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Multiethnic young people sitting at table reading reference books for study notes. Group of young students doing school assignment in library.

Problem Based Learning (PBL) is a method of teaching subjects in which students are encouraged to think about a particular problem or scenario that is set within a realworld framework. Key to this is that the problem is complex and has no single solution. Through a staged sequence of problems or tasks backed up with resources, students acquire relevant subject-specific and key transferable skills. The main components of PBL are group work, problem solving, and discovering new knowledge.  

In a traditional (often didactic) teaching situation, lecturers give students information or the ‘answers’ to assessments.  Students are passive participants in the learning process and do not achieve higher level thinking skills that university study requires.  PBL is a method of active learning that offers an alternative to this, as lecturers present students with a contextual, real-life problem rather than a solution.  Students work together in small groups or pairs (typically 2-6) to ‘solve’ the problem, either using resources required or finding resources for themselves.  This group work is facilitated by teaching staff and can take place over a single session, several sessions, weeks or even an entire term.  Tasks are often time-limited, but not necessarily completed in one single session.  Learning is driven by problems or challenges that are open-ended and do not have a ‘right’ answer.  This can help to support uncertain or weaker students, as they enjoy the intellectual freedom and appreciate the iterative nature of research. 

PBL is student-centred.  At each stage of the learning process they need to assess their skills and knowledge base to determine what they already know or can do, then decide what they must learn or discover in order to continue with the task.  The students work in collaboration to incorporate this new knowledge or skill into their developing understanding and competency framework. They will also undertake independent and self-directed study outside of the wider group before returning to the problem. 

Owing to this problem-centred mode of learning, students become more active and engaged in their learning as they work together to solve a set problem. However, PBL may be difficult to introduce initially as it is very different from what students may be used to and may need additional scaffolding and support through early weeks.  

Steps in the process (may vary depending on context):

Step 1: Explore the question/scenario/problem carefully: what are you trying to find out? 

Step 2: Revisit the question/explore possible options (group brainstorming). 

Step 3: Plan the investigation or project /narrow your choices (group discussion and consensus). 

Step 4: Research, testing of ideas etc. (group and/or individual). 

Step 5: Come up with a justified and detailed solution that draws upon discussions/research/experiments undertaken. 

Advantages:

  • Students work together, improving communication skills and promoting team work. 
  • Students develop transferable skills and enhance their employability. 
  • Gives students the experience of working as an active researcher and processing information. 
  • Students develop debating and analytical skills. 
  • Can be used in all disciplines. 
  • Shared learning and experiences. 
  • Often cost-effective. 

If employed early in a student’s academic career, e.g. year zero or year one, PBL can have a positive effect on a student’s ability to engage with study, and to communicate with others. 

Disadvantages of PBL:

  • The levels of independence and self-study may be difficult for some students to manage. 
  • Requires a co-learning mindset from the lecturer, rather than the position of expert. 
  • Need to rethink assessment in a PBL environment as traditional assessments may not be appropriate, but group assignments or portfolio assessments may be of greater value. 

Examples of PBL activities include: 

  • Using museum artefacts as a basis for research and producing a poster or museum exhibit. 
  • Producing a business plan or new product. 
  • Investigating environmental concerns at a local nature reserve. 

Best Practice Tips

  • Relate activities to the students’ subject areas, so that they are driven by a relevant context. 
  • Engage with external bodies or employers if possible, e.g. at Durham, academic departments have collaborated with the University Museums (see Dunn, 2016). 
  • Make sure that the approach and its value is explained and justified to students. 
  • Ensure that solving the problem necessitates engaging with the intended learning outcomes for the module. 

Resources

The University of Leicester.

The University of Liverpool.

Further Reading

Boud, D. (ed.) (1998) The Challenge of Problem-Based Learning. London: Routledge. 

Delisle, R. (1997). How to Use Problem- based Learning in the Classroom. Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD. 

Dunn, R. L. (2016). Enhancing the Student Learning Experience: Developing a PBL resource for Foundation History students in InForm, No. 16, December 2016, pp. 19-20.