL model and the application of this model in graduate education will be described.


Context-based PBL Model

The context-based PBL model was developed by Tang and her team of teacher-researchers at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in response to the difficulties encountered while attempting to implement PBL.  Many of the difficulties were contextually related to student characteristics and nature of the subject (Tang et al., 1997).  The model provides a template, based on which individual teachers may design their own approach to fit in with their teaching context.  The template consists of (1) an introductory session,  (2) group discussion, (3) student presentation, and (4) concluding session.  The rationale for having an introductory session, which is usually in the form of a short lecture, is that some background information and clarification of key concepts have to be provided as self-directed learning is a totally new experience for many of the local Hong Kong students.  It is intended that the introductory session will provide direction and support to the students and help to build up their confidence to cope with the new approach in learning.  Thus, the context-based PBL model incorporates more teacher guidance, at least at the initial stage, than one would find in the ‘typical’ PBL.  Apart from the introductory lecture session, the context-based PBL model retains the key elements of the ‘typical’ PBL, which includes real life problems, student independent learning, group discussion and sharing, and peer teaching.  While the template identifies the essential features of a context-based PBL approach, it may be modified according to local contextual factors such as the background of both teachers and students, aims of the teaching department, knowledge and philosophy of the discipline and nature of the subject content.  In the pilot development of the context-based PBL model, Tang and associates reported six modified pilot models in response to the different teaching contexts in six disciplines. 



The use of the context-based PBL model in this study can be justified on two reasons.  First, the students involved are mature learners who have come from a selective, examination-oriented, didactic education system.  Their educational experience would have influenced their expectation of university teaching: knowledge is to be transmitted through teaching, and the role of the student is to passively receive the knowledge and reproduce it accurately in examinations.  If the ‘typical’ PBL model were adopted, these students would be at a loss due to a sudden change to their learning habit.  Through the provision of teacher guidance at the initial stage of the context-based PBL, the transition from a teacher-dominated to student-centred environment could be made easier and the students would benefit from the optimal learning offered by PBL without having to experience the ‘trauma’ caused by the abrupt change.  Second, the students are part-time students with full-time work.  Most of them work shift hours making it difficult for them to conduct group learning and discussion outside the two-evening-a-week class contact time.  Also, the curriculum is so ‘packed’ that the contact learning hours barely cover all the stated learning objectives.  The constraint on time may have a hindering effect on the learning process if the ‘typical’ PBL model were used.  The context-based PBL is a more ‘economical’ way of organizing students’ activities through the use of an introductory lecture session. 


Application of the Model

The context-based PBL model was adopted as the sole teaching and learning strategy for a course named “Advanced Data Analysis and Management”.  Nine students enrolled on the course, which is a core subject in the first year of the Master of Nursing in Advanced Nursing programme at the University of Hong Kong.  Designed as a part-time mode of study, the course took place once a week, as a four-hour session with a total of 48 class contact hours. 


The learning activities were divided into two stages: before the class and during the class.  Self-directed learning before the class was encouraged through the provision of learning materials in the form of student guides.  A student guide was prepared for each week’s class and given to the students in advance.  Each of the student guides contains the learning objectives for the specific session, a problem situation, learning issues and references.  Tutor guides were also prepared to help the tutor to facilitate student learning.  Activities during the class revolved around the problem situation identified and included an introduction, group discussion, feedback and concluding session.  In the introduction, background information for the problem and clarification of concepts were provided by the tutor.  A mini lecture would be conducted if the concepts were complex and unfamiliar to the students.  The introduction was followed by group discussion during which students attempted to solve the problem by identifying cues, formulating hypotheses, checking responses, asking questions, redefining problems, reframing hypotheses, re-checking responses and identifying correct responses.  Learning issues were also identified during the group discussion.  Student presentation followed the group discussion.  During the presentation, students described their analyses of the problem, and offered their choice of solutions with justifications.  Students were also given a chance to critique each other’s ideas and the soundness of the proposed solutions.  Following the presentation, students were facilitated to address the learning issues identified and apply the new knowledge to real situations.  Then came the concluding session in which the students were encouraged to assess the degree to which they have integrated their learning and to evaluate their own learning and the use of learning materials.  The sequence of introduction-discussion-presentation-conclusion occupied the whole 4-hour session. 


To summarize, the context-based PBL model implemented in this study was based on the template provided by Tang and team’s model, namely, the inclusion of an introductory lecture session in the introduction-discussion-presentation-conclusion sequence.  One modification was significant, that is the use of student guide to promote self-directed learning prior to the class.  Compared with the ‘typical’ PBL, the context-based PBL model in this study has preserved the key elements of the ‘typical’ model while providing a transition between dependent didactic teaching and self-directed independent learning through the inclusion of more teacher guidance at the initial stage of the model. 




Barrows, H.S. (1985).  How to design a problem-based curriculum for pre-clinical years.  New York: Springer.

Barrows, H.S., & Tamblyn, R.M. (1980).  Problem-based learning: An approach to medical education.  New York: Springer.

Blumberg, P., & Michael, J.A. (1992).  Development of self-directed learning behaviors in a partially teacher-directed problem-based learning curriculum.  Teaching and Learning in Medicine, 4, 1, 3-8.

Norman, G.R., & Schmidt, H.G. (1992).  The psychology basis of problem-based learning: A review of the evidence.  Academic Medicine, 67, 557-565.

Schmidt, H.G. (1983).  Intrinsieke motivatie en studieprestaties: Enkele verkennende conderrzoekingen. [Intrinsic motivation and achievement: Some investigations]. Pedagogische Studieen, 60, 385-395.

Tang, C., Lai, P., Davies, H., Frankland, S., Oldfield, K., Walters, M., Mei Leng, N., Tse, P., Taylor, G., Tiwari, A., Yim, M., & Yuen, E. (1997).  Developing a context-based PBL model.  In J. Conway, R. Fisher, L. Sheridan-Burns and G. Ryan (Eds.). Research and development in problem based learning.  Volume 4: Integrity, innovation, integration (pp.579-595).  Newcastle: Australian Problem Based Learning Network.