Problem Based Learning

(The pure form developed at Maastricht University)

Learning by Problem Analysis

In Problem Based Learning (PBL) the self-guided learning process of the students are in focus. The meetings in the groups are the main activity in this method. The leading principle is that the students learn by relating their knowledge to a given problem which the teacher prepares. Through dialogue and discussions, the students in the groups try to solve the problem by using their previous knowledge and the new knowledge in the curricula of the course. PBL has similarities with project based learning but differs in the matter of information given – in problem based learning is important to give problems with high complexity and let the students define their knowledge gaps by themselves - under guidance by the teacher/facilitator.

One of the main goals of PBL is to help students develop real-world skills, and today’s professionals conduct research online, use spreadsheets or databases to organize information, and use video-editing and presentation software to transmit ideas. Therefore, the use of learning technologies in university teaching is nicely aligned with the learning objectives of a university course.

There is a difference between ‘project based learning’ and ‘problem-based learning’. Working with projects is about the product, while problem-based learning is about the process. Projects are generally teacher-directed, while problem-based learning is student-centered, personal, and the learning pathway itself. In other words, it is an approach to learning rather than something to complete.

How to implement PBL in your Teaching

The students work on the basis of a very structured method - The 7-step Problem Based Learning Procedure - repeated every time the groups meet. The method is explained in the infobox to the right.

In the true form of PBL, a teacher, an assistant or a specially trained older student is always present during the group work as facilitator, observing and listening to the students work. Due to limited teacher resources the groups often work in the same room and the teacher moves around guiding them in turn. The teacher thereby gets information on whether some major misconceptions are formed, or if a group does not function well. Thus, they can help the students back on the right track. This is never done during the structured group meeting where there is supposed to be none, or very little interference, from the teacher.

The course continues like this with supportive lectures and other activities arranged by the teacher, providing the students with information to include when working on the problems. When one problem is done another one is introduced building on the knowledge from the first problem. This way, a progression is ensured. Typically the students work on one problem for a week and may meet twice to work, but the time range for each problem can be shorter or longer.

Important in PBL is making sure that the students have access to many different sources of information such as lectures, seminars, libraries etc. There are reading lists but not  a selected textbook with required reading, as the purpose is to let the students decide which readings are relevant to the problem solving.

Formulating the problems is crucial. The problems combine elements from all topics in the course – i.e. they do not deal with one topic at a time like the chapters of a typical textbook.


Supporting PBL with Learning Technology

One way of using learning technology to support your students in PBL is to make video or multimedia presentations that present the problem. The videos can show authentic footage of real life situations that are important to the problem or staged situations.  

  • Walk-In studio - record your own videos at the studio at Lyngby Campus
  • Video consultants - Hire a LearningLab consultant for 350 DKK/hour to do e.g. field og laboratory recordings and edit the material 
  • Pencasts - Do handwritten 'private-tutor style' recordings using pen and paper
  • Wacom digitizer - write directly on your slides for a video presentation
  • Screencasts - Do recordings of your computerscreen for e.g. programming instructions 

There are also tools that the students can use in their group work to make seamless transitions between their own presentations of their findings:

Reading and References

Problem Based Learning

7-Step PBL Procedure

1. Clarify terms & context

Does everybody completely understand this problem?

2. Define the problem

What is the interesting core of this problem in relation to the topic of the course?

3. Analyze the case

Brainstorm on what could be explored further in relation to this problem and clarify what we already know

4. Re-structure the problem

Get a systematic overview by grouping related ideas and removing not so interesting ideas

5. Formulate learning objectives

What do we need to learn in order to understand this problem?

6. Individual learning

Each student studies individually towards the learning objectives

7. Report back to the group at the next meeting

What have we learned? Can we understand this problem now?