Helping students help themselves through problem-based learning

A lot of FE and work-based learning lends itself to student-led enquiry, which lies at the heart of problem-based learning. Professor Bill Lucas and Dr Janet Hanson look at this pedagogy’s benefits.

Along with project-based learning and approaches sometimes characterised as enquiry-led, problem-based learning (PBL) is increasingly being seen as a valuable pedagogy in further education and work-based learning, and, to a lesser extent, in some schools.

PBL began in medical and health education as a way of ensuring clinicians were better prepared for dealing with patients in the real world, as opposed to the imagined settings of their text books. The problem drives an inquiry

process where learners use self-directed learning and problem-solving skills, often in groups, to identify solutions (Hood-Cattaneo, 2017). PBL is often used in an interdisciplinary context, requiring learners to integrate knowledge from different areas, with the aim of

promoting lifelong learning (Savery, 2006). One definition of problem-based learning notes that it “places the learner at the centre of the educational activity where a problem stimulates information retrieval and the application of reasoning mechanisms” (Jerzembek and Murphy, 2013, p.206).

Others build on earlier definitions from seminal works by Savery (2006) and Barrows (2000) to recognise the importance of it being a student-oriented approach requiring learners to do research, combine theory and practice, find practical solutions for a defined problem, and bring together their knowledge and skills from different experiences and disciplines (Demirel and Dagyar, 2016). In higher education, where most of the


For Wilder (2015), the structure of PBL includes six distinct steps: 1. Students collaboratively consider the posed problem, clarify all unfamiliar concepts, and then define the problem

2. Students share ideas while incorporating prior knowledge and hypothesise the solutions

3. Students elaborate on the proposed solutions and formulate learning objectives 4. Students exercise self-directed learning, guided by the learning objectives, and share the findings with the group

5. The step-by-step format of this process allows for a PBL problem to be solved over several class sessions, and the steps may be repeated, if necessary, multiple times

6. Once the solution is finalised, the students share their findings with their teacher and other groups.


• Barrows, H. (2000). Problem-based learning applied to medical education. Springfield, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

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


• Hood-Cattaneo, K. (2017). Telling active learning pedagogies apart: from theory to practice. Journal of New Approaches in Educational Research. 2017, 6(2), 144-152.

• Jerzembek, G. and Murphy, S. (2013). A narrative review of problem-based learning with school-aged children: implementation and

outcomes. Educational Review, 65(2), 206-218.

• Merritt, J., Lee, M.Y., Rillero, P. and Kinach, B.M. (2017). Problem-based learning in K–8 mathematics and science education: A Literature review. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 11(2), 3.

• Savery, J. R. (2006). Overview of problem-

research into PBL is done, the approach has been found to be more effective than traditional lecture-based programmes for skills development and long-term retention of knowledge, while being less effective for short-term content acquisition (Wilder, 2015). In secondary schools in the UK,

positive effects on student engagement, motivation to learn, self-regulation, self-efficacy and social skills were noted, but there was more limited evidence for PBL’s effectiveness on learning gain (Jerzembek and Murphy, 2013). In the USA, PBL was found to have a

positive impact on students’ academic achievement, knowledge retention, conceptual development, and attitudes, and to be at least as effective as traditional instruction in relationship to student academic achievement and knowledge retention (Merritt et al., 2017). There is almost no robust research into the use of PBL in further education as yet. However, so much of FE and work-based learning lends itself to the kinds of student-led enquiry that PBL promotes. The challenge for teachers is to recognise that it requires them to play a different role with learners.

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