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Defining the problem

In a PBL lesson the teacher poses a real world, complex and ill – defined problem and students work in groups to find the best possible solution they can. The teacher guides them through the process, providing resources, information and support when needed but doesn’t solve the problem for them.  Solutions are then put into action, shared, and evaluated. PBL began in the medical profession and has since spread to  higher education and schools.

What is the point of PBL?

When students engage with complex and authentic problems, they construct new understandings and transferable life skills.

Complex problems are ill-defined and multi layered with multiple solutions. In solving them, students learn to identify the problem and its possible solutions, to deal with uncertainty and to stay with a problem for longer. Authentic problems that connect with student interests and prior knowledge build both the motivation to learn and the cognitive pathways that facilitate the construction of new understandings. To solve problems, students must work together, judge the usefulness of information and strategies and reflect on their learning. These are all valuable life skills as real life problems are rarely neat or navigated alone.

Learning is enhanced when students collaborate to solve problems.

In PBL students solve only part of a rich problem, thus sharing the cognitive load. Ideas are suggested, defended, and built upon; a process which research suggests develops higher-order thinking and greater problem-solving ability. A variety of learning styles are often in action, exposing students to new strategies and skills, while group reflections provide students with useful feedback on their own approach. Groups generally require teacher assistance to function successfully and interactions must be respectful, tolerant and of a high calibre for learning to be superior to that achieved using a more traditional, didactic approach.

In PBL the teacher is less visible but has a more profound influence on the learning.

Through skilful questioning and modelling, teachers help learners tease out what they know, need to know, how they might find out, and to evaluate their solutions. Students are therefore learning how to learn as well as solving the problem at hand. Teachers also influence learning by monitoring groups carefully, intervening early if required and encouraging students to reflect on their learning. PBL is more time-intensive than traditional teaching and some teachers can feel uncomfortable with their seemingly diminished importance. This era’s increasing focus on testing and accountability may also influence teachers’ willingness to implement PBL in their classrooms.

PBL’s problem-solving and shared learning foci encourage a richer use of digital technologies.

Students are not just collecting facts and presenting these in the ubiquitous PowerPoint, they are solving complex problems. This creates a need for rich learning tools which digital technology provides. Concept-mapping tools help students organise thoughts and information and are easily modified to reflect new understandings. Virtual models test hypotheses and give instant feedback. Events and videos can be played and replayed, creating opportunities for discussion and reflection. Ideas can be shared amongst and presented to a wide audience As PBL is learner-led, students are not restricted by their teacher’s technological competencies and biases which can have significant effects on technology selection and usage.

What does a PBL problem look like?

Once such example for Primary students might be:

Some children around the world don’t have the tools and equipment they need to be able to learn.  How might we help them?

Students need to define the problem: Which children? Where? What educational tools might they need? They also need to define the solution and how they might achieve it: What can be done?  For whom? How? Why? How will we know if we have achieved our goals?

Useful resources and links might include:

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Do you implement PBL in your classroom? We’d love to hear how you do it.


  • Chambers, D. (2007). How to succeed with problem-based learning. Carlton, Victoria: Curriculum Corporation.
  • Center for Teaching, Learning and Scholarship. Samford University (2009). Retrieved from
  • Hmelo-Silver, C. E. (2004). Problem-based learning: What and how do students learn?. Educational Psychology Review, 16(3), 235-266.
  • Holen, A. (2000). The PBL group: self-reflections and feedback for improved learning and growth. Medical Teacher, 22(5), 485-488.
  • Lombardi, M. M. (2007). Authentic learning for the 21st century: An overview. Educause learning initiative, 1(2007), 1-12.
  • Savery, J.R. (2006). Overview of Problem-based Learning: Definitions and Distinctions. The interdisciplinary journal of problem-based learning [electronic resource]. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press.
  • Webb, M., & Cox, M. (2004). A Review of Pedagogy Related to Information and Communications Technology. Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 13(3), 235-286.