Discover What Problem-Based Learning Is

We're talking about problem-based learning (PBL), a methodology in which the student is the protagonist and builder of their own learning.
Discover What Problem-Based Learning Is
Marta Crespo Garcia

Written and verified by the pedagogue Marta Crespo Garcia.

Last update: 27 December, 2022

McMaster University School of Medicine first proposed problem-based learning (PBL) in the 1950s. Since then, it’s been evolving and adapting to different levels of teaching.

Barrows (1986) defines problem-based learning as: “A method of learning based on the principle of using problems as a starting point for the acquisition and integration of new knowledge”.

It’s a teaching-learning method whereby students, in small groups, analyze, investigate, reflect on, and solve a problem with the help of a tutor. This problem is rigorously designed and selected in order to ensure that students achieve the corresponding learning objectives.

Therefore, the main objective of this teaching method is that the student learns by analyzing and solving real problems. It’s based on self-learning and promotes meaningful learning. Likewise, it aims at students having a positive attitude and motivation towards learning.

Students raising their hands in a classroom.

Characteristics of problem-based learning

As we’ve said, initially, the purpose of PBL was to work with university students. Over time, educators have adapted this work method to different educational levels. However, the essential characteristics haven’t changed.

  • It’s an active working method. Students participate in the acquisition of their knowledge.
  • The activity revolves around a problem so that learning arises from solving and working on the problem.
  • The problems have the purpose of helping students to acquire the learning of the objectives set.
  • It aims at helping students understand and go deeper when responding to the problems.
  • Learning centers around the students, not the teacher
  • The teacher-tutor is a facilitator of learning; they offer opportunities and means for the construction of knowledge.
  • Work takes place in small groups of 6 to 8 people.
  • The structure and the process of problem-solving are always open. This aspect motivates conscious learning and group work.

How to organize a problem-based learning session?

A PBL activity requires careful design and organization. Morales and Landa (2004) state that the development of the learning process occurs in eight phases:

  1. Reading and analyzing the problem scenario. Students must understand the question. This requires reformulation and discussion of the problem to make sure that there aren’t any doubts. If any issue needs explanation, then they’ll discuss it with the other groups.
  2. Brainstorming. The students prepare a list with all the hypotheses on how to solve the problem. As the problem progresses, they accept or reject these hypotheses.
  3. Making a list of what they know. Next, the students make a list of what each team member knows about the problem. They’ll draw on prior knowledge that can help them solve the problem.
  4. Making a list of what they don’t know. Similarly, the students make another list of what they don’t know and think they need to know to solve the problem.
  5. Making a list of what they need to solve the problem. Here, students propose research strategies. Then, they assign and distribute the tasks among the group members.
  6. Defining the problem. The team clearly explains the problem they must solve and how they’ll conduct the research to solve it.
  7. Obtaining information. The students must search for, collect, organize, and analyze the information. They work individually on the assigned task, and then, they pool all the information they’ve obtained to jointly develop the solution to the problem.
  8. Presenting results. After sharing the different solutions, the team will make a decision on the solution to the problem. Next, they’ll create a document with the work they’ve done and the solution to the problem. Finally, they’ll present their results orally to the rest of the class.

What are the advantages of PBL?

PBL teaching offers numerous advantages to students. Among them we can highlight the following:

  • More meaningful learning, since students build their own knowledge.
  • Greater motivation and a positive attitude towards learning.
  • The development of cognitive skills; critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.
  • An ability to identify, analyze, and solve problems.
  • The efficient selection and management of different sources of information.
  • Due to its multidisciplinary nature, it allows the integration of knowledge from different disciplines.
  • Promotes collaborative and cooperative work; it develops a sense of group belonging.
  • Promotes effective listening and communication.
  • The ability to argue, debate ideas, and make decisions.
  • Students question their own scale of values (honesty, responsibility, commitment).
Teenage students working at their desks.
The integration of this learning will be determined by two factors: the ability of the teacher-tutor and the willingness of the student.


If teaching methods change, the means for assessing learning must also change. In the case of PBL, the following assessment methods can be used:

  • A case study. By putting into practice what they’ve learned.
  • An exam in which the student organizes the knowledge they’ve learned.
  • Self-assessment. By means of a series of items, such as learning they’ve achieved, the time they’ve invested, the process they followed, etc.
  • Peer evaluation. Peers evaluate one another.

In short, problem-based learning is an active teaching method. Through this teaching methodology, students learn by solving and analyzing real-world problems. In turn, students develop a series of skills and competencies that will serve them in their personal and professional future.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.