Introduction to Problem-based learning

The ‘problem’ is the point of departure for problem-based learning (PBL).

  • ‘The problem’ points at something not understood – on the basis of something understood.
  • ‘The problem’ is always owned by somebody – PBL requires it to be owned by the learner.
  • ‘The problem’ thus denotes a specific relation between the learner and certain reality aspects (the problem field) that the learner sees as problematic – in an academically or educationally interesting way.
  • Helping the learner to extract ‘the problem’ from the problem field is one key competence for the PBL supervisor; cf. ‘point of departure’.


The problem triangle
The problem triangle

In PBL, learning cannot get started before/unless learners have identified the problem that shall serve as a motor for their learning efforts.

In PBL, projects are organized as group work. ‘Projects’ mean ‘student-initiated and student-designed, empirically based investigation activities aimed at solving the problem’. The project is supported by courses but the project is what counts as most
important. In other words, the project is supported by other courses. High-quality PBL presupposes a proper quantitative balance between, and temporal sequencing of, project activities and course activities.

The problem is a driver for the learning process.
See presentation by Søren Willert, Aalborg University

What is PBL?

An instructional method in which the problem drives the learning.

  • Before students learn some new knowledge, they are given a problem.
  • The problem is presented so that students discover that they need to learn before they can solve the problem..

“The principal idea behind PBL is that the starting point for learning should be a problem, a query, or a puzzle that the learner wishes to solve”

-Boud (1985)

How to form a problem?

Carefully selected and designed problems demand from the learner.

  • Acquisition of critical knowledge
  • Problem solving proficiency
  • Self-directed learning strategies,
  • Team participation skills

A family of approaches

PBL is one of a family of cooperative and experiential approaches to learning.

  • Case-based learning
  • Project-based learning
  • Anchored instruction
  • Inquiry-based learning
  • Context rich learning

The distinction is blurred, and hybrid approaches abound.

Essential components of PBL

In all variation of PBL:

  • The problem comes first – all content knowledge is introduced in the context of complex real-world problems (important distinction from teaching methods where the concepts are presented in a lecture format followed by  ‘end-of-the chapter’ problems).
  • There is emphasis on self-directed learning.

PBL features

PBL as a student-centered pedagogy is characterized by the following main features:

  • Learning is initiated by a proble
  • Problems are based on complex, real-world situations that do not have a single correct answer
  • All information needed to solve problem is not initially given
  • Students identify, find, and use appropriate resources
  • Students work in small, permanent groups
  • The teacher acts to facilitate the learning process rather than to provide knowledge
  • The teacher uses different forms of assessment such as reflective journals etc

Part F: The PBL cycle

See presentation by Andri Ioannou, Cyprus University of Technology. The following diagram presents the PBL cycle