Problem-based learning


Teach and/or support learning

How students learn, both generally and within their subject/disciplinary area(s)

What can I do?

  • Design case studies that include a critical problem that students have to solve.
  • Have students use the skills they have developed for solving one problem to solve a novel problem, and explore how they have to alter their skills.
  • Propose challenging problems with just enough information so that students can identify a solution (or multiple solutions).
  • Be careful when using case studies, challenging applied problems, and novel skill-based activities when you're focused on knowledge, comprehension, and understanding. They may not be useful.

What is this about?

Problem-based learning (PBL) is a teaching method that is used in higher education to engage students in real-world problem solving. In PBL, students are presented with a complex problem or scenario and are asked to work together to find a solution. This process helps students develop critical thinking skills, as well as skills in communication, collaboration, and problem solving.

There are several steps involved in designing a PBL activity:

  1. Identify the learning objectives: What do you want students to learn through the PBL activity?
  2. Develop the problem: Create a realistic and complex problem that will require students to apply their knowledge and skills to find a solution.
  3. Facilitate the learning process: Provide guidance and support to students as they work through the problem, but allow them to come up with their own solutions.
  4. Assess student learning: Use a variety of assessment methods to evaluate how well students have achieved the learning objectives.

PBL is often used in subjects that require practical application of knowledge, such as medicine, engineering, and business. It is a popular approach in higher education because it allows students to learn through active, hands-on experiences, rather than simply being taught concepts in a traditional lecture format.

What's the evidence say?

PBL is highly effective at improving students skills and it results in a positive attitude towards the course

PBL has a large positive effect on students' skills (Dochy et al., 2003), but a large negative effect on students' knowledge. Also, Demirel and Dağyar (2016) showed that PBL had a medium positive effect on student attitudes to their course compared to traditional teaching. This is important because nurturing students' interests in their subjects or courses is one mechanism thought to be important for fostering academic achievement.

The positive effects of PBL on skills are greatest for more experienced students

PBL can positively affect the skills set of university students at all levels, however, the strength of this impact varies depending on how much existing knowledge or experience students have. For example, graduate students seem to benefit more from PBL than first-year undergraduates (Dochy et al., 2003). This is consistent with how PBL might align with learning in that students who are further into their studies might be more focused on developing dynamic and critical skills to solve complex problems, whereas students who are earlier in their degrees might be more focused on developing foundational knowledge.

The positive effects of PBL on skills are immediate and lasting

PBL is not great in teaching knowledge itself, but the things students learn doing PBL are well remembered. They know slightly less, but remember what they do. The effects of PBL are moderated by the way knowledge and skills are assessed. The more the assessment instrument is capable of evaluating the skills of the student the larger the effect of the PBL (Dochy et al., 2003).

The positive effect of PBL on attitude is the same no matter what the group size, field, education level or application time

Demirel and Dağyar (2016) reported that there were no significant differences for the effects of PBL on attitude as compared to traditional teaching for:

  • Group size (including groups of 12 to >45 people)
  • Scientific field (including science, mathematics, and social sciences)
  • Education level (including elementary school to higher education)
  • Application time (including instruction from 1 hour to over 33 hours)

PBL is a learning approach that plays a role in increasing attitude and achievement

Bloom (1956) emphasised that teaching-learning should cover cognitive, affective and psychomotor processes. The affective domain (interests, attitudes, motivations, etc.) is linked to achievement. PBL is thought to be an approach that addresses the affective domain (Delside, 1997).

What's the underlying theory?

There are several theories that help to explain why problem-based learning (PBL) is an effective approach to learning in higher education. One such theory is constructivism, which suggests that people construct their own understanding of the world through their experiences and interactions with others. In PBL, students are actively engaged in the learning process and are able to construct their own understanding of the material by working through a complex problem or scenario. This helps students to make connections between their prior knowledge and the new information they are learning, leading to a deeper understanding of the subject matter.

Another theory that helps to explain the effectiveness of PBL is self-determination theory, which proposes that people are more motivated and engaged in learning when they feel that they have autonomy and control over their own learning process. In PBL, students are given the opportunity to take ownership of their own learning by working through a problem on their own and coming up with their own solutions. This can increase their motivation and engagement in the learning process.

A third theory that helps to explain the effectiveness of PBL is situated learning theory, which suggests that learning is more effective when it is grounded in authentic and meaningful context. PBL provides students with a real-world problem or scenario to work through, which helps to contextualise the material and make it more meaningful and relevant to students. This can lead to a deeper understanding of the subject matter and a greater likelihood of retention.

Where does the evidence come from?

We can be very confident that PBL is effective in helping students gain a positive attitude towards courses, less confident in its effect on skills.T

his evidence summary is based on three reviews. The review completed by Demirel and Dağyar (2016) is rigorous. The only concern regarding this review is the heterogeneity score, which is high and suggests that one or more unexplored variables might be contributing to the effect. The other two reviews, by Dochy et al. (2003) and Gijbels are less rigorous. These groups did not report information related to the risk of bias or publication bias, and the confidence intervals around the effect sizes were large, suggesting there is still some work to be done in this space to better understand the effect of PBL on student outcomes.


Demirel, M., & Dağyar, M. (2016). Effects of Problem-Based Learning on Attitude: A Meta-analysis Study. EURASIA Journal of Mathematics, Science and Technology Education, 12(8).

Dochy, F., Segers, M., Van den Bossche, P., & Gijbels, D. (2003). Effects of problem-based learning: A meta-analysis. Learning and Instruction, 13(5), 533–568.

Gijbels, D., Dochy, F., Van den Bossche, P., & Segers, M. (2005). Effects of problem-based learning: A meta-analysis from the angle of assessment. Review of Educational Research, 75(1), 27–61.

Additional Resources