Problem-based Learning: An Approach to Teaching and Learning

Problem-based Learning (PBL) involves students being challenged to solve genuine problems from their discipline. In addition to developing general skills such as critical thinking and abstract reasoning, PBL is an ideal way for students to apply their theoretical knowledge in an authentic way. PBL is often used as a way for students to develop experience in the process of solving a problem, rather than simply seeking a ‘correct’ solution. For this reason, problems used for PBL include well-defined ones with a clear solution (or set of possible solutions), as well as more loosely-defined ones or those without a known solution.

PBL is a versatile approach that can be applied in most disciplines, from the practically-focused to the more theoretical. The approach works well as an activity for individuals, but is especially effective when used with groups because it encourages the students to develop their interpersonal, team-working, creativity and influencing skills.

How it Works

While problem-based learning is an approach where the specific details of its use will vary depending on discipline, there are some general choices that need to be made when using PBL in most situations.

First, and most importantly, there is the problem itself. This could range from the highly complex where there is no known answer, through to a simplified one with, at most, a few possible answers. The former is a more accurate example of problems that could be faced in the workplace, and could actually be a genuine problem from industry, whereas the latter is more self-contained and has more in common with the types of problems found in textbooks. The most appropriate option will depend on a number of factors, including those outlined below, but one of the most important is the level and experience of the students: a complex, open problem is likely to overwhelm first year students, whereas a simple and self-contained problem with a single correct answer might not be challenging enough for final year students.

Secondly, there is the decision of whether the students are to work in groups or as individuals. This will be partly determined by the complexity of the problem, but will itself determine whether a particular problem is reasonable. Group-based PBL is a good opportunity for students to develop employability skills that will be beneficial in the workplace because the students are able to make use of their individual strengths and learn from each other.

The final major decision is whether it is the process or the product of that process that is the most important aspect of the activity. In some cases, particularly where the problem has no clear solution, the approach that the students take in trying to solve the problem is a more valuable experience than finding the correct answer. Regardless of the actual choice made, it is extremely common for students to be required to record their process. This serves two purposes: firstly, it produces evidence that the students have legitimately attempted to solve the problem; and secondly it provides something for the students to use as the basis of future reflection.

PBL also offers an ideal platform to introduce knowledge and expertise from people outside of the institution. For example, outside experts in the problem domain could be available for the students to question, provide feedback on ideas, or give first hand insight into the problem. Similarly, potential users and beneficiaries of the solution could be made available in the same to provide their own perspective on the problem and the students’ work.

Possible Technologies to Support the Approach

The technologies used to support PBL will primarily depend on the problem that is being investigated and it is likely that these will be quite similar to the ones that would be used outside of a university setting. However, there are some general tools that would be useful for most PBL activities, particularly those where students are working in groups. These tools can all be used by individuals for personal recording, but their collaboration features, such as comments and live editing, mean that they excel when used as part of a group.

Technologies for recording activity and reflections are very useful during problem-solving activities as they allow students to share ideas, expand upon them collaboratively and review each others’ work to make suggests and avoid duplication of effort. Tools such as Blogs, Social Bookmarking, and ePortfolios provide ways for students to share information about the work that they have been undertaking and the resources that they have used.

These while being online tools means that, in many cases, contributions can be solicited from people outside of the institution. For example, the students could use a Blog to record their progress and process and contact external experts in the topic for their input. Communications tools such as Skype, Blackboard Collaborate and Google Hangouts allow people to talk with one another over the internet regardless of their location, and some even allow the use of shared whiteboards to show slides and collaborate or webcams to show physical objects. These tools would also be suitable for situations where students need to discuss their work but are not able to physically meet.

The production of reports or presentations on their approach and solution is a common element of many PBL activities and tools such as Google DocsWikis and online PowerPoint alternatives offer ways for students to create reports and presentations collaboratively. Using these tools, groups of students are able to work on documents together without individuals needing to wait for others to complete their parts and email the document around first.

Other tools that might be useful are those that help with organising the work, particularly for groups, and capturing ideas and brainstorming. Trello is a free, online tool that can is well suited to planning projects, whereas mindmapping software work very well for recording ideas. Another free online tool, Padlet, can be used for both of these purposes, though it isn’t as specialised and comprehensive as these others.

Getting Started

If you are interested in trying out PBL there are a few practical questions that you should answer:

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“Spring 2012 hackNY Student Hackathon Coding” by

  • Where in the course/module would this approach work best?
  • What are the problems that the students could work on? Would complex, ‘real-world’ problems or simplified ones be most appropriate?
  • Should the students work individually or in groups?
  • Is the process of finding a solution as important as finding the right solution?
  • How much technology should be involved? Which tools are most suited? What support would be needed?
  • Are the students (and other tutors) ready for this?

Having thought about these questions, you should have worked out whether PBL is an approach that makes sense in your context and have some ideas about how to introduce it. If you are still unsure, you could try a small PBL exercise in a single lecture or seminar and see how the students respond.

Further Resources

Case studies from SHU:

The following links are to case studies showing how staff at SHU have used PBL ideas in their teaching:

Related ‘Teaching Nuggets’:

The following links provide further information on some activities and assessment outputs that can work well with PBL tasks, especially for students who are part-time or not campus-based:

Other resources:

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