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Problem-based learning

Problem-based learning

During Problem based learning (PBL) sessions learners are presented a problem which they have to solve. To solve the problem the learners have to identify which of their pre-existing knowledge can be applied and which additional knowledge is needed. Usually PBL is done as a group work and often guided by a facilitator, which supports the learners in their discussion, their quest to identifying which new knowledge needs to be a acquired and during the exchange of pre-existing knowledge. The PBL methods in its stricter sense applies seven steps to structure the process, which are: 1) Clarify terms 2) Define problem 3) Analyse problem 4) Draw inventory of solutions 5) formulate learning objectives 6) home study and collect new information 7) synthesis and test acquired information Problem Based Learning can be used for acquiring and deepening knowledge but also to train to analyse complex scenarios and associated decision making.

You will need


A real world problem or situation for students to discuss and solve

Optional but good to have

Books or other resources flipchart or Whiteboard depending on the number of students, several facilitators might be helpful

Benefits and limitations


  • Student centred approach
  • Engaging, motivating,
  • Students can apply, explore and extend their pre-existing knowledge
  • Students can use their preferred learning styles when acquiring new knowledge
  • The new knowledge is acquired together with one application scenario
  • Often the learning is more sustainable, sticky


  • Preparation time to develop and describe the problem
  • Developing a problem for the first time, it might be challenging to judge how complex it should be
  • Students sometimes expect that the instructor passes on their experience and knowhow and might be disappointed by the perceived passiveness of the instructor
  • Student might need guidance and support in acquiring and exploring existing and new knowledge
  • It may take some time for the students to get to used to this method, so using only one case may not give the best results

What do I actually do as an instructor/facilitator?

Preparation / before class

Based on the desired learning outcomes you select one or more problems to be presented to the students. Then you describe the problem that will be presented to the students and analyse which supporting materials they might need. Depending on the number of students, it might be helpful to have several sub groups with a one facilitator. You might also consider preparing a (self) assessment at the beginning and the end of a PBL course. Students solving PBL cases are often not aware of the learning that happens in the process, so a (basic) assessment at the end of a session can help promote the satisfaction of the students.


Implementation / during class

The instructor during a PBL session in its original sense, does not convey any knowledge, but facilitates the process. It can be helpful to refer content related questions back to the group of students asking them what they think or know and to help them find resources how to validate an idea.

There are no use cases available for "Problem-based learning".

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Method effectiveness

Problem-based Learning in an Online Course: A case study; James Cheaney and Thomas S. Ingebritsen (2005) 

Dochy, F., M. Segers, P. Van den Bossche, and D. Gijbels. 2003. Effects of problem-based learning: A meta-analysis. Learning and Instruction 13: 533-568. 

Examples and materials

Introduction of PBL based on simple medical case description


Description of 7-step method together with the role of the facilitator and introduction to group dynamics

Overview of 7-jump method and facilitator briefing form 

Step to step guide for writing a case

20 cases in Biology 

Similar Methods

Community of practice

Community of practice

A community of practice (CoP) is a group of people who share a profession (or craft). The group can evolve naturally because of the members' common interest in a particular domain or area, or it can be created specifically with the goal of gaining knowledge related to the field of common interest. Through sharing information and experiences with the group, members learn from each other and have an opportunity to develop themselves personally and professionally. CoPs can exist online, such as within discussion boards and newsgroups, or in real life, such as in a lunch group at work. This type of learning practice has existed for as long as people have been learning and sharing their experiences through storytelling.

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