Teaching Stories

When Problems Create Solutions: A Problem-Based Approach to Teaching

Problem based learning (PBL) is an approach to teaching that supports creative and complex problem-solving. It seeks to address open-ended problems and real-world scenarios that researchers and industry encounter in professional practice. The higher education sector has employed PBL in a range of subjects. In fact, PBL can be adapted to work in virtually any discipline. Often, the best use of PBL is when it is adapted to work on “grand challenges” like climate change, migration, equality and diversity, and any other area that requires multi-faceted approaches and the applied use of disciplinary-specific techniques and theory. PBL is also an excellent vehicle for encountering interdisciplinarity and creativity. 

For the instructor, PBL can invite innovation in their teaching practice. Typically, PBL places the instructor as a facilitator in teaching sessions. It switches the dynamic to student-action, rather than traditional didactic teaching approaches. Students often encounter peer-to-peer evaluation and personal self-reflection of this type of teaching practice. Through its applied approach, PBL also enhances students’ ability to understand the relevance of their degree when they become graduates. Rather than just learning-by-heart, students learn by doing, by failing, by innovating and by being critical. As a result, students become better learners. For the instructor, PBL is an excellent route to demonstrate alignment with intended learning outcomes and a means to articulate how learning connects to professional skills. 

Students respond well to the use of PBL. Evidence supports the success of PBL, for example, it enhances long-term knowledge retention and application (Dolmans et al. 2015; Yew & Goh 2016). The real-life applicability of PBL enhances students’ appreciation for the relevance of their subject, their learning and their intrinsic motivation. There is a greater sense of authenticity and a better understanding of the practice of their subject through PBL. Students become active learners and engage with their subject at a deeper level in PBL learning environments. The nature of PBL, typically working in groups collaboratively, ensures that students become better communicators and team-players, alongside developing core research skills. 

Instructors can also collaborate with alumni and external industry experts to deliver PBL-style teaching. Light-touch engagement can include guest lectures and interactive Q&A sessions. More in-depth collaboration can take the form of problems sourced from industry and industry partners becoming part of the assessment process. Likewise, interdisciplinarity can be enhanced by working with these external stakeholders and with internal academic colleagues in other subjects. 

The best way to start thinking about PBL is to consider open-ended problems in your discipline, problems that can’t be answered with a quick internet search. PBL also succeeds when it is taught in flexible scenarios where discussion, groupwork and feedback are iterative. Students move through problem-solving to research and reflection multiple times during the PBL process. Approaches that incorporate a sense of trial-and-error can ensure that students develop skills and attitudes that foster resilience in both their learning and their approach to real-life problems. Outputs from PBL can be in virtually any format, from presentations, to conference posters and infographics, annotated diagrams, workbooks and portfolios, videos, blogs, consultancy documents and formal reports. 

Practically, flat-bed teaching spaces with wifi and suitable seating arrangements support PBL best. Students succeed best when they have easy access to group-working tools and dedicated, frequent timeslots for collaboration. Part of the teaching should also focus on team-working, communication and delegation skills. To ensure students commit to the PBL process, they also need to be confident that the ways they are marked, in particular group work marks, are perceived as fair. Formative peer-review marking can support this. Marks can be awarded for subject knowledge, presentation, and skills such as record keeping, range of appropriate methods employed, teamwork and communication.  

PBL doesn’t need to be constrained to later years of degree programmes. Indeed, elements of PBL can be introduced early in a degree programme and developed year-on-year to invite a sense of programme cohesion for students who grow through greater levels of PBL complexity as their degree progresses. PBL also succeeds when it is delivered in learning intensive situations, such as one-week “bootcamps”. 

Once PBL becomes a comfortable model for teaching and learning, instructors can also invite students to co-create the curriculum where they suggest or dictate the content. Our research community can also be a source of PBL ideas, which supports the University’s aim for research-led teaching.  

Ash Tierney

References and supportive reading 

Dart, J. 2014 “Learning and Teaching Guides: Problem Based Learning in Sport, Leisure and Social Sciences” https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/learning-and-teaching-guides-problem-based-learning-sport-leisure-and-social-sciences 

Dolmans, D. J. H. M., Loyens, S. M. M., Marcq, H. & Gijbels, D. 2015 “Deep and surface learning in problem-based learning: a review of the literature”, Advances in Health Sciences Education 21(5) pp:1087–1112 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10459-015-9645-6 

Garner, P. & Padley, S. 2017. ‘Utilizing problem and scenario based learning to develop transformational leadership qualities and employability attributes in students through undergraduate teaching’. [PowerPoint Presentation] HEA Annual Conference 2017. 

https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/utilising-problem-and-scenario-based-learning-develop-transformational-leadership (Accessed on: April 18, 2019)  

Heitzmann, N., Fischer, F. & Fischer, M.R. 2018. “Worked examples with errors: when self-explanation prompts hinder learning of teachers diagnostic competences on problem-based learning” Instructional Science 46(2) pp.245-271 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11251-017-9432-2 

Savin-Baden, M. 2000 “Problem-Based Learning In Higher Education: Untold Stories: Untold Stories” (McGraw-Hill Education). 

Walker, A.E., Leary, H., Hmelo-Silver, C.E. &  Ertmer, P.A. (Eds) 2015 “Essential readings in problem-based learning” (Purdue University Press) 

Yew, E. H. J. & Goh, K. 2016 “Problem-Based Learning: An Overview of its Process and Impact on Learning”, Health Professions Education 2(2) pp: 75-79, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hpe.2016.01.004 



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