Number. 23 © CDTL 2003
Problem-based Learning (PBL)
Assistant Professor Hendrik Meyer-Ohle
Department of Japanese Studies

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 Process

  1. Explore the problem.
  2. Try to solve the problem with what you currently know.
  3. Identify what you do not know, and therefore what you need to know.
  4. Draw up a research plan.
  5. Self-study and prepare.
  6. Share the new knowledge in the group.
  7. Apply the knowledge to solve the problem
  8. 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 ways:

  • Increased research and thinking skills
  • Being able to learn and define objectives based on own needs and interests
  • 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 process.

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.

Further Reading

Woods, Donald R. (1994). Problem-based Learning: How to Gain the Most from PBL. Waterdown, ON: Donald R. Woods.


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