Problem-based Learning

Problem based learning (PBL) describes teaching methodologies that make students take an active, task-orientated and self directed approach to their own learning. Through the structured exploration of a problem, students develop practical and creative research skills. It is an effective approach to show students the practical application of knowledge in a real world setting. When conducted as a group work activity, PBL also nurtures communication, teamwork and perspective-taking skills and encourages student engagement and motivation.

Advantages and disadvantages of PBL


  • Makes learning more student centred, experiential and activity based as it engages students in structuring solutions to real life, relevant, contextualised problems.  Therefore students become actively engaged in meaningful learning [2]
  • Students assume increased responsibility for their learning and use self selected resources and new sources of knowledge (journals, libraries, web) becoming more competent in information-seeking skills [2,3,4].
  • Alters the student view of instructors from a source of test answers to a possible resource for solving relevant problems [5].
  • Students can achieve higher levels of comprehension and skill development as PBL focuses on activities rather than knowledge, encouraging deeper rather than surface learning [2,4].
  • Increased transferability of skills and knowledge from the classroom to work [6].
  • Promotes student interaction and teamwork, thereby enhancing interpersonal skills, working with group dynamics, peer evaluation encouraging an appreciation of teamwork and the value of others and how to present and defend their ideas [2, 7, 8, 9, 10].
  • Offers a more nurturing and flexible way to learn, promoting a self motivated attitude.May lead to an increase in exam results because students are better at activating prior knowledge and can elaborate more fully [11]. 
  • Promotes mental processing, understanding and recall.  Because content is learned in context, definitions, information, theories, correlations and principles are learned and integrated with one another [12].  


  • May decrease the amount of content able to be covered by the teacher.
  • Tends to reduce initial levels of learning but improves long term retention [13].
  • PBL involves a large cultural change, both for students and teachers Students tend to be schooled in ‘traditional’ methods prior to moving to study in higher education institutions.  These traditional teaching methods promote students to adopt the attitude that the instructor is expert and the memorization of facts leading to many students losing the ability to “simply wonder about something” especially 1st year students who have difficulties with self directed learning [2,14,15].
  • Poorly defined problems which encourage student directed learning may result in important information being missed i.e. if students divert from the anticipated direction of the exercise they may completely miss the main content [12].
  • Reviews suggest that PBL may increase skill levels, but may result in poorer performance on traditional test subjects and it is stressful for students.

Problem based learning tasks can be incorporated into most active and interactive learning formats (i.e. discussion boards, group work, interactive power point, PRs tutorial sessions) If designed appropriately PBL can be used a valuable learning tool.  Exercises using PBL can be constructed in several different ways [2] :

  • use a real life complex problem that can be solved by a number of correct solutions.
  • problems can be presented to students without direct instruction of how to solve them, but resources and scaffolding are made available for students to solve the problems themselves.
  • students work in small groups to solve a problem with the help of a facilitator  



[2]  Beasley, N. And Ford, J.  Engaging students with problem based learning.  Available from   

[3]  Vernon, D. and Blake, R.L. (1993) ‘Does problem based learning work?  A meta-analysis of evaluative research’, Academic Medicine, 68, pp.550-563

 [4]  Albanese, M. and Mitchell, S. (1993) ‘Problem-based learning: a review of the literature on its outcomes and implementation issues’, Academic Medicine, 68, pp.52-81

 [5]  Aspy, D.N., Aspy, C.B. and Quimby, P.M. (1993) ‘What doctors can teach about problem-based learning’, Educational Leadership, 50, pp.22-24l

 [6]  Gallagher, S.A., Stepien, W.J. and Rosenthal, H. (1992) ‘The effects of problem based learning on problem solving’, Gifted Child Quarterly, 36, pp.195-200

 [7]  Bernstein, P., Tipping, J., Bercovitz, K. And Skinner, H.A. (1995) ‘Shifting students and faculty to a PBL curriculum: attitudes changed and lessons learned’, Academic Medicine, 70, pp.245-247

 [8]  Pincus, K.V.(1995) ‘Introductory Accounting: changing the First Course’, New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 61, pp.88-98

 [9]  Vernon, D.T. (1995) ‘Attitudes and opinions of faculty tutors about problem based learning’, Academic Medicine, 70, pp.216-223

 [10]  Delafuente, J.C., Munyer, T.O., Angaran, D.M. and Doering, P.L. (1994) ‘A problem solving active learning course in pharmacotherapy’, American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, 58, pp.61-64

 [11]  Bridges, E.M. and Hallinger, P.(1991) ‘Problem based learning in medical managerial education’,  Paper presented for the Cognition and School Leadership Conference of the National Center for educational Leadership and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Nashville, TN.

 [12]  Mandin, H., Harasym, P. and Watanabe, M. (1995) ‘Developing a clinical presentation curriculum at the University of Calgary’, Academic Medicine, 70, pp.186-193

 [13]  Farnsworth, C.C. (1994) ‘Using computer simulations in problem based learning’,  In M. Orey (Ed.), Proceedings of the Thirty-fifth ADCIS Conference; pp.137-140

 [14]  Reithlingshoefer, S.J. (Ed.), (1992) ‘The future of Nontraditional/Interdisciplinary Programs; Margin or mainstream?’ Selected Papers from The Tenth Annual Conference on Nontraditional and Interdisciplinary Programs, Virginia Beach, VA, 1-763)

 [15]  Schmidt, H.G., Henny, P.A. and de Vries, M. (1992) ‘Comparing problem-based with conventional education: A review of the University of Limburg medical school experiment’ Annals of Community-orientated Education, 5, pp.193-198

 Resource Links:

 Group-work, proformas and VLE submission – a simple active and interactive learning strategy

 PBL – an example from Food Commodities Module, IAFLU, Queen’s University Belfast