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Problem-based Learning

Last updated on 17 May 2023
For problem-based learning (PBL), students work in groups of about twelve to fifteen students on a weekly and structured basis. They work on real-world problems and learn theories, concepts and principles in the process. PBL thus stimulates critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and collaboration and communication skills.

PBL fits into any educational setting and also provides the opportunity for group work. PBL has its origins in medical education, specifically at Maastricht University.

PBL in groups usually consists of a cycle of seven steps:

  1. Clarify unfamiliar terminology in the problem description;
  2. Define the problem in the form of one or more questions;
  3. Brainstorm (and activate prior knowledge) - come up with as many creative ideas and hypotheses as possible;
  4. Analyse the problem by analysing and discussing the hypotheses from step three;
  5. Create learning objectives in the form of questions, based on what knowledge the group does not already possess. This is evidenced by ambiguities and questions from the problem analysis; 
  6. Self-study, where group members seek relevant literature that can answer the questions from step five. And prepare to share the new insights in the next meeting.
  7. Group members report on their sources and insights, then discuss learning objectives related to them. The group integrates the information from different sources with each other.

PBL can be used as an overarching method for an entire course, but also on a smaller scale, for example during a single lesson, or to start a discussion. PBL can be applied to any topic with a little creativity. In practice, the types of problems to be addressed vary by discipline or subject, but the characteristics of an effective problem for PBL are cross-curricular.

It is important that the problems to be solved are real and relevant. Inspiration can be found in situations or questions from professional practice, science, or social developments. Problems can be illustrated by information from, for example, (professional) journals, books, television, films and newspapers. Sometimes it’s necessary to rewrite the problem for the assignment, for example, by delineating it and making it manageable for elaboration in a relatively short time.

The problem:

  • Motivates students to gain a more profound understanding of concepts and topics;
  • Encourages students to make reasoned choices and be able to defend them;
  • Contains content goals that are connected to prior knowledge and previous classes or courses; 
  • Has enough complexity so that students will work together to solve it (for group projects);
  • If it is a multi-stage project, the first steps are not fixed or already defined, but open enough to activate and engage students.

PBL by itself is not applied at VU Amsterdam, but elements of PBL are found in many places. For example, within Case-based learning at the School of Business and Economics or at the Faculty of Social Sciences. In Case-based education, students are presented with problems in the form of stories and the analysis or solution structure is much looser than in PBL.

You can think of PBL as a specific sub-form of Challenge based onderwijs. In PBL, the scope of the problem is greatly reduced compared to Challenge-based learning.

Want to read more?

  • Duch, B. J., Groh, S. E, & Allen, D. E. (Eds.). (2001). The power of problem-based learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
  • Wood, D. F. (2003). Problem based learning. BMJ : British Medical Journal, 326(7384), 328–330.
  • Barnes, L. B., Christensen, C. R., & Hansen, A. J. (1994). Teaching and the Case Method: Text, Cases, and Readings (Third edition). Harvard Business Review Press.
  • Stanley, T. (2019). Case Studies and Case-Based Learning: Inquiry and Authentic Learning That Encourages 21st-Century Skills. Prufrock Press.