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Our Teaching Innovations

McMaster is best known for our pioneering work in problem-based learning, which began in our medical school in 1969 and has been adopted across the world.

What is the McMaster Model of Problem-Based Learning?

Dr. Don Woods, one of the pioneers of problem-based learning in McMaster’s Faculty of Engineering, described it best: it’s “any learning environment in which the problem drives the learning.”

Problem-based learning is now used in universities across Canada, the US, Europe and Australia – and it all started here at McMaster.

In 1969, finding that students were becoming disenchanted with the traditional lecture style of teaching, administrators at Mac’s new medical school introduced a unique, hands-on approach to learning. They called it problem-based learning, and devised a method of teaching that involved students exploring an open-ended problem in small groups, guided by a tutor.

How does it work?

The goal was not necessarily to solve the problem – rather, the students worked on identifying their own learning needs as they worked to understand the problem, to find information related to the problem, and to learn from each other and their tutors. Each case is accompanied by specific learning outcomes to ensure that students learn appropriate concepts and information as they progress through their program.

What are the benefits?

Problem-based learning fosters active, student-centred learning and focuses on comprehension and context – not just memorization – leading to a better understanding once students make the jump from the classroom to the workplace. Evidence shows that students who have completed a PBL program score higher than students in traditional courses in terms of learning competencies, problem solving, data gathering and other measures.

A History of Teaching Innovation

Starting with our founding in 1887, innovation in teaching and learning has been woven into the fabric of McMaster since the beginning.

A vintage photo of some men from McMaster

First classes in Hamilton


Financed by the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec and the citizens of Hamilton, McMaster University holds its first academic session in Hamilton on lands transferred to the university by the Royal Botanical Gardens.

Researchers in a lab

Research intensity


McMaster is named the most research-intensive university in the country by Research Infosource.

Global Teaching Excellence Award logo

McMaster awarded Global Teaching Excellence Award


McMaster wins the second-ever Global Teaching Excellence Award from the UK-based Higher Education Academy, in partnership with Times Higher Education.