Problem-based learning

Teaching strategies

Problem-based learning for teachers and teacher aides

Problem-based learning – students learn (often in groups) by trying to solve an overarching problem.

Teacher assistant effectively using problem-based learning.

Problem-based learning (PBL) is a modern student-centred strategy that is similar in nature to project-based learning enquiry-based learning. Problem-based learning is also known as discovery learning. It has been used widely in adult education (for example, in medical and engineering fields). However, it can also be employed in schools when it is carefully structured, delivered and monitored.i In problem-based learning, tasks and activities are centred around working toward a solution to a stated problem. The process can be open-ended and driven by students, or it can be based on a series of structured activities set by the teacher. While purists may disagree, many teachers add explicit instruction to PBL lessons.

In problem-based learning, tasks and activities are centred around working toward a solution to a stated problem.

The central problem needs to be an authentic, real-world problem that is relevant to students’ interests and motivations. The point of problem-based learning is not just to find a solution, but to develop skills and knowledge during the process.ii The main argument in favour of problem-based learning is that knowledge is better retained and recalled when it is applied in a real-world context. Students may not learn as much in terms of volume of content, however their skills and knowledge can be applied in multiple contexts to solve genuine problems well into the future. Advocates of this strategy also stress its ability to improve student-teacher relationships, to improve student communication and team-work skills, and to provide a deeper understanding of the topic.iii

Problem-based learning is a quintessential student-centred strategy. However, there is a misconception that employing a student-centred strategy such as this one means that the teacher’s role is somehow reduced. The reality is that student-centred activities require as much (or potentially more) planning, resource development and monitoring than other strategies, particularly when working with children. Throughout the lesson, teachers provide advice and guidance, mini-lessons and short, sharp activities. They focus on metacognitive skills such as using higher-order concepts to solve smaller local problems and they may even emphasise core skills such as reading, writing and maths. Problem-based learning does not mean that the teacher is somehow relegated to an isolated corner in the room, particularly in primary schools. When PBL is implemented with adults however, the teacher becomes a ‘facilitator’. In some cases, this facilitator is a student chosen by the group to act as the ‘group leader’.

Throughout the lesson, teachers provide advice and guidance, mini-lessons and short, sharp activities.

Problem-based learning may not suit all learners. Students need a certain level of existing knowledge and to be sufficiently motivated. Depending on the problem, they may also need well-developed metacognitive skills such as the ability to plan an approach to the task, organise information and categorise potential solutions for testing. PBL is usually thought of as being a medium-term project that is completed in small groups or pairs over a period of 1-3 months. However, teachers can implement problem-based learning for shorter periods of time as a standalone activity within a normal lesson. As with all strategies, the educational goals of the program are the driving factors in determining if and how problem-based learning should be implemented.

Hint: several issues need to be addressed before and during PBL implementation. For example, group work may need to be structured so that effort is equally shared amongst members, regardless of skill, language ability and personality. The teacher should not rely on high-performing students to supplement the work of other students (or replace the role of the teacher).

Implementing problem-based learning requires a series of steps:

  1. Clearly identify and articulate the problem (the problem cannot be vague or unachievable).
  2. Clearly state what success looks like (when do we know we have solved the problem).
  3. If students are to be assessed for a final grade or score, develop a marking key or rubric (it is generally not appropriate to give a ‘group’ score as this is unfair to high achievers and those who put in more effort). A group score can be used as a base score with some students losing marks (for example, for non-attendance) and others gaining marks (such as leaders and those who mentored their peers).
  4. Clearly state all educational goals (solving the actual problem is not the most important goal in many cases). Goals can be related to metacognitive or core skill development, or knowledge-based.
  5. Examine what students know, what they do not know, and what they need to know, as well as the resources available.
  6. Break the problem down into micro-problems (optional for adults).
  7. Design the program or activity from a practical perspective (in terms of time, progress goals, expectations, templates, lesson plans and whether to include any explicit teaching).
  8. The problem, goals and expectations should be communicated to students on day 1.
  9. Students work on micro-problems and activities often set by the teacher.
  10. The teacher monitors progress, makes changes as needed, delivers mini-lessons (10-15 minutes of worked examples, board work, lectures, presentations – explicit teaching) to supplement and extend learning (using metacognitive strategies), and supports students either one-on-one or in small groups.
  11. A final activity (such as a discussion, report, debate, or roundtable) is held to collate learnings from all micro-problems and to try and answer the larger problem.
  12. An outcome of ‘solved’, ‘partially solved’, or ‘not solved’ is declared. Students are made aware of whether they met their educational goals irrespective of whether the problem was solved or not (some problems were never meant to be solved).

