Guide for Educators - Problem Based Learning

Problem Based Learning

Guide for Educators

Problem Based Learning (PBL) is a teaching and learning strategy used widely in HE as a means of engaging students with material, developing collaborative learning, building independent learning and encouraging deeper learning.

Problem Based Learning may also be viewed as a way to conceive or design curricula. Problem Based Learning is then not solely regarded as an instructional technique, but as an educational philosophy or approach for designing curricula. Typically, in this case the emphasis is on a multidisciplinary organisation of the curriculum, confronting students with problems as they would find them in 'real-life'. According to this view, curricula should be strongly multidisciplinary oriented, because 'real-life' problems are often not bounded or solvable within mono-disciplinary constraints.

Engel (1991) tries to approach this issue by focusing on the coherence of a curriculum concerning choice of contents and methods. According to him four major aspects may be considered as essential components of a problem-based curriculum:

  • Cumulative learning
    No subject or topic should be studied in finite depth at any one time, rather it should be reintroduced repeatedly.
  • Integrated learning
    Subjects should not be presented separately, but rather be available for study as they relate to a problem.
  • Progression in learning
    As the students mature so the various aspects of the curriculum must change (e.g. working in groups, relationship between theory and practice).
  • Consistency in learning
    The aims of PBL must be operationalised in every facet of the curriculum (e.g. relationship between teaching and testing).

Integration between disciplines is regarded as an essential feature for choice of course contents in problem-based programmes.
(Engel, C.E. (1991). Not just a method but a way of learning. In D. Boud & G. Feletti (Eds.), The Challenge of Problem-Based Learning, 23-33. London:Kogan Page)

PBL developed in medical education where traditional forms of instruction left students with plenty of knowledge but a lack of skills in using that knowledge in different situations. Some medical courses are now taught entirely by a PBL approach. The theory is that students are given a real life problem to solve and are expected to investigate and explore the knowledge required and how that knowledge can be used to develop solutions to the problem and to evaluate the solutions arrived at.

Biz/ed's series of PBL activities can be used in HE but can also be adapted for the 16-19 sector and may be particularly valuable for those following vocational based courses.

The aim of this introduction is to outline the basic principles of PBL and to identify some of the issues in applying PBL techniques to the classroom. There will be a series of PBL activities added to the site during term time that can be used and adapted by educators in their teaching and learning programme and will act as an additional guide to students in identifying sources of information to help in their pursuit of PBL.

If you are new to PBL, there are a number of things to consider before introducing it. The learning process is very student centred. The role of the teacher/lecturer is to facilitate rather than teach. That is, the educator provides questions to help direct student thinking, can answer some questions but not tell students answers or solve the problem for them.

Students who have not come across this type of learning approach before will face frustration, resentment and a lack of confidence. Frustration should be seen as part of the learning process - it is frustrating that we cannot learn things easily sometimes! It may be useful to draw an analogy with a baby learning to walk; they will inevitably fall over, hit their heads, bruise their knees and take several weeks before they master the skills, motor-co-ordination, balance and confidence to take those steps properly. No one criticises the child that they are too slow, or that they make mistakes, instead they are given a helping hand and encouragement to keep trying. This is the role of the educator in PBL.

Another analogy is to link students' experiences of learning to drive. You can be told about how the brake, clutch and accelerator work but the confidence to execute all the cognitive processes to propel a vehicle along the road - safely - comes with actively engaging with driving. Again, mistakes will be made but they all form part of the learning process. The PBL environment therefore must be completely non-threatening to the student both in terms of the student-educator relationship and the student-student relationship.

PBL requires the educator to let go. If the educator becomes concerned that the syllabus or specification is not being covered then PBL will not work. It is important to remember that knowledge forms only a small part of the assessment objectives in both 16-19 and HE environments and as such this should be reflected in the way in which the learning process is mapped out.

Biz/ed's PBL activities are based on principles outlined by pioneers in the field of PBL, most notably Wim Gijselaers et al at the University of Maastricht. Gijselaers (1996) outlines the following key principles in understanding and using PBL:

  • Problems serve as a stimulus for learning
  • PBL is based on three important principles of learning:
    1. Learning is a constructive and not a receptive process - learning occurs as new learning is associated with existing knowledge networks
    2. Knowing about knowing (metacognition) affects learning - What am I going to do? How am I going to do it? Did it work?
    3. Social and contextual factors influence learning - understanding how and when to use knowledge is as important as the knowledge itself
  • Problems reflect real world situations or professional practice
  • Small group work encourages student collaboration and independence
  • Students learn to share their ideas and share responsibility
  • Students learn to question their own assumptions about their reality
  • Conflicting views as part of discussion facilitate understanding
  • PBL may not be suitable for all types of learning and topic areas
  • Educators must have confidence in the students that they will use their time wisely and can be trusted to carry out the required tasks on time
  • Problems are encountered before all relevant knowledge has been acquired, not after it

The latter point is very important to the process and maybe one of the hardest characteristics for educators to grasp. The educator is relinquishing the role of transmitter of information and this can be a culture shock not only to the educator and the student but also the culture in which the educator is working.

How does PBL work?

Using the University of Maastricht model, the PBL process follows a 'Seven Jump Step' approach. Students are divided into groups of between 5 and 12 with one person appointed as a Chair and another as a Minutes Secretary. The Chair and Minutes Secretary can be rotated at each session. The role of the Chair is to guide the discussions of the group but all students should be involved in the discussions. The educator hands out the problem to the Chair who distributes it to the rest of the group.

The following 7 steps are then tackled:

  1. The Chair and the group read the problem; the Chair will ask if any of the group do not understand any of the vocabulary in the problem - not concepts or theories but literally the vocabulary. Any queries can be resolved through the use of a dictionary!
  2. The Chair asks the group to identify what they think the problem statement is about. At this stage, students may be clueless about the depth of the knowledge inherent in the statement but this will become clearer as the process continues. Some of the answers therefore may be naïve or ignorant but this does not matter. The educator must resist the temptation at this point of stepping in and offering any form of knowledge transmission!
  3. A brainstorm session is held to ascertain what, if anything, is known (or is believed to be known) about the subject matter by any of the students at this point in time.
  4. The Minutes Secretary identifies the key issues that have been discussed. The Chair ensures that a clear list of what is known, what is unclear and what needs to be investigated in more detail is established. This is designed to help the group understand the issues surrounding the problem.
  5. The group agree on their learning objectives and the tasks that they will have to carry out before the next meeting.
  6. Individual Study - members of the group collect the information identified in step 5. There is a choice of two routes here - either each student should tackle his or her own learning objectives, or each student covers all the learning objectives. The latter is more time consuming and may be off-putting for students and avoid inculcating the collaborative team based learning experience. However, the former option may result in gaps in an individual's knowledge and understanding. The educator can provide a list of references to help guide students in their line of investigation. Biz/ed will be providing a list of relevant Web links in this respect thus taking some of the burden of the design and background research from the educator.
  7. The group meet for the second time. The Chair asks the Minutes Secretary to read out the learning objectives and each student has the opportunity to present their research to the rest of the group. It is suggested that this can be done either formally, i.e. in turn, or through group discussion.

At the end of the seven stages, it is the responsibility of the Minutes Secretary to write up the summary of the investigation and the conclusions drawn. A copy of the document is made available for each member of the group. It is important therefore that the process ensures that every person in the group is Secretary/Joint Secretary at least once. The process will therefore provide each student with a piece of written work for assessment. The educator can, at their discretion, identify a series of criteria for less formal assessment - contribution to the discussion, role of the Chair, quality of the individual research carried out and so on. To avoid the problem of non-attendance, marks can be awarded for regular attendance, which contributes towards the final assessment total.

Once the process has been completed, the groups can do a presentation of their findings and a discussion can be facilitated on why there were different solutions to the same problem and what we can learn from these different solutions about the problem. The cycle then continues with the presentation of another stimulus problem.

A particular problem provides the context for learning new information and serves as a stepping-stone for students to acquire knowledge about the general problem-domain. In this final stage of Problem Based Learning, the tutor may also demonstrate how conceptual knowledge about issues addressed in this problem can be used to analyse it. This enables students to observe how knowledge from one problem may be transferred to new problem situations.


Wilkerson, L. & Gijselaers, W.H. (Eds.) (1996). Bringing Problem-Based Learning to Higher Education: Theory and Practice. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, Volume 68. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

  • Stinson & Milter, pages 33-42
  • Barrows, pages 3-12
  • Gijselaers, pages 13-22
  • Wilkerson, pages 23-32

Biz/ed wishes to thank Graham Clayton of Plymouth Business School and Wim H. Gijselaers of the University of Maastricht for their assistance in developing this resource.