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Problem Based Learning



This is Learning by working through problems.

  • The problems are often hypothetical
  • The problems are carefully constructed and every part of what you do is thought through, and instructions are given.
  • You work through problems with other people -so you improve your ability to work with others in the discipline you study.
  • You work to specifications -so you develop habits to manage your time and resources
There's a lot more to the pbl concept than this. It is a different way of learning; but it has been experimented with, used, and results have been carefully considered in many different disciplines and countries.
PBL has been shown to be  superior way of learning; producing graduates who excel in their professions
tudents are assessed on their ability to go through a problem solving process.

Research shows that PBL gives the learner greater long-term benefits than traditional learning, and many successful and progressive universities around the world use it in their courses. Graduates of PBL courses advance faster and further in their careers.


  • Other benefits of PBL:
  • Develops critical and creative thinking;
  • Creates effective problem-solvers;
  • Increases motivation;
  • Encourages lateral thinking;
  • Improves communication and networking skills;
  • Is based on real-life situations.


Many, but not all, of our courses, incorporate a pbl project into the studies as a type of "special" project. Some students find the idea of a pbl unexpected and in some respects "disarming". Results have show though, that these projects provide a very valuable component of the course; forcing the student to think a little differently about the subject they are studying, and in doing so, developing their capacity to think "laterally"; often fostering innovation and creativity; all at the same time as developing some extremely useful lifes skills such as "working to specification" and "communication" skills.
Some courses, including Workshops I, II and III are built entirely around the pbl approach to learning.

Every PBL project is carefully designed by experts to expose you to the information and skills that we want you to learn. When assigned a project, you are given:

  • A statement of the problem (eg. diseased animal; failing business; anorexia case study);
  • Questions to consider when solving the problem;
  • A framework for the time and effort you should spend on the project;
  • Support from the school.

The problems that you will solve in your course will relate to what you are learning. They are problems that you might encounter when working that field, adapted to your level of study .


There are some problems identified with PBL, such as –

PBL requires a cultural change
Students and teaching staff who are used to traditional education models will often show resistance and may complain.
Teachers who are used to a teacher centred environment (even in distance education) may find it difficult to change to a student centred environment
Students who are used to being “spoon fed” and assessed on the basis of “information retained” may complain when this situation does not apply.

In a classroom situation, the benefit of PBL has been shown to diminish when used as part of a predominantly traditional classroom delivery (lectures & lab classes). It appears PBL only achieves it’s full potential when the entire course is student centred (not teacher centred), and not heavily focussed upon learning and regurgitating factual information.

Response to Problems:
-We should expect students who have rigid and traditional expectations from education to have difficulty accepting and understanding the value of PBL; and to even feel they are not receiving services they have paid for. It should be the aim of ALL writers to foresee and allay such attitudes wherever possible.
-The ACS style seems to largely fit well with PBL; provided we maintain a clear focus, keeping courses as student centred as possible, avoiding excessive emphasis on specific factual information, maintaining a facilitator role (rather than instructor role) in student services, and maintaining a seamless approach to assessment.


However, there are many benefits for PBL.

*Encourage academic abilities
*Meet traditional learning outcomes or course aims
*Goes beyond simply knowing; forcing the student to think about what they know.
*Develops habits in the way the mind is used (eg. Encourages an attitude of life long learning, social responsibility, career ambition)
*Integrates different disciplines and sub disciplines (encourages a broader multi disciplinary and lateral thinking approach to problems)
*Builds relationship skills (In that it requires interaction with others).
*Assessment is naturally based on criteria more closely related to real world situations
*Is more inclusive (motivates les motivated students; the same projects can be worked on by students with varying skill levels).
*Teachers using PBL methods will report that students have more energy and enthusiasm.

There are commonly three main stages in working through a PBL project:

1. Define The Problem
Students need to first grasp the nature and scope of a problem. At this stage they will develop a hypothesis for the question. A hypothesis is a explanation for observed data/information that still has to be tested. For example, in the case study example below, a student might be given a list of symptoms that a person is suffering from and told that they think they might be suffering from schizophrenia. The student’s hypothesis might be that the person is suffering from schizophrenia.

2. Deal with Relevant Information
Students need to access, evaluate and select what is most relevant, then utilise what is selected.
Access – Students can access information via internet searches, online libraries or traditional text books.
Evaluate – the student must consider the following about the information that they have found –
How up to date?
Where has the information come from?
Utilize – The student will then utilize the information they have gained and use it to answer the question.
At this stage, the student might change their hypothesis. Using the previous example, they might find that the symptoms do indicate that the person might have schizophrenia.

3. Develop a Solution
Students need to construct and present a solution. This will require decision making, followed by developing detail within the decision and then communicating the solution (eg. Perhaps putting together a paper, report, multi media presentation).


The students and tutor involved will use clear and established documentation as a reference point, to control the nature and scope of the project and ensure predetermined learning outcomes are attained.

There are many different and valid ways of structuring a PBL project. The following is one such way:

Components of the Documentation:

1. Aims or Learning Outcomes
This may or may not be given to the student; but well defined aims or outcomes should be established which a Problem aims to achieve. (ie. A list of things which the student will be able to do upon completion of the case at hand)

2. Problem Definition
A real world scenario needs to be presented to the student(s). This may be done in any number of ways. One way would be by constructing a Problem Statement, which contains the following…
…It casts the student in a particular role
…It contains a problem
….It gives a task
(The problem statement may be as little as half a page of writing, but could be much more. It may or may not involve illustrations or photographs as well).