The steps in the PBL process are very flexible and can be adjusted to suit the needs of the students, the demands of the topic or problem and the stated goals. In a science class for example, a group of motivated students could use problem-based learning to improve the energy efficiency of the school with the view to applying for government grants. The problem is partly an investigation into exactly where electricity is used in the school and what other schools have done to reduce their usage. The problem might then become how to reduce usage by 10% in a specific area or season. On the other hand, a teacher may dedicate a single lesson to solving something a little easier, such as a pertinent maths problem. There are no concrete rules that dictate how problem-based learning should be executed – teachers can be creative and apply aspects that they find appealing.

There are a few similar terms that are often very confusing. Here is a summary of these terms and how they relate to each other:

  • Problem-based learning and discovery learning are the same thing.
  • PBL is typically associated with older students or adults, and is where a problem is first posed (by the teacher) and students (or a group of adults) work together to solve it (or get as close as possible to solving it).
  • Enquiry-based learning (or inquiry if you are in the US) is a broader term that includes PBL (as one option) but is often associated with younger students (kindergarten for example).
  • EBL is where students ‘discover’ their own ‘problems’ and seek to ‘solve’ them (such as how to build something in the sandpit).
  • EBL lessons or programs are less structured than a traditional lesson and the ‘problem’ can shift or completely change (it is dictated by the child based on what he or she wants to do considering the resources in front of them).
  • With enquiry-based learning, teachers can subtly persuade students to use certain objects in their play to develop certain skills (pattern recognition, counting, number sense, phonics etc.).
  • Project-based learning is another type of enquiry-based learning that is remarkably similar to problem-based learning. However, a project (like an investigation) may have no actual problem. Instead, it may involve the production of a final piece of work that is usually submitted and assessed.

Hint: don’t design a learning activity or program purely to fit any of the definitions above. Design the activity, lesson or program to meet the learning goals first and foremost. There is no reason to dogmatically stick to one strategy and to not use elements of others. The definitions are largely academic and not that relevant once you understand the broad concepts that permeate them all.

Foot notes:

  1. Problem-based learning as a recognised teaching strategy began in the US medical education sector in the 1960s, although like many strategies, it has been used throughout history in various forms.
  2. This is missed by many teachers who implement a problem-based learning (PBL) activity – PBL is implemented as a learning tool and not as an investigatory tool. In other words, the outcome or answer is largely inconsequential (especially from a planning and goal setting point of view).
  3. Lee, D., Huh, Y., & Reigeluth, C. M. (2015). Collaboration, intragroup conflict, and social skills in project-based learning. Instructional Science, 43(5), 561-590. doi: 10.1007/s11251-015-9348-7.

About the author

Image of the managing director of ITAC.


Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and a #1 best selling author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of ITAC, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.

Source: Teaching Skills and Strategies for the Modern Classroom: 100+ research-based strategies for both novice and experienced practitioners. Amazon #1 best seller in the category of Classroom Management.

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to check his article for accuracy, information may be outdated, inaccurate or not relevant to you and your location/employer/contract. It is not intended as legal or professional advice. Users should seek expert advice such as by contacting the relevant education department, should make their own enquiries, and should not rely on any of the information provided.


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