Problem-based Learning

Problem-based Learning (PBL), its diluted sibling Enquiry-based Learning (EBL), and its grown-up cousin Action Learning, are more examples of “branding” forms of teaching which have been good standard practice for centuries. It is reasonable to claim that every effective teacher uses PBL at some stage or other in her or his teaching.

But PBL is not just another method of teaching. It can be used in a "weak" or a "strong" form: if you go for the strong form, it requires a whole different approach to curriculum and course design, crossing disciplinary boundaries, and tolerating a degree of uncertainty about outcomes. The weak form, on the other hand, can be incorporated within existing structures with rather less disruption.

1  Weakest form

This does not really count, but it is a starting point. We are all familiar with arithmetical "problems" from our school-days. Here a basic sum was cast in a very simplified real-world scenario, and the "added value" was simply in application and the ability to discern the nature of the sum:

  • If it takes three men four days to dig a ditch, how long will it take four men? 
  • If I buy four oranges at 12 pence each, how much change will I get from a pound? (Ignore bogof offers)

All the required information is supplied, the problem is self-contained, but it does relate simple formal arithmetical processes to the real world, and require that at least two sums be linked.

2  Weak form

Now we start to refer to parameters or other information which is strictly outside the initial problem formulation:

  • Using the supplied tables, and following the information on the soil type and employment regulations in ... how much will it cost to dig a trench on this site 1m deep by 60 cm wide by 5m long?

This is where the project element comes in, although at this stage it may well just be a matter of selecting relevant information from that supplied (not a trivial task — not all the information will be relevant) and plugging it in to an equation. These weak forms are referred to by Savin-Baden as "Problem-solving learning".

3  Stronger form

Problem-based learning begins to come into its own when it involves finding out additional information to solve the problem (or case), with a greater or lesser degree of guidance. You not only have to work out what you need to know in order to solve the problem, you have to research it, and to apply your findings to the issue.

  • At map reference (OS) 067503, it is necessary to provide a new drainage system associated with site redevelopment (details to be found at ...), conforming to all relevant national and local regulations: design, schedule and cost the project.

Now we are bringing in geographical and geological, legal, technical, economic, business and project management material, which has to be researched and integrated into the solution(s) to the problem. The task is probably too big for one person, so it will have to be undertaken by a group, who will therefore also have to develop skills in sharing out tasks, communicating findings, harnessing talents and compensating for weaknesses, and so on. Nevertheless, something slightly less ambitious (such exercises can be tailored by the amount of information provided) could simply be a culminating assessment for a third-level module.

  • This is also where "Enquiry-based Learning" sits, roughly. This shares with PBL the requirement to research the topic, but tends to be less prescriptive about what constitutes an acceptable answer. It is as much about opening up issues for debate at a later stage, rather than prescribing the "convergent" answer.

4  The Real Thing

The progression so far has been apparently from simplicity to complexity and difficulty — but that is not what PBL is about. The question of whether it is “really” PBL is “How much of the burden of the curriculum does the problem bear?”

If, for example, the task above were the final integrated task for a course which had contained units on:

  • Geography and geology for the built environment
  • Infrastructure design for building
  • Costing for civil engineers
  • Project management

— it might be a pretty good assessment (might be — I'm totally out of my field and speculating wildly, and wishing I had never started with the ditch-digging example. Contact me and put me right!) but it would not be a PBL curriculum.

PBL really comes into its own when the case-study or the problem is the curriculum, when it provides the framework within which all the other learning is to be located. This is when it gets radical, because the conventional subject disciplines are subordinated to the Problem: and the task of curriculum development becomes one of finding a series of Problems which between them require the acquisition of all the knowledge, skills and values of the profession. What is more, the conventional disciplinary allegiances of teachers are subordinated to servicing the students' task of solving the problem.

The Challenge

Problem-based Learning is very good at getting students to learn whatever it focuses on. Moreover, they learn it in context, as a contributory discipline to the solution of the problem. But:

The Product

If the ensuing project gets to exist in the real world, so much the better — it greatly improves motivation and commitment and further enhances learning. Examples might be:

Risk factors and budget will need to be taken into account, of course.

... and the Process

For some teachers/facilitators, problem-based learning is just another tool in the box: for others, as Savin-Baden suggests, it is much more radical than that. It presents students with challenges about their own resourcefulness, personal organisation, critical abilities and capacity to think which appear in her account to be even more important than the content of what they learn. It induces a degree of “disjunction” (Jarvis, 1987), not unlike the de-stabilisation referred to on this site. 

Whether or not you accept this position (and the implication that such personal development is potentially an emergent property of PBL whether intended or not) will depend in part on where you stand on:

It could be said to be an attempt to introduce

into the taught curriculum.

Is PBL just playing at it, and Action Learning the real thing?


PBL generates a lot of enthusiasm and little critical scrutiny, but it needs to be evaluated like any other method—indeed perhaps more rigorously because of its implications for the rest of a course, and because there are so many things which can go wrong. Certainly do not expect it to work properly first time round.

A great deal depends on the formulation of the problem, and this in turn relates to the nature of the discipline within which it sits. Problem-based learning is not particularly good for disciplines in which it is possible to arrive at "good-enough" solutions relatively easily. So while in teaching you could use it effectively to address issues of curriculum design, you would not find a strong form the most appropriate method to address the minutiae of, say, classroom management. That is necessarily about "quick and dirty" interventions, with uncertain outcomes, where it is not always clear what the best outcome would be. On the other hand you could say that all simulations and many case-studies have an element of PBL in them.

A developing area of interest out there is the use of PBL to address the teaching of threshold concepts; that is potentially a potent combination.

Further external links:

University of Delaware pages on PBL From the Higher Education Academy's Sociology, Anthropology and Politics Subject Centre Archive of resources for PBL in business education From where it all stated at McMaster University, although from chemical engineering rather than medicine. Scroll down for access to a whole guidebook on-line. And a page of further links to individual institutional programmes and resources

Further Reading

BOUD D and FELETTI G (1997) The Challenge of Problem-Based Learning London; Kogan Page

SAVIN-BADEN M (2000) Problem-based Learning in Higher Education; untold stories Buckingham; Open University Press/SRHE

SAVIN-BADEN M and WILKIE K (eds.)(2004) Challenging Research in Problem Based Learning Buckingham; Open University Press/SRHE [Back]

 Buy one, get one free [Back]

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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