Problem based learning – definition


Problem based learning (PBL) is a learning strategy that encourages students to develop self-directed learning and critical thinking skills. In contrast to traditional curricula where material taught is organised according to subject, problem based curricula are designed around a series of “problems” that students have to resolve. It has its origins in medical education, but is now used across subject areas including law, architecture, engineering, nursing, social work and the allied health professions.

Problem based learning can be used to encourage deep rather than superficial learning, and integrate students’ thinking. It encourages students’ ability to adapt to and take part in change, make reasoned decisions in unfamiliar situations and adopt a interconnected approaches to problem solving. PBL can be effective in delivering additional benefits for students in terms of knowledge, understanding, critical thinking, communication and team working skills.

How it works:

Students are introduced to new material in the form of a problem or “trigger”. They solve the problem using particular frameworks, identifying their learning leads and then applying and sharing their newly gained knowledge in order to try to solve the problem. Working in this way will activate prior knowledge and help students decide what they need to learn and where to find the information.

The end point, or solution, of each trigger is usually the production of an artefact. This may be a group presentation, a wiki, a poster or perhaps written work: something that pulls the learning together, and acts as a permanent resource for the students.

It is helpful to support the process by offering seminars or tutorial sessions where students are encouraged to develop the skills they will need to undertake problem based learning and to support them in the process.

The role of the tutor:

The tutor is not in the problem based learning group to tell the group what to do, but to ensure that the group receives enough information to allow it to proceed in a productive manner. The tutor is more of an information broker and guide, someone who knows where the students are supposed to be going and can give clues to keep students on the right track.


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