Problem based learning

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Problem based learning (PBL) is an approach to education where students can actively learn. Used mostly in higher educational settings, PBL allows students to work together in teams and tackle problems that resemble real-world scenarios. Rather than instructors lecturing and giving students’ information to memorize for a test, PBL put the students into the driver’s seat. This gives students the ability to collaborate and explore what they already know, their hunches, and explore available resources to try and find a solution. Once the problem is clarified, students set out to find answers and therefore teach themselves.

Where it is used

Problem based learning is used in a learning environment, traditionally the classroom. Although PBL is geared towards collegiate settings it is being used in high school and other institutions. PBL has been a primary method of teaching in the medical and law fields for a long time. It is now being implementing in engineering, computer science, and other fields as well. Traditionally problem based learning occurs in the classroom setting and therefore students and professors are the key participants. In PBL the students are more essential than the instructor. In the professional field, project teams working on real life problems are using the same process.

To gain a picture of where PBL is being used around the world, the PBL Directory was set up by the University of Brighton.

How it works

Problem based learning is effective because it does not simply entail the student to memorize dictated facts, but requires the students to become actively involved and use their own reasoning skills. PBL requires the student to access the knowledge he/she already has and use available resources to discover new information. Being able to relate a topic to an already existing understanding of the world helps students learn and understand new information. If a student learns or figures concepts out on his/her own he/she is more likely to retain the information. Having to constantly recall on information learned causes a deeper understanding of the subject and better long term recall, because constant refinement and revision of what was learned will take place throughout the course.

PBL accomplishes these objectives because the problems are the main vehicle for learning not the instructor. Making the student the center of learning will make the student actively engaged and more motivated. One of the first steps in true learning is to recognize that the information is important. Presenting real world based problems to students early in the learning process demonstrates the importance of the material. PBL causes students to learn how to apply information and approach problems that have no definite right or wrong answer, which improves the students reasoning skills and critical thinking skills, along with introducing new material. Students who use problem based learning in school have a greater understanding of how different subjects relate to each other, understand the application, and have better problem solving, group working, critical reasoning, and communication skills.


The class setting that uses problem based learning is slightly different than the typical classroom setting. The teacher should not lecture very long, he/she should simply introduce the topic, problem, and what is expected of the class. The students then divide into groups. In the groups the students ensure they understand the problem and then begin brainstorming on solutions. The students are allowed to use the internet and any other available resources. Between the resources and the knowledge of the various group members a solution is devised. Even though there is no right or wrong answer the students need feedback to make problem base learning an effective learning tool. The facilitator then informs the group what was good, what would not actually work and why, and other suggestions. Allowing the class to see other solutions is also another good way to receive feedback and additional ideas.

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