Skip main navigation

What is PBL?

What is PBL and how is it a useful teaching approach? This brief article looks at PBL
Lego person in many pieces

Problem-based Learning

PBL is a student-centered learning approach that uses a problem to focus the learners and the learning process. PBL is not a narrow question/answer approach, the problem is complex, open-ended, and does not offer a single, correct answer.

As an active way of learning, PBL enables better knowledge transfer and retention of knowledge, enhances motivation, and encourages the development of skills essential for the current labour market.

Another benefit of PBL is how it encourages collaborative learning. When learners investigate and solve a problem as a group, they’re able to apply their combined prior knowledge plus work together to construct new knowledge – another essential skill for the workforce.

PBL focuses on current, relevant problems or issues – providing an ideal opportunity to involve the community, industry, or workplace. By looking at issues within the community, the learning becomes authentic and meaningful for the learners.

As a collaborative and authentic model, PBL enables students to address challenges that are real to them and their lives.

For PBL to be successful, teachers need to understand:

  • learners’ interests and passions
  • how to make connections to real-world contexts and people (NZ MoE., n.d.)

Seven steps of PBL

  • Step 1: Explore the issue: Discuss the problem and ensure everyone understands the problem.
  • Step 2: Find out what is known: Brainstorm what students already know about the issue and record areas that are lacking information.
  • Step 3: Define the issue: Build a context out of what is already known in addition to what learners expect to learn.
  • Step 4: Research the issue. Locate resources and information that will build knowledge on the topic.
  • Step 5: Investigate solutions: List possible actions and solutions to the problem; and formulate and test potential hypotheses
  • Step 6: Present solutions: Clearly state and support your conclusion with relevant information and evidence.
  • Step 7: Review performance: This step is often forgotten, however a crucial step in developing problem-solving skills is learners’ evaluating their performance and planning improvements for the next problem.

Seven steps of the PBL Process in cycle form - Present problem, Students define the problem and brainstorm ideas based on prior knowledge, students engage in independent study, students share information, engage in peer teaching and work toward a solution, students present their solution and review what they have learned, students engage in self, peer and tutor review of the process

(Adapted from Henderson, 2016)

This article is from the free online

Adult Education Essentials: Student-Centred Course Design

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now