3. Team Structure (Who is involved in the project, and what roles will each team member serve), and Mode of Interaction (How team members will communicate with each other, determine delineation of tasks, etc).

4. Discussion Questions (Questions to be dealt with and tasks to be undertaken by the group in the course of pursuing a solution)

5. Resources (eg. References, web links or anything else relevant to the case)

6. Guidelines - may be given for both a/ Dealing with Information; and for b/ Solution Development
Qualify and quantify the work expected from a student….so they do not do either too much, or too little on a project.
a. Dealing with Information
Information might be accessed from print or electronic media, from people (interviewing, emailing, phoning etc)
Students must decide what is current, what is out of date, what is relevant, etc. They must manage their effort according to time and resources available.
There may be an indication of how research or other responsibilities are to be split/delegated amongst a team.
Theories need to be constructed and tested against the information, and where it becomes obvious that there are gaps in information; those gaps must be filled.
b. Solution Development
Options must be considered and best options selected. Details of solution implementation need to be developed, and refined; then a presentation prepared (The presentation could be extensive, or perhaps as short as a half page report).

PBL projects may be short or long.
They may involve no more than a couple of hours work in total; or they may require a full time effort for perhaps two or three weeks.
Experience has shown that PBL projects should generally not extend beyond around 3 weeks.

PBL has been delivered effectively through distance education.
There are various ways this might be done at ACS.

As part of the development of any PBL project for Distance Education, the project writer must clearly define the following parameters:
a/ Who will be working together
b/ How they will interact.

Who Will Work Together
PBL projects should normally be undertaken as by a “team” of two or more people.
The team structure should normally be defined.
Possible Team Structures might include:
-Student (in the hypothetical role of a consultant) and Tutor (in the hypothetical role of a project supervisor for a consulting firm).
-Student (as a hypothetical team leader); One, two or more people who are not students, but have agreed to work with the student on the project (They need not be experts, but they might be. They could be friends, colleagues, relatives or members of an organisation that has an interest in the project)
-Two or more ACS students who have met through the ACS student room and agreed to undertake a project together.
-Student (in the hypothetical role of a businessman), Providers of services or goods from Industry (who service businessmen such as this), Tutor (in the role of a consultant to that type of businessman).
-Two or more students who meet together either in person, or over the internet; each filling a designated role in a hypothetical team.

How Will they Interact
The way in which the interaction occurs between team members is less obvious with Distance Education (compared with on campus delivery). The mode(s) of interaction should be defined, qualified and quantified.
This might include:

  • Through online Chat facilities (eg Skype)
  • Though email
  • Over the phone
  • Through online forums
  • In person, if practical.
  • Through fax or the postal system
  • Combination of the above

The interaction between team members needs to be quantified and qualified. This might be done in the following ways:

  • Sometimes communicating at specified intervals (eg. A message must be posted daily on a forum, for a period of 2 weeks. The message must be meaningful, and a response must be posted to any posted responses within 48 hrs. Failure to do this will risk failure in the project).
  • Some projects may only have two team members (the student and a tutor) who each fill specific roles in the "partnership.
The school may assign a tutor to work with a student; or different students to work together as a group
Modules may be developed for delivery entirely by PBL; in which case tutors may work with small groups facilitating a series of several projects (perhaps 3 projects, designed to achieve a predetermined set of outcomes. The ACS Workshop curriculum or Research curriculum may well be developed for delivery this way.


This is a simplistic example to give you an idea of a brief PBL.

Claire is a twenty four year old. She has anorexia nervosa, but refuses to accept that there is anything wrong with her. She has been involuntarily admitted to a local psychiatric hospital by her parents and a psychiatrist. She is 5’ 5” tall and weighs 73 lbs. She has a history of drastic weight loss since the age of 13. She has not menstruated for two years and has several medical conditions.

*Claire has been admitted with anorexia nervosa. She refuses to admit that she has the condition. You need to prove to Claire that she is suffering from this condition by telling her the characteristics and symptoms of this condition.

*People with anorexia often suffer from additional medical problems. What are these?

Annie is admitted to the same ward with bulimia nervosa.

*What is the difference between bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa?

*What treatments might be given to Claire to help her to overcome her anorexia?

*There are many different theories of what causes anorexia nervosa. What are they?


Education Experts on PBL


“PBL is a learner-centered educational method. In PBL learners are progressively given more and more responsibility for their own education and become increasingly independent of the teacher for their education. PBL produces independent learners who can continue to learn on their own in life and in their chosen careers.”

(Southern Illinois University’s School of Medicine, a committed proponent of PBL).




“The ability to solve problems is more than just accumulating knowledge and rules; it is the development of flexible, cognitive strategies that help analyze unanticipated, ill-structured situations to produce meaningful solutions. Even though many of today's complex issues are within the realm of student understanding, the skills needed to tackle these problems are often missing from instruction.”

(Reich, on the PBL webpage of California State University and San Diego State University).




Maastricht University in Holland’s list of universities and other tertiary institutions around the world that employ PBL.

See webpage




“Curricula change towards problem-based learning is becoming a feature of professional education where the demands of universities and employers are requiring that professionals of the future can adapt to changing climates.”

(Savin-Baden in a paper presented at 'Managing Learning Innovation. The challenges of the changing curriculum', University of Lincolnshire and Humberside, September 1998. See




“There is a substantial body of research confirming that having a concrete problem as the focus for knowledge acquisition helps students retain their learning and comprehend it better.”

University of Adelaide




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