Problem based learning: a teacher's guide

Paul Main

Find out how teachers use problem-based learning models to improve engagement and drive attainment.

What is problem-based learning?

Problem-based learning (PBL) is a style of teaching that encourages students to become the drivers of their learning process. Problem-based learning involves complex learning issues from real-world problems and makes them the classroom's topic of discussion; encouraging students to understand concepts through problem-solving skills rather than simply learning facts. When schools find time in the curriculum for this style of teaching it offers students an authentic vehicle for the integration of knowledge. Embracing this pedagogical approach enables schools to balance subject knowledge acquisition with a skills agenda. Often used in medical education, this approach has equal significance in mainstream education where pupils can apply their knowledge to real-life problems. 

PBL is not only helpful in learning course content, but it can also promote the development of problem-solving abilities, critical thinking skills, and communication skills while providing opportunities to work in groups, find and analyse research materials, and take part in life-long learning.

PBL is a student-centred teaching method in which students understand a topic by working in groups. They work out an open-ended problem, which drives the motivation to learn. These sorts of theories of teaching do require schools to invest time and resources into supporting self-directed learning. Not all curriculum knowledge is best acquired through this process, rote learning still has its place in certain situations. In this article, we will look at how we can equip our students to take more ownership of the learning process and utilise more sophisticated ways for the integration of knowledge.

What are the characteristics of problem-based learning?

Adding a little creativity can change a topic into a problem-based learning activity. The following are some of the characteristics of a good PBL model:

  • The problem encourages students to search for a deeper understanding of content knowledge;
  • Students are responsible for their learning. PBL has a student-centred learning approach. Students' motivation increases when responsibility for the process and solution to the problem rests with the learner;
  • The problem motivates pupils to gain desirable learning skills and to defend well-informed decisions;
  • The problem connects the content learning goals with the previous knowledge. PBL allows students to access, integrate and study information from multiple disciplines that might relate to understanding and resolving a specific problem—just as persons in the real world recollect and use the application of knowledge that they have gained from diverse sources in their life.
  • In a multistage project, the first stage of the problem must be engaging and open-ended to make students interested in the problem. In the real world, problems are poorly-structured. Research suggests that well-structured problems make students less invested and less motivated in the development of the solution. The problem simulations used in problem-based contextual learning are less structured to enable students to make a free inquiry.

Make problem based learning tasks easier to manage with the Universal Thinking Framework
Make problem based learning tasks easier to manage with the Universal Thinking Framework

  • In a group project, the problem must have some level of complexity that motivates students towards knowledge acquisition and to work together for finding the solution. PBL involves collaboration between learners. In professional life, most people will find themselves in employment where they would work productively and share information with others. PBL leads to the development of such essential skills. In a PBL session, the teacher would ask questions to make sure that knowledge has been shared between pupils;
  • At the end of each problem or PBL, self and peer assessments are performed. The main purpose of assessments is to sharpen a variety of metacognitive processing skills and to reinforce self-reflective learning.
  • Student assessments would evaluate student progress towards the objectives of problem-based learning. The learning goals of PBL are both process-based and knowledge-based. Students must be assessed on both these dimensions to ensure that they are prospering as intended from the PBL approach. Students must be able to identify and articulate what they understood and what they learned.

Use visual organisers for collaborative group work during problem based learning
Use visual organisers for collaborative group work during problem based learning

Why is Problem-based learning a significant skill?

Using Problem-Based Learning across a school promotes critical competence, inquiry, and knowledge application in social, behavioural and biological sciences. Practice-based learning holds a strong track record of successful learning outcomes in higher education settings such as graduates of Medical Schools. Educational models using PBL can improve learning outcomes by teaching students how to implement theory into practice and build problem-solving skills. For example, within the field of health sciences education, PBL makes the learning process for nurses and medical students self-centred and promotes their teamwork and leadership skills. Within primary and secondary education settings, this model of teaching, with the right sort of collaborative tools, can advance the wider skills development valued in society.

At Structural Learning, we have been developing a self-assessment tool designed to monitor the progress of children. Utilising these types of teaching theories curriculum wide can help a school develop the learning behaviours our students will need in the workplace. Curriculum wide collaborative tools include Writers Block and the Universal Thinking Framework. Along with graphic organisers, these tools enable children to collaborate and entertain different perspectives that they might not otherwise see. Putting learning in action by using the block building methodology enables children to reach their learning goals by experimenting and iterating. 

Scaffolding problem based learning with classroom tools
Scaffolding problem based learning with classroom tools

How is problem-based learning different from inquiry-based learning?

The major difference between inquiry-based learning and PBL relates to the role of the teacher. In the case of inquiry-based learning, the teacher is both a provider of classroom knowledge and a facilitator of student learning (expecting/encouraging higher-order thinking). On the other hand, PBL is a deep learning approach, in which the teacher is the supporter of the learning process and expects students to have clear thinking, but the teacher is not the provider of classroom knowledge about the problem—the responsibility of providing information belongs to the learners themselves.

What are the Benefits of Student-led Problem-Based Learning?

Student-led Problem-Based Learning is one of the most useful ways to make students drivers of their learning experience. It makes students creative, innovative, logical and open-minded. The educational practice of Problem-Based Learning also provides opportunities for self-directed and collaborative learning with others in an active learning and hands-on process. Below are the most significant benefits of problem-based learning processes:

  1. Self-learning: As a self-directed learning method, problem-based learning encourages children to take responsibility and initiative for their learning processes. As children use creativity and research, they develop skills that will help them in their adulthood.
  2. Engaging: Students don't just listen to the teacher, sit back and take notes. Problem-based learning processes encourages students to take part in learning activities, use learning resources, stay active, think outside the box and apply critical thinking skills to solve problems.
  3. Teamwork: Most of the problem-based learning issues involve students collaborative learning to find a solution. The educational practice of PBL builds interpersonal skills, listening and communication skills and improves the skills of collaboration and compromise.
  4. Intrinsic Rewards: In most problem-based learning projects, the reward is much bigger than good grades. Students gain the pride and satisfaction of finding an innovative solution, solving a riddle, or creating a tangible product.
  5. Transferable Skills: The acquisition of knowledge through problem-based learning strategies don't just help learners in one class or a single subject area. Students can apply these skills to a plethora of subject matter as well as in real life.
  6. Multiple Learning Opportunities: A PBL model offers an open-ended problem-based acquisition of knowledge, which presents a real-world problem and asks learners to come up with well-constructed responses. Students can use multiple sources such as they can access online resources, using their prior knowledge, and asking momentous questions to brainstorm and come up with solid learning outcomes. Unlike traditional approaches, there might be more than a single right way to do something, but this process motivates learners to explore potential solutions whilst staying active.


Solving authentic problems using problem based learning
Solving authentic problems using problem based learning

Final points on problem-based learning

Problem-based learning can be seen as a deep learning approach and when implemented effectively as part of a broad and balanced curriculum, a successful teaching strategy in education. PBL has a solid epistemological and philosophical foundation and a strong track record of success in multiple areas of study. Learners must experience problem-based learning methods and engage in positive solution-finding activities. PBL models allow learners to gain knowledge through real-world problems, which offers more strength to their understanding and helps them find the connection between classroom learning and the real world at large. As they solve problems, students can evolve as individuals and team-mates. One word of caution, not all classroom tasks will lend themselves to this learning theory. Take spellings, for example, this is usually delivered with low-stakes quizzing through a practice-based learning model. PBL allows students to apply their knowledge creatively but they need to have a certain level of background knowledge to do this, rote learning might still have its place after all.