Problem-based learning (PBL) is a pedagogical approach where a
problem stands at the beginning of the learning process. A popular
example is the following:
Problem-Based Learning Approach
“Here’s a toaster that isn’t working.
Let’s fix it. Or better still, improve it!”
Subject-based Learning Approach
“Today we are going to study the flow of electricity
through metals; then we’ll look at…”
Problems are usually given to a team of students; students then
become responsible for defining the problem, finding out what they
do know already and recognising what additional information they
need to solve the problem. All this is done under the guidance of
a facilitator and within a given framework:
The Problem-based Learning
- Explore the problem.
- Try to solve the problem with what you currently know.
- Identify what you do not know, and therefore
what you need to know.
- Draw up a research plan.
- Self-study and prepare.
- Share the new knowledge in the group.
- Apply the knowledge to solve the problem
- Reflect on the problem-solving process.
In this sense, PBL can be quite a radical departure from the usual
learning approach that is heavily lecturer-centred.
Overall, students have responded positively to PBL and reported
that they have profited from the new learning approach in various
- Increased research and thinking skills
- Being able to learn and define objectives based on own needs
- Becoming able to express own opinions
- Learning how to work effectively in a team
- Learning how to find research sources
- Learning how to draw up a research plan
Nonetheless, being faced with a totally new learning environment,
participants have also expressed some anxieties:
- What will the exam look like if the content and course of the
module is more flexible?
- How are individual achievements within the group assessed?
- What happens if conflict occurs within the group?
Lecturers will usually address these concerns before the introduction
of PBL and put various organisational measures into place to make
sure that these problems do not stand in the way of a successful
learning process. For example, exams might be based on the PBL approach
and the focus of exams might shift from testing content knowledge
to testing thinking skills. Group work is usually assessed not only
by the lecturer, but also through a regular self- and peer evaluation
Students should also be aware that for the lecturer, the most
interesting aspect of PBL is getting a deeper insight into the learning
interests and learning processes of students. Since PBL puts student
initiative into the centre of the course design, lecturers are also
very much dependent on the collaboration of students. Consequently,
lecturers using the PBL approach are usually very interested in
receiving feedback and the discussion of the problem-solving process
is seen as an integral part of the whole PBL approach